Eva Berlaus is the country managing partner of Sorainen office in Latvia and a sworn attorney; she is also a supporter of the Novatore Impact Summit, which will take place on 22 to 23 September in Riga. The main aim of this forum is to encourage and motivate women to aim for the highest goals in their careers by realising their full potential. In the interview, Eva shares how to set exciting career goals and attain them.
Your career path has been purposefully progressive. What has helped you dare, aim higher and attain more?
I may be a few percent braver than the average Latvian woman, but I would not say that I am never in doubt. I doubt and criticise myself a lot, as every Latvian woman probably does. But what helps me is my positive experiences from every time when I dared to do something that I considered brave at that time.
Firstly, every time when I pushed myself to do something which I thought was a big step at that time, all these experiences turned out to be positive; second, I gained a little more courage every time I dared.
That does not mean that the fear vanishes completely at some point, it still remains and I tend to have my doubts anyway, but I learn something from every positive experience.
It is inspiring to hear that a successful and experienced leader like you may also have doubts. But where does this courage to act come from? Is it from your family or your own experience and a guru you followed or other entrepreneurs?
Initially, it is probably from my family. I am the oldest of six sisters. I had to dare to act since the age of one and a half when my next sister after me was born. I taught my sisters to read and write, picked them up from schools, kindergartens, music schools, after-school clubs…
I was always responsible for whoever was playing pranks in the yard, even when I was not there. This courage to do, act, try, assume responsibility – these management skills were acquired by doing. And secondly, I had some very good examples as a child, strong women who really inspired me and from whom I learned a lot of things, including courage.
Can you share a personal example?
The most striking example from my childhood is my aunt, my mother’s sister. She was born in the fifties, went to an ordinary school, grew up in an ordinary family. My grandmother brought up my mother and aunt alone, and the family was not too well off. But my aunt got one higher education, then times changed and she got another higher education. She had a fantastic career at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and, in parallel, she raised three wonderful children. At that time, it was something very special for Soviet-educated people, especially because she was a woman. I have always looked up to her. If she can achieve it, so should I.
She had that inner strength and confidence, didn’t she?
Yes! In fact, what I have learned from her and also my grandmother is that things happen by doing. Courage is one thing, doing is another.
There are a million of reasons why we can sit in a corner and be afraid, but, in most cases, if you start from a small corner and do it with diligence and with an understanding of where you are going, you are more likely to get somewhere. If you do nothing, you will get nowhere. Her example has shown that you can reach anything by doing and understanding what you want to achieve and there is no limit.
What were the key points of your career that drove you further? You have been working for the same company for many years, and there must be new challenges, new opportunities.
If someone had told me 20 years ago that I would work for the same company for 20 years, I would have said “never in my life”.
My work has never stood still, I started out as a regular lawyer for this company, in eight years I became a partner, which is a slightly different position with management functions, and two years later I became the country managing partner, who is responsible for the entire office. I have been the managing partner for the last 12 years, but the office has changed very much over this time. When I started working here, there were six people in the office, but now we are over 90, with all the consequences that implies – responsibility, leadership.
Did you wait to be given opportunities or did you go for them purposefully?
I am the active one. I believe that career is an action word, it does not stand in a corner and wait when you would come to pick up this today and that tomorrow, like in a supermarket.
From the very first days when I came to work here, I knew that I would want to run this office someday. And this was a plan that worked out fortunately.
I believe career needs to be planned. It is great that companies, including us, are increasingly thinking about how to support their young leaders in building their careers. But there was nothing of that sort when I started my career. Support systems must be in place, but this will always be a two-way road as career is not built because someone gives it to you on a platter.
What challenges have you faced as a leader? What are the lessons you have learned?
The first thing that comes to mind is time and stress management. I have been a perfectionist since childhood, a planner who needs everything to be on schedule, in time, predictable and orderly and the to-do list to be done by the end of the day so I can go home with a clear conscience.
What I have to accept as a manager is that there will never be a perfect order, there will never be a perfect result of the work.
Sometimes a woman’s perfectionism holds her back from advancing in her career, in which case I would recommend from my leadership experience: recognise that perfection will never be achieved, decide where your time contribution will be most valuable, where you will get the biggest return, where you can add the highest value, and aim for it.
I have heard an excuse about having to choose between career and family, but you come from the family with six daughters, you have your own family and children. How do you manage all this because you also have a very active public life?
