Head of Global Sales / Global Business Sales Manager at Ur & Penn
One of the most important cogs in the wheel of Eat 52 Lunches is that for every Boss Lady I have lunch with, I get a recommendation for whom I should have lunch with next. At the most basic level, this helps me to keep the momentum of booked lunches but at a deeper level, it helps to open doors to Boss Ladies that I would probably never have met otherwise. Or at least, not for a long time. This Boss Lady was my very first referred lunch.
Naturally, the referral came from the first lunch for Eat 52 Lunches. If you’ve read the conversation with Jenny, you’ll have an idea of the energy she brings to a lunch table. So to some extent, I figured that anyone Jenny would recommend would come from the same string of energy. But I also didn’t really know what to expect since this blog was only in its very early stages when I booked lunch with Zuzana.(It still is).
I have this weird thing about meeting powerful and intelligent people – I turn into a total fangirl. And while fangirling is something that’s usually associated with celebrities, for me it’s all about the intelligence. I get so nervous yet excited but also clumsy with pronunciations of simple English words that there is always a risk that an entire conversation is a total write-off. Fangirling happens when I’m about to meet the leader of leading brand rather than a celeb from a popular TV series. I guess that’s what working in marketing does to you.
So, naturally, I remember being really nervous to meet Zuzana. This Boss Lady held an impressive CV and is high up in management of one of Sweden’s most recognised retail brands; Ur&Penn.
That mix of excitement and nerves was sitting in my stomach like a knot when I was walking to meet Zuzana. I have this mantra that I keep repeating to myself when I’m extra nervous: “You’ll be fine. You’ve had lunch before. You’re not going to run out of things to talk about. She will like you”. It’s worked so far…
Don’t judge a lunch by the location
I was meeting Zuzana for lunch at Pane Fresco; the Italian restaurant at the top of Åhléns on Drottninggatan. One of the deals I make when I meet a Boss Lady is that lunch is my shout if they choose the place. I think that, when given the freedom of choice, someone will choose a place that resonates with their own identity and I’m always curious to see where that place is.
But I’ll admit: I wasn’t too sure what to expect when the suggested place was a restaurant within a department store. Food courts, buffet trays and noise came to my mind instantly. But that assumption was blown right of the water once I stepped off the escalator on the top floor of Åhléns.
My eyes were met with a packed restaurant, bustling serving staff dressed in white shirts and neat black ties, and a line that was so long people were forced to stand waiting in between Lego and stuffed toys. It was an energetic scene that seemed to run like a well-timed mediterranean performance…with a side of kids’ play things.
Standing towards the front of the line was Zuzana who lit up the moment we recognised each other. As I mentioned earlier, I had expected Zuzana to be an energetic person but it was immediately clear that she was also friendly and warm.
Normally, Swedish social etiquette requires you to shake hands with the person while exchanging first names. With Zuzana hand shakes were skipped and it was straight to the hug. I knew right there and then that this was going to be an amazing lunch with an amazing Boss Lady.
The lesson is in the exchange
We sat down at our table and started learning about the person opposite. When you only have an hour, sometimes it can be difficult to get stuck into some conversation whilst also choose something that will stop your stomach screaming from hunger.
For those that know me will know that I was recently diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Why is that relevant? Well when you’re trying to run a blog that’s based entirely on eating lunch out once a week, it takes time to pick something from the menu that my stomach will tolerate.
The point here is that Zuzana noticed immediately that I was searching the menu not based on taste but rather by excluding options by the handful. I’d only been diagnosed in the days prior so we got to talking about what it was and what it meant for my diet. With excitement in her eye, Zuzana said “What a coincidence! One of my best friends runs a company that helps people with IBS!”. As if we had been friends for years, Zuzana continued, “Oh but then I can connect you two! I’ll give you her website and email and she can absolutely help you.”
When I go to these lunches, all I am hoping to come away with is a couple of concrete tips to accelerate the time it takes for women to get to Boss Lady positions. But sometimes, in moments just like this one, the lesson is in the exchange. It’s about realising that no matter how senior you are in your role, how many people you are responsible for or how big your brand is, you should always help people when you know you can. And this all happened in the first 5 minutes of our lunch. We were off to a blazing start.
I always like to get a snapshot of the previous roles Boss Ladies have been in before their current one. While most education teaches us to plan a straight line of career progression, I don’t really believe that’s how it works out. So hearing a Boss Lady’s work history is extra insight into how many of us actually make a bee line from junior to leader.
Zuzana has a really interesting history, a lot of which I would attribute to her Czech background. That’s not to imply that that is what separates her from a group of people but I’ve come to notice a common red thread amongst Boss Ladies. Success comes when you have a diverse pool of knowledge to pull from and more often than not, that comes from an international heritage or from experience of living outside of Sweden. Zuzana had both.
Spending just over a decade in the Czech Republic, Zuzana held a Recruiting, Training & Education Project Manager role at Lindex before later moving to KappAhl to be a country manager. Upon returning to Sweden, Zuzana got her hands stuck into district and area management positions before gaining her current role as Head of Global Sales / Global Business Sales Manager at Ur&Penn.
