Into the C-Suite: her secret of success
On the occasion of the "SHEinvest-money talks" webinar on June 23, 2020, jointly organized by the business magazine Sheconomy and the WU Executive Academy, Teodora Petkova, Chairperson of the Management Board and CEO of UniCredit Bulbank and Global Executive MBA Alumna, shared her insights as a female leader and a top manager in the international banking industry during a high-carat panel discussion. In the run up to the event, Teodora gave us an exclusive interview talking about her path towards a top management position and the challenges she encountered as a women. Moreover, she shared her secret to success with other female executives on their way into top management and emphasized why it is so important, especially for women, to know about the different investment opportunities.
You are the CEO of one of the largest banks in Bulgaria. What was your path towards a top management position?
I have always been very lucky in terms of my career development and it has always been filled with opportunities and many challenges. My entire career path has passed in the same bank – UniCredit, to which I am grateful. At the same time, I’ve occupied a variety of positions, so I have been on the edge of or out of my comfort zone most of time. Whenever I felt like I was going back into it and feeling relaxed in my daily life, I took on new challenges. I have proved to myself empirically that I am more effective that way.
You have graduated from the Global Executive MBA program at WU Executive Academy with honors. In what way has your MBA education helped for your career development?
I am sure that the MBA degree plays a role in developing one’s career path – everything we learn helps us advance in our careers. When we speak specifically about this MBA program, I must admit that the very opportunity to test your competencies and motivation, your knowledge and discipline, is a huge challenge. The successful graduation always brings great satisfaction and the international environment where you meet capable and motivated top managers from different industries, certainly inspires ideas, entrepreneurial spirit and competitive energy, which is directed towards achieving results. In many of the tasks during the MBA program, we had to work in teams, so every person’s contribution was important. The team spirit is one of the prerequisites for success and this is extremely important in the corporate world as well.
I am certain that the people I have met and the things they have taught me have helped me in my career development. To achieve success, it is always crucial to find yourself in the right place, to have the support of positive and capable colleagues and, of course, most importantly - the support of your family and loved ones. I’ve been a part of UniCredit for 18 years now and I am proud of it, I completely share the company’s values and I believe that one of the things that make us special is the fact that we conduct business on the basis of ethics and respect. For us it is important to always give equal opportunities to both men and women. I believe that every one of us is able to reach their full potential and is motivated to do so within our organization.
What challenges did you encounter, as a woman, on your way to a top management position?
I’ll admit I have never felt challenged by the fact that I am a woman and this has never made people in our organization perceive me differently. The challenges in a company like ours are on a different level and they come from the responsibility of the role I have taken. As I mentioned, I have been working for the company for 18 years and UniCredit is marking its 20-years anniversary in Bulgaria this year. When you are taking on such a leading bank, the biggest challenge is to continue its success. In such a successful institution, one expects that the bank's rules, processes and technologies must largely remain unchanged because they have proven successful over time. At the same time, I quickly realized that the bank’s success does not lie in the status quo and in what has happened so far, but rather in the speed with which it will adapt to new preferences, new pace, technology and even to customer expectations, which can change within hours. That is why the biggest challenges that we are facing right now are to adapt and transform both our processes and our corporate culture. At the same time, what remains sustainable are the values on which we are based - ethics and respect. I must say that our management board is very well balanced in terms of gender equality and I believe this adds value and makes the dynamics of communication more successful. From this point of view, perhaps the fact that I am a woman creates balance and equilibrium.
What advice would you give aspiring Female Leaders who are aiming towards top management roles? What are some Do’s and Don’ts?
I would give three pieces of advice to ladies who are in the beginning of their career development.
The first one is about what they should and shouldn’t do. First of all, my advice to all young female professionals that are starting on their career path is to always choose a job they genuinely like because only then the gratification from success is real, they can be completely devoted and they wouldn’t feel like they are making a compromise. They should not compromise with themselves, because if they do not feel the work with their heart, then it is not for them.
Speaking of compromise, my second piece of advice is to remember that there must always be a balance between work and personal life. It is key to remember that there are many important things outside of work and that being successful in your career and winning should not be at any cost.