Nothing is perfect, and I will not pretend that I am a superstar in managing this balance and everything is perfect in my life.
Like with to-do lists, it is important to realise that you do not need 120%, you are fine with 80%, and at home you also need to focus and understand what is really important for you.
For me, it is time with my loved ones so I can talk to them, so I can be there when someone is hurt and so I know what is really going on with them. But what is less important for me is who will iron their shirts, wash the floor and mow the grass in our garden. My answer is to delegate (to a nanny, gardener, etc.) all insignificant things that do not require my presence. If I tried to do everything myself, I would not manage, I would be unhappy and nothing would happen.
Do you have a life lesson or motto you use when you feel discouraged as everybody has such moments?
Firstly, practice makes perfect, it is true: the more you do, the more you get done. Second, it is important to find something to learn at the time of difficulty, even just about yourself.
You need to look at a difficult situation with curiosity or find another angle to look at it. You can always find something, maybe not immediately when you feel frustrated, but in a day or two. If you face a situation when you feel you cannot manage or see no way out, you can just go for a walk to get some fresh air.
Or hang out with your like-minded friends and then listen to yourself once or twice, and it will be the third or fourth time when you will definitely have some different thoughts about the situation, and you will be able to look at the situation differently.
The main thing is not to stay in bed, crying. You need to accept that the methods you use for managing difficult situations may change over time as we ourselves are changing, not staying still.
What would you recommend to women who want to take leadership positions on management boards, who have already reached a certain professional level in their careers but have not yet attained leadership roles? What would be your top 3 messages?
The first thing to do is to go to your boss and discuss your career goals. I can guarantee that in 80-90% of cases, the response to growth will be much more positive and receptive than you currently assume.
Our existing superiors are a good resource, and it is tactically correct to get them on your side, which can be of great help. We often confront and criticise ourselves too much while we are not yet in a leadership position.
We are afraid that the boss is not on our side and will not understand and will think that you are doing something you should not, but this is mostly not the case in reality because every leader’s job is to educate young leaders.
As a manager, have you ever had a funny incident when an employee comes and asks for something completely out of the ordinary?
No, I suppose. Managers are much more human than we think. When I was building my career, one of the most important people who supported me was from this company.
Did you purposefully build your professional brand to attain career goals?
Yes, I had a specific plan when I was building my career. I was conscious that I would not always be 100% right, but at least I had a plan in my head about what qualities I need to develop in myself and I am lacking to be a good leader one day, and what measurable things I need to achieve. The next step is to decide how to do it. Such planning was very valuable.
Even if the plan is revised at some point, if we do not achieve 100% of the plan, it still helps us do much more than if we did not have a plan.
People around you, your current boss, colleagues, peers from other companies – all are an excellent resource, which can help also make such a plan. People are much more responsive than we think. I have never said “no” to any woman who came to me for mentoring advice only because I have a sense of solidarity and responsibility.
Have there been any women who applied themselves?
Yes, sometimes. As a rule, the only thing I demand for such cooperation is to show your interest, your questions and your objective.
I have sometimes heard “how can I seek help for my career, it is so selfish”. How to deal with it?
You simply need to root out the feeling that your career is something selfish. Every active employee at any level, even not in a management position, is a great asset for a leader as we do not meet such people every day and they are not usually the majority.
Why do you support the Novatore Impact Summit about empowering women, which will take place on 22 to 23 September this year?
I took part also in “Mission: executive”. I like very much the idea of establishing a sort of community in Latvia for supporting women because it is a problem that many women simply do not dare although, objectively speaking, they are fully equipped to be as good leaders as men. Women need to be encouraged, and any form is good here.
The more women we will have in leadership positions, the healthier competition we will have in business and on the labour market because the best people, and not just those who have left, will become leaders. And, the better business, the better economy.
What would be your “takeaway” message for women?
Only we know what is right for us, not the manager or anyone else. If we are actively planning and building our career, there is much more hope that we will end up where we really like.
The more open we are with our colleagues and boss at the time when we need support, the more powerful and resourceful that circle of support will be, because people around us will understand us better.
Unfortunately, there is a bit of a stereotype in Latvia that we are shy to talk about our home affairs in public, it is our homestead, we live here on our own and manage on our own, go out dressed in our best clothes and smiling, which is not so good and effective for planning your career and work life. The better we get to know each other, the more we can help, understand and support. And, certainly, career is an action word, it is about planning and doing. Each time you dare, you learn what is right for you and what can be done differently.