Train your “ambition muscle” as you train your body and mind: Evita Lune discusses women’s ambition and leadership

“We have many talented women, but they lack the ambition to take up top executive positions, especially on a global scale,” says Evita Lune, Global Partner at Pedersen & Partners, and one of the supporters of Novatore Impact Summit in an interview conducted by Līva Melbārzde, former Editor-in-Chief of Dienas Bizness. This international forum will take place in Riga this year from 22 to 23 September, with the main aim of encouraging and motivating women to aim for the highest goals in their careers by realising their full potential.

What are the main career milestones that propelled you into management?

I am a Partner at Pedersen & Partners, which means that I am a co-owner of a group which does business in 50 countries. Day-to-day, I work in the field of global financial technology, handling a portfolio of FinTech clients, and I also lead the Baltic Team at Pedersen & Partners. Our firm has very strong teams here in the Baltics, and I can confidently say that we are the best executive search firm operating in the region. I reached this position by working hard and focusing on top quality. It is a fact that any work can be done in more than one way – perhaps just “good enough”, or perhaps brilliantly. In my projects, I have always strategized to do something better, and it is this constant keenness to do quality work has allowed me to achieve my current level. Of course, my education has also played a role, and not only academically – I obtained a PhD in socioeconomics from the University of Latvia, and I had a wonderful first job at Shell, an international company. It was a great experience, as I learned how to work at a high level and to build a global business. In addition, I also worked at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, as a Director of the Executive MBA Program. There, too, I was lucky to work in an academically excellent environment. This experience encouraged me to set my own example of excellence in the organisation where I work.

But you had a personal ambition to become a manager, didn’t you? I mean, sometimes people are excellent specialists in their field, yet they never become managers.

I am determined, and I don’t suffer from any self-doubt or shyness. It’s the opposite – I’ve always considered that I know everything better than anyone else and can do everything in the best way possible.

It’s still a rather widespread behaviour among women that even when they have all the necessary knowledge and skills to become a manager, they start questioning themselves endlessly – will I really make it? What would your advice be to these women?

I absolutely agree. In my work, I have noticed that women look to find fault with themselves more often, and tend to be too self-critical. My advice would be that we should train our “ambition muscles” just as we train our bodies and minds. The best way to do this is to simply start applying for different jobs, above and beyond your comfort zone. For example, it often seems easier to only call people whom we know, opting for a kind of “back-office” position, just to avoid confronting anyone new and avoiding risk. It is all nice, easy, and familiar. However, this is not a position that leads to career success. The good news is that the problem can be solved – after all, I too used to have problems starting conversations with people I didn’t know. I got rid of this complex when I worked in my clothing store – there, I had to not only say hello to strangers, but also ask how I could serve them, and help choose what fitted them best. I got wonderful energy from these conversations, and my shyness in talking to strangers disappeared completely. However, if we continue to do nothing and refuse to step out of our comfort zone, we never realise our potential, and we lose so much in our lives by doing this.

Women also sometimes believe that they must choose between family and career. Are these two things really so incompatible?

In our family, we have raised four children. Personally, I’ve never taken long breaks or holidays, even when the children were very little – I don’t want to say that there were no difficulties, but everything could be done with planning. Among my female friends, there are some who have raised as many as seven children, and they have achieved even more in their careers. I think that the family gives an additional impetus to achieve more, to be a role model for one’s children, be an equal partner to one’s husband and overall live as a balanced person, not a bundle of unhappiness. I have seen lonely men who seem to have all the time and resources in the world to gain the highest achievements – but after some time, they become unmotivated and destructive, suffer a preventable burnout or give in to bad habits. I don’t have time for anything like this, as I have different responsibilities. Therefore, to me, family and career are complementary. I can also say that personally, if I had to do only housework and could not socialise or express myself intellectually, I’d be very unhappy. Hence, the myth about choosing between career and family is obsolete. Today, we don’t even speak about work-life balance anymore; we talk about an integrated life which includes all aspects of happiness. This is the aim that we should strive for.

What advice would you give to a woman who has no shortage of career ambitions, who has not yet reached the very highest level of management, but who is forced to face discrimination on her way there? This could range from silly remarks to deliberately ignoring her opinion – perhaps showing that women cannot play in the same career league as men after all.

I should say first that here in Latvia, this problem is less pronounced than, for example, in Central Asia or Latin America. However, if you find yourself in such a situation, firstly I’d suggest developing your skills above that of all your male colleagues! Secondly, be sure to express your opinion in any situation where it is possible – be loud and visible, yet try not to fight with the same weapons as men. You should work with all your personality, and appreciate what nature has given you as a woman. It is important to be competent, visible and strong with the management skills that women have acquired, but there’s no need to fight men on their own territory. On the contrary, a woman should find a way to be respected as a manager and an opinion leader by staying true to who she is, realising and using her strengths.