My last piece of advice is also in the same line of thought: always do the things you believe to be right. At work we often encounter situations when something needs to be done fast and sometimes we’re tempted to make decisions which are on the edge of what we consider right. It’s not always easy to uphold your values and observe the rules, but this is the only sustainable way and it is the one that brings the most positives in the long-term.
What makes you dedicate time to WU EA/ FLN Alumni Network despite your extremely busy schedule as a top manager?
I wish I had more time to dedicate to these initiatives. The network is comprised of colleagues, most of whom I know personally, while others I don’t, but I know that we have gone through the same trials and challenges during our education. These are people from different industries with whom I have connected thanks to the WU Executive Academy and we share a lot of common ideas. With a lot of them we have shared many emotional experiences at different places and these emotions have also turned us into friends. So on the one hand, from a purely career perspective, the Alumni Network and the Female Leaders Network of WU Executive Academy are a network of valuable contacts, but on the other hand, these are also life-long friendships. That is why each one of us who enrolls in the university signs the so-called code of conduct and I, as an alumna, uphold it with pride.
When talking about investments, building a strong network of contacts is one of the most important investments that each one of us could make on our path to a successful career. This is something I would like to add to my advice for young women who are just starting their careers – the time spent building a network of contacts is one of the best investments in their future success.
You mentioned investments. Why is it so important for women to know about the different investment opportunities? What do you think as a female leader working in a top management position in an internationally operating bank?
It’s important for women to be informed about investment intentions, so that they could make the right decisions and invest. Many recent studies and data show that women are playing an increasingly active role in the economy and in the household. This is also confirmed by our observations over the behavior of our female clients. If I may give an example to confirm this, in the largest economy in the world – the USA, in more than 40% of the households, it is already women who bring the main income. This is an increase of over 4 times for the past 60 years. Another example I would like to mention is the myth that women are more wasteful of money. This is more of a misconception, and the proof that women are more frugal is the fact that regardless of their income, women manage to save a higher percentage. However, this is also where the main difference is - we save but we don’t invest. It seems that women are more timid when making investment decisions, and at the same time the role of women in the economy is growing, their incomes are rising and this invariably creates the necessity for these funds to be invested. Women also don’t like to take on much risk so being aware and making an informed decision is extremely important for us. Only 10% of women say that they feel comfortable making investment decisions, whereas men are braver in this regard and are more willing to take risks for a higher return. Women are more oriented towards stable investments, more patient and willing to wait for a lower return in time and need more information to be able to balance between risk and return. This determines the need to talk more about financial investments, as well as to seek financial assistance and specific professional advice.
So my advice as a banker is: anyone who wants to invest should seek a professional advice to feel satisfied and confident in their decision - there is no such thing as small or large amounts to invest. Every lady, regardless of her income, can find an opportunity to maximize the return on her income and savings.
What is UniCredit’s take on this matter? Do you have any special program or offer for women who would like to invest?
In our organization, we avoid dividing people into men and women, and in the same way, we also don’t divide our clients into men and women. Rather, we look at our clients in terms of their level of knowledge, their investment abilities and their risk experience. To share a curios story with you, years ago we had a special product line called “Donna”, which was targeted towards our female clients and the assumption was that women have different banking needs and would appreciate it and feel special if there were products and services tailored to them. We established empirically that women don’t want to use products and services which are labeled as female and even this positive discrimination of the products was not received well by them. Not to mention that male clients started asking why there is a “Donna” product line, but there isn’t an alternative for them as well. We no longer offer products tailored to women also because our clients showed no interest in them. However, I will use this opportunity to talk about another product – one of our most successful products, which is oriented towards investments and turned 10 years last year. This is our savings plan. It is extremely suitable for women, because as I mentioned, they are more patient investors and can rely on long-term investments. Our investment plan allows customers to save small amounts every month, which are invested in various funds, stocks and bonds. This, in my opinion, is one of the best ways for an initial investment, because it allows everyone to choose their own investment strategy, and of course get reliable advice from the bank. It allows our clients to invest amounts that are acceptable for their monthly disposable income and at the same time at any moment they can have up-to-date information on how their investment is developing through our mobile banking. So, this product itself is suitable for women, regardless of their income, age and risk appetite, as we can offer a specific solution for each of them.
You can read more about the careers of our alumni here.