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Why It Often Takes Detours in Life: From Music Into Top Management

November 03, 2020

How a study rejection can lead to an international management career

Tell us about your career path up to now. Which stages have had the greatest impact on you?

For me personally, my career is only one part of my overall development. If you look at the various stages of my rise within voestalpine, the academic programs I completed, and the time I invested in my own start-up, you would likely think that I climbed the career ladder to arrive at the place I am today quickly and without any interruptions. As a person who likes to have a plan, I must say that there have been very few signposts along my path so far. Only now, looking back, I can appreciate the significance of some crossroads and their impact on my development.

A time that shaped who I would become was when I was twelve years old. At that time, I was a student at a Waldorf school in Klagenfurt. The way this school was organized motivated and helped me engage in a multitude of interests. I tried anything from handicrafts and technical projects to acting, sports, and art – the concept of boredom was alien to me. A demo version of a music production software that came with a gaming magazine triggered my first real passion for something. Creating my own compositions, endlessly tinkering with the technical details to further improve them, and getting lost in audio technology fascinated me more than anything else had before. The more I delved into music production, the more my appreciation, fascination, and general aesthetic feeling for music grew. Even though my educational path at that time steered me towards manufacturing engineering – I had just transferred from the private school to a higher federal technical school – producing music remained my sole obsession for several more years. I also developed an interest in related fields, among them multimedia technology, photography, web design, programming, cinema technology, game design, and many more, which in the end gave rise to a passion for all things related to multimedia. So enrolling in multimedia studies at university was a logical step following my graduation from school. I had signed an apartment lease, finalized my plans for the move, and was well prepared to start my studies – there was only one little piece missing that I did not give much thought to: I had yet to complete the last part of the application process at the college in Salzburg. Even though I had diligently prepared and put a lot of energy into the admissions procedure, I ended up being told in a plain letter “We regret to inform you ...” The path I had chosen for myself came to a sudden end and I experienced the first truly significant turning point in my life.

The rejection shook me to the core. Torn between looking for a job and choosing a different field, I followed my gut and enrolled in material sciences at Montanuniversität Leoben. It was plan B, if you will. Why this school? Some former classmates of mine were planning on going there too, a number of former teachers had studied there, and overall, it was renowned as a top university. What was more, I had read in an article published in the Austrian quality newspaper Der Standard that this field of study offered remarkable job prospects. For many years, I wondered whether these were good reasons to choose a field of study, but ambitious and proud as I was, dropping out was never an option.

Meanwhile, my long-held passion for digital media had not cooled either, and together with a friend I founded the start-up PYRALAB. Even though with regard to content, my studies and my own company hardly intersected, it was important to me to pursue both. I had no clear expectations of what would happen once I graduated, and PYRALAB’s future was just as uncertain.

A few months after completing my studies, I met with a friend one evening, who encouraged me to apply for a job at voestalpine VAE GmbH. The position in question was an international management role in the operative field concerned with manufacturing railroad switches. I was enthusiastic about the opportunity to apply what I had learned in my studies in a position that would afford me a great deal of flexibility and responsibility, but the job came with the condition of giving up my work with PYRALAB. At that time, several attempts to find suitable investors had failed, and the future seemed to hold only projects which were too large for PYRALAB. It was a both challenging and exciting time in my life. By making up my mind to join voestalpine, I said goodbye to my enterprise and started a new chapter in my life.

Joining a large corporation meant taking a step into the unknown for me. Supported by friends, family, and my partner and charged with positive energy, I took off to Germany to start my new job. There I had to get used to working at a big enterprise as well as create a new social circle for myself. My international responsibility to develop and implement strategies allowed me to work creatively on new ideas and IT projects, almost like an “intrapreneur.” Looking back, this combination of creative freedom, support by the company, and a little help from my friends gave me the strength to start the Professional MBA Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the WU Executive Academy. These resources helped me deal with the tribulations of shuttling back and forth between Erfurt and Vienna as well as the intense work preparing and processing the contents of the study modules as best as possible. Studying for this MBA was a very important time for me that completely changed my world views. Why? Because understanding the social responsibility of companies and the people who manage them changed the way I lead and deal with the people around me. Receiving insights into the systems of global financial flows and political implications, which I knew nothing about before, helped me better understand and respect the complexities of a globalized world and fields where cultural views collide. As a former start-up entrepreneur, I was also fascinated by the modules that dealt with entrepreneurship and innovation. To this day, I use the tools presented there on a daily basis. But the biggest impact my studies had on me was through the constant exchange with like-minded colleagues, which did not end with the program. The way we threw ideas off each other and shared our experiences and thoughts still has an influence on how I see the world today.