This summer, the European Parliament adopted a directive which states that at least 33% of a company’s board and 40% of a council should be made up of women. What does this directive mean for women and the labour market in the Baltics?

Our global clients are listed companies with over 250 employees in countries such as the UK, Ireland, and Germany. These companies have been working according to these principles for some time already, without awaiting the adoption of the directive. We work with them to ensure that women are represented accordingly – not only in the final result, but earlier on in the search process. For example, if we have 10 final candidates, at least four should be women – otherwise, these companies don’t even accept the shortlist. However, this has not always been the case.

First, this directive is a real opportunity for female applicants to be considered as potential candidates for a position. Second, this is also an opportunity to improve company performance, as studies show that when companies have women on their boards, their performance, effectiveness, and sustainability improves. Thanks to the presence of women, the management team is less aggressive, less destructive, less intra-competitive. There are cases where men are ready to sacrifice the business for their ego and their victory. The presence of women has a balancing and calming effect. We have also seen this in our own firm – the Pedersen & Partners governance consists of 15 partners, three of whom are women.

I have read a study which found that, by anonymising the candidates’ questionnaires, the share of women in leading positions increased by as much as 70%. Can you comment on this?

Our executive search services are mainly used by companies which have high governance standards. Conversely, our situation is the opposite; these companies ask us to provide female candidates, but we sometimes have difficulty in finding and attracting them.

What are the reasons for this?

We focus on top leadership positions, i.e. CEOs, CFOs, TCOs. Female finance, marketing and HR directors can be found more easily, but women are few and far between at the very top. We have many talented women, but they lack ambition to take up a top executive position, especially on a global scale.

What should a woman do if she sees in herself the skills and potential to take up a top management position? How does she go about it with confidence?

First, she should signal her willingness to take up an executive position, by making it clear when the time is appropriate. Second, she should consider her current job from the following point of view: perhaps it will not be possible for her to take up a CEO position, maybe the company is too large, and then it would be useful to look around for smaller companies where it would be possible to gain CEO experience. Third, she should consider her own skills and understand what is still missing. At the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, our Executive MBA program consisted of 12 courses which formed the basis of what each CEO should know. However, one should not fall to the opposite extreme! Many women are very diligent students and have “true achiever syndrome” where they are ready to pursue one degree after another without finding any practical career applications for them. It is very comfortable to study just for the sake of studying, but it is also necessary to gain experience in practice – this real-world knowledge brings added value. Among the skills that CEOs should acquire nowadays, I would strongly recommend digital and technology; without these, you will be excluded not only from management positions, but also from higher-paid jobs in the labour market in general. And one should certainly follow the latest IT trends and learn how to use modern technologies – if necessary, from your own children!

They say that we have many smart, educated, and ambitious women here in the Baltics. Therefore, it is a bit surprising that there is still a shortage of top managers to attract.

In general, the situation here in the Baltics is very good. As women, all possibilities are available to us. In modern companies, there is no gender discrimination, and applicants are judged on their knowledge, skills, and ambition. In Latvia, we have at least one unicorn company, and there are others with the same potential. I suggest pursuing a career in a company which is modern, open and meets sustainability standards. It is useless to try to succeed in a company that is rotten at the core. If the company is led by an old men’s club with rigid backward thinking, don’t struggle there; go to a company which works based on modern standards and values. There is always the possibility of setting up your own company, where you will be able to create and lead just the way you want. Of course, one should bear in mind that a small, undetermined company will most likely not become a unicorn, as it lacks ambition. It is important to look at the specifics of one’s company regionally, if not globally.

Why is it important for you to support the international NOVATORE Impact Summit for economic empowerment of women, which will take place on 22-23 September this year?

I want to inspire other women to become the best version of themselves and achieve more in their lives and careers. For us, proper governance principles are very important, and the participation and inspiration of women is a great example of proper governance. I am glad that Latvia and our entire region in general is moving in the right direction. I see this event as a contribution towards our becoming an advanced and democratic society. Personally, I have never encountered the attitude that I am lacking something professionally, either because I’m a woman or because I’m from Latvia. We sometimes undervalue our freedoms – if anyone doubts this, go to Afghanistan and try to live there. It is silly to miss out on the opportunities that we have! I believe that we also have an obligation towards our country, which has given us the opportunity to educate ourselves and raise our children – even more so, because Latvia is a small country. We are not a large, wealthy nation where women can afford to live at men’s expense. Let’s build our riches together, and not just be lazy and consume! If we want our country to be prosperous, then we have to work – not with shyness and modesty, but with pride in ourselves and our achievements.