I ask her what brought her back to Sweden. “My family” was her short answer. An answer that I all too well understand as a foreigner myself. In Zuzana’s case, Sweden was the superior choice for raising children with her husband.
Being true to yourself
After the food was in front of us, courtesy of our smartly dressed waiter, we started talking about how women new to their field are meant to navigate themselves into leadership positions. Zuzana’s immediate response was “Be true to yourself”.
She continues to explain “If you are true to yourself, you will always be in roles that are satisfying and you will be happy. But in order to be true to yourself, you need to figure out what it is that matters to you as a person. Knowing that means you can make decisions that take you forward”.
If you are true to yourself, you will always be in roles that are satisfying and you will be happy.
I see the logic in the sentiment but as someone that’s been in my industry for around 5 years, I also know how easy it is to forget about what you want in the pursuit of experience. Zuzana goes on further. “You have to be confident in the amount of experience you have. It’s okay not to know everything. What matters is that you have the mentality to tell yourself that yes, you can do this but the honesty to say to colleagues that you might not know everything.”
Reflecting on my own experiences I realise that that’s exactly what I’ve done in multiple situations. When I first moved to Sweden I started my own company and freelanced. I had never started a company before and I was recently graduated so I didn’t hold too much experience. But I was confident in the knowledge I had and just went for it.
The experience from those couple of years led to me my position at Ungapped. There too I lacked some skills for my role but again, I had confidence in the knowledge I held and I believe that was a huge factor in my employment.
However, as Zuzana and I are talking, I ask myself “Holy shit, will I ever be able to pull off something like that again?”. If I practice what Zuzana is preaching then yes. Yes I will.
Make mistakes but learn from them
We get onto the topic of personal and professional development; the kind of roles Zuzana held while in the Czech Republic. I want to explore the number one thing to keep in mind while developing. (If there even is one thing to keep in mind).
Zuzana looks me right in the eye and says without wavering, “Feedback and constructive criticism is your best friend. BUT never make the same mistake twice”. I can’t help myself and the follow-up question is out of my mouth before I have time to ponder. How do you stop yourself making the same mistake twice?
Feedback and constructive criticism is your best friend.
Zuzana goes on to illustrate what she means with a story from when she first joined the Ur&Penn team. Basically, she had made a decision that didn’t give the results the team needed to count it as a win. “I was very new there and it was a tough scenario to be in. But I did all that I knew was right: I said sorry and I listened to what they had to say. In that situation it wasn’t my turn to talk. I had to listen to everything they wanted to say.”
I probe further and ask how that influenced the team dynamic. “The team reacted really positively because most of the time, colleagues just want you to be accountable and to know that you care about the results.” Having been through that scenario, Zuzana knew exactly what not to do next time. “Never make the same mistake twice” she says with a grin.
Giving feedback and setting expectations
We switch the perspective a little and talk about ways to give feedback rather than taking it ourselves. Zuzana outlines the process that she uses with her own team.
“The very first thing that I say to my team members, whether they are the store manager or an assistant, is that I am not your enemy. It’s important that I tell them this because it immediately lets them know that I am on their side, that we want the same thing. Removing that barrier means that criticism is taken much better because they know it’s to make the store better, that it’s not personal.”
So what happens when expectations aren’t met? How do you handle that conversation with a colleague? “First of all, I need to ask myself whether I was clear enough in the mission and in gaining understanding between myself and the team member. One of the easiest and most effective ways to see if that has happened is to ask the other person what it is that you have agreed on.”
Like a light switch, I comprehend why this is such an easy way to set expectations between two people. All too easily do I find myself listing or dot pointing aloud what I’ll be taking care of or what others need to do without actually letting them tell me what I’ve already told them. It’s small but it’s effective.
Should we always say yes?
While I don’t go into these lunches with too many questions planned, I do have a couple of questions that are a red thread. One of them is how a Boss Lady manages stress and balances a hectic lifestyle.
I find that a lot of the dialogue out there for young women new to their field is that we should say “Yes” to every new opportunity. That way we put ourselves in situations outside of our comfort zone, in order to learn and grow. But is there a point where saying yes leads you to being over-stretched or overworked?
Zuzana ponders a little and responds thoughtfully. “Don’t say yes to everything. Be smart with what you say yes to”. She goes on to explain that you can be selective in what opportunities you say yes to without feeling guilty about it. “It’s more about listening to what your co-workers are telling you and improving your skills in those areas”. So if an opportunity comes up that helps you in an area you need improving, then take it and don’t think twice.
You’re not always right
As we finish off our delicious lunch, I realise what I’m enjoying most about our chat is that Zuzana has this great combination of high-velocity energy and keen astuteness. I possess a lot of the former but it’s not as well funnelled as Zuzana’s, I expect.
You'll find that you're not always right; experience will teach you that.
So while this Boss Lady was very quick to notice my enthusiasm on the topics we chatted about, she was also very direct in making her observations. “A lot of what we are talking about in terms of overcoming, and I know you don’t like hearing this, but it’s because you’re young. You’ll find that you’re not always right; experience will teach you that”.
That Zuzana can make such an astute observation in less than an hour of us talking makes me really appreciate the knowledge she has shared with me over our lunch.