Once again, I had to find a way to balance a 60-hour job, my studies, and a long-distance relationship. Thanks to my partner Nina, the next turning point of my life was just around the corner. As she was living in Vienna at the time and I had wanted to turn our long-distance relationship into a no-distance relationship, I gladly took up the offer of an internal job change to Vienna, where my new life awaited me. Back in Austria, I had to rediscover my surroundings – but with Nina at my side this time. A fervent amateur triathlete herself, she made me curious about endurance sports, and shortly thereafter, I set my first ambitious athletic goals. Initially, I just wanted to spend more time with Nina, but in one of life’s curious turns, this new hobby afforded me one of the most emotional moments of my life. After I completed the MBA program, I had more time to focus on sports. From then on, I no longer spent my weekends bent over books but exercising several times a day. The discipline required to pull through strenuous training sessions enabled me to push both my physical and emotional limits, which culminated in the Ironman event in St. Pölten. After hours of swimming, cycling, and running, I was overcome with a mix of emotions as I neared the finish line, the intensity of which was completely new to me. Step by step, cheered on by loud music and hundreds of spectators – among them Nina – I hauled myself across the red Ironman carpet. At that moment, all the pent-up tension dissolved and I broke down in tears, supported by a friend who had accompanied me to the finish line. Without Nina, I would probably never have made this amazing experience of testing my emotional and physical limits.

In the beginning, my new life in Vienna, sharing my path with Nina, testing new limits, and working a new job felt good. Ironically, the situation changed rather quickly. Suddenly it was Nina who had to spend every other week in Germany for her job and we were once again faced with the challenge of a long-distance relationship. It was an important career step for Nina, and I had an important decision to make. Supporting her, moving to Germany with her, and prioritizing this over my own professional development, which had run very smoothly up until then, somehow felt just right. I wanted to support her no matter the cost, and thus I started to look for a job within my company in Germany. It was a turning point for me: for the first time, my own self-centered career plans were less important to me than my relationship. Where there’s a will there’s a way: my current position within the group offered me a solution to reconcile my partnership with my career.

Looking back, what influenced me the most were the opportunities to consistently explore my manifold interests through education. Just as important were the moments when my passions had me go up against my personal limits. The bitter rejection of the music program back in Salzburg threw me into untested waters, and I had to fight my way back from this crisis. During the triathlon, I managed to go beyond my personal limits. What I consider even more important than crossing personal borders is to open new paths to others as well. It was my decision to stand behind the people who matter most in my life despite of what that might entail for my own career and have their backs while they explore new paths. In my case, this not only influenced my relationship with these people but eventually also rewarded me with a personal career leap.

My diversified education has provided me with the knowledge necessary to make complex life decisions. The most difficult of these decisions were often the ones that did not provide simple solutions. But they were also the ones that shaped me the most. Now I look forward to everything life holds in store for me on my future path.

Did you ever have different plans regarding your professional life? If so, why did they not work out?

Originally, I wanted to make my way in music production and multimedia. In retrospect and compared with other opportunities, the risk of not succeeding in the music business was just too high. Nowadays, I only play music in my own home.

What is your greatest professional/personal achievement?

In one of my earliest positions, I landed in a very motivated team that operated within a system that chronically overstrained them. There were thousands of hours of overtime and unused vacation days – I had never seen anything like it. The entire team was on the brink of burnout. As someone who still has a lot of energy and never shies away from changing tack if need be, today I consider it a success not to have put commercial goals first but to have assumed the social responsibility to protect employees from a system that was hazardous to their health. This is what I did: I introduced a four-day week for employees to gradually consume overtime compensation and vacation days. I also created leaner processes, scrapped unnecessary reporting duties, and specified accountabilities. This also brought us economic success. Naturally, numerous factors played into it, but I think we can still be very proud that we were able to achieve the highest annual revenue in 100 years at this location while simultaneously and consistently putting social and ethical values first. For me, that was both a personal and professional success.

What has been your greatest challenge so far? What was your biggest professional error (that you learned from)?

The change from being self-employed to working at a multifunctional, global corporation came with many challenges. New rules, many new faces, new roles, new responsibilities, but also liberties, and unprecedented chances to grow. When you are busy and focused on work, it is easy to forget to look after yourself – sometimes with dire consequences. Everybody has heard the buzzword “burnout,” but only those who have experienced it know what it does to a person. Caught in a downward spiral of irrational self-realization, overzealousness, sleep deprivation, growing emotional instability, and continuous social withdrawal, I was lucky enough to detect the progression of the disease relatively early. From this experience, I realize now how important it is to know your limits and lead a healthy and balanced life in order not to fall victim to a misguided and often self-inflicted work ethos. My biggest mistake was to keep trying to counter-balance problems with more work, through which I continuously accumulated emotional stress. You have to find out for yourself what helps you most in such a situation. For me, it was clear boundaries between my work and personal life, making sure to recover after demanding situations, and regularly reflecting on my choices.  

What were the three most important experiences in your life that have brought you to where you are today?

  1. Trying out different roles: if you want to build up emotional sensitivity, it is immensely helpful to have tried out different roles. Without a clear understanding of human interaction, it is difficult to give moral support and understand complex emotional connections. The multitude of different roles I have played in the past decades are all helping me to be the missing building block in a complex situation. Each one of these roles has also given me extra experience and a sense of direction.

  2. Making decisions when faced with uncertain situations and standing by them. In my experience, decisions are hardly ever clear-cut. Very often, we lack the necessary information to make the “right” decision and have to fill the gaps with our intuition.

  3. Knowing your limits and growing to accept them. Getting to know my own limits better and better makes me feel safe. To me, especially participating in a triathlon brought me to new physical and emotional limits.

If you think about the greatest talent in your company, what are three pieces of advice you would give that person to lead a successful and fulfilling life?

  1. If nobody sees what you do and hears what you say, nobody will remember you.

  2. Many years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the things you did do.

  3. Change it, take it, or leave it – it is up to you to decide!

As a manager, which five words would your team choose to describe you?

The question is too reductionist for a simple answer. That being said, colleagues have described me as structured, innovative, encouraging, communicative, and goal-oriented.

What has changed for you professionally after completing an MBA program? How has this education helped you reach your career goals? Which specific development opportunities did the program give rise to?

I benefit from the things I have learned during my MBA every day. The documents and notes from the individual MBA modules have helped me in so many different situations. But it is not just the tools and methods, I have also relied on the stories many times. The MBA has definitely propelled me forward on my career path, but I still had to walk the walk. I like to compare it to the navigation system of a sports car: it can get you to your destination faster, but you still have to do the driving.

How did you manage to reconcile completing an MBA with a demanding job and your family life?

At that point in my life, I lived in the German city of Erfurt and had to take a plane to Vienna for every module. Apart from that, I had to do 60-hour weeks in my job. When I applied for a spot in the MBA program, I thought it would be much easier. Without the support and understanding of my partner and my team, it would not have been possible to complete my studies as I did. For two years, I spent every holiday, weekend, and evening studying for my MBA. And I have to admit that I miss every second of this intense phase in my life. 

How would you define “true luxury?”

Time.

What is the last book or movie that really inspired you?

“Driving Digital Strategy” by Sunil Gupta, which gave me some really valuable new ideas for the digitalization-related tasks in my work. 

As far as movies and TV shows are concerned, I was able to get my partner hooked on the Star Trek universe. For quite a while now, we have been watching nothing else but Star Trek. This might be inconceivable for non-Trekkies, but we absolutely love the stories the movies and episodes tell. Time and again, they deal with classic themes like ethics, morality, politics, equality, and leadership.

In whose shoes would you like to step for one day?

Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft.

Wordrap

I can laugh about:
I am easily entertained and can laugh about almost anything.
Mistakes I can easily forgive:
"Good mistakes" that are dealt with openly and help others learn from them. "Bad mistakes" are those that result from carelessness - those I cannot excuse as easily.
My funniest/most exciting travel experience was:
Believe it or not: my stay in Boston, which was part of my MBA. Most of us were thrilled about this whole experience. My most exciting travel experience was less fun: trapped on a sailboat in a thunderstorm and lashing rain, there were 13 of us fighting to get back on safe ground, cold to the bones and completely at the end of our rope. This was a sort of excitement I could have happily gone without.
I could not survive without this smartphone app:
My alarm clock.
My fridge is always stocked with:
Tofu and a good bottle of wine.
I would spend my last money on:
An excellent meal.
Ten years ago, I thought:
That cannibals who feed on vegans would suffer from a vitamin B12 deficiency. Today we are 100% vegan ourselves and totally happy with it.
Today I know:
How great our life is!

Read more interesting career stories of our students and graduates here.

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