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7 Questions with Carina Vassilieva
helps you in your leadership.
7 Questions with Carina Vassilieva
Name: Carina Vassilieva
Current title: Global Chief Human Resources Officer
Current organisation: Mundipharma
Carina Vassilieva is the Global Chief Human Resources Officer at Mundipharma. She has over 20 years of experience in senior leadership roles in a broad range of industries including pharmaceuticals and healthcare, management consulting, consumer and retail, education and manufacturing.
She joined Mundipharma from Korn Ferry Hay Group where she was Associate Client Partner, Executive Compensation and Total Rewards. Prior to this, she was Senior Director, Organizational Effectiveness at Sofina Foods Inc. and Vice President, Human Resources at Rexall Pharmacy Group, a national chain of retail pharmacies in Canada. In addition to her extensive corporate experience, Carina has held board positions with not-for-profit organizations and professorships at York University School of Administrative Studies and Georgian College School of Business, Canada.
She holds an MBA from California Coast University, Santa Clara, US and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the State University of Printing, Moscow, Russia. She is a Certified Compensation Professional and a Global Remuneration Professional.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
Attracting, retaining and deploying the right talent in the right place was and remains the biggest challenge, as well as opportunity, from my perspective. The key word here is “right”. If the right people, whose values, ambitions, pace and goals have a close match with those of the company, are brought on board in the roles of their true calling, this business will be unstoppable. I believe it is critical to dedicate time for the full executive leadership team to discuss and achieve common understanding and alignment on the definitions of everything above, and then articulate it in a simple and clear language to the rest of the organization. The challenge is to dedicate meaningful time to this work, better in a professionally facilitated way. Those who succeed, most definitely gain a significant advantage over the others, in my opinion.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
I was always very driven and curious, and never really said “no” to any opportunities. In fact, I was always ready to take on any mess, where the majority of people would probably wisely step aside! When I was still quite young I had an opportunity to take on a lead role on the HR task force during the merger between two major FMCG companies. While I certainly didn’t have relevant experience, the stretch certainly was very appealing. Granted, there was a lot of tough learning, sleepless nights and hard work, but that move certainly made me grow and establish myself as someone who is very comfortable with change management. Since then, I was always attracted to the companies going through messy change management scenarios, and those are the environments where someone’s career can truly get accelerated.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
Being in a global leadership role in times of COVID-19 driven work-from-home arrangement makes structuring work days quite challenging. It is not unusual to start meetings as early as 7AM, and finish as late as 9 or 10PM. So, I practice an approach that I call "agile adaptability". Meaning, that no matter how the day shapes up, I will make sure to build time for: 1) at least two 30-minutes minimum outdoor walks per day; 2)play time with the dog; 3)a 30-minutes long exercise of high intensity; 4) quality time with my loved ones and friends. The last one is a must and non-negotiable.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
There is an African proverb that sums it up really well: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”. One of the main goals for the leader is to ensure the long-term sustainability of the business. While quick interventions often are necessary, and the best way to perform those is by tasking a few individuals or small groups of people to deliver the mandate, long-term sustainability is impossible by continuously powering through with a few individuals. The only way to achieve long-term sustainability in my opinion, is by bringing people along, cross-functionally and cross-geographically. Doing so will inevitably take away from the speed of implementation, but certainly will prove beneficial in the long run. It requires a different approach to run a marathon, rather than running a sprint; good leaders must recognize that.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
“Start With Why” by Simon Sinek. Am a big Simon’s fan in general. In a nutshell, the main message is that people won't truly buy into any idea until they understand the WHY behind it. Why is the most powerful question, and one that so many leaders unfortunately skip, focusing on What and How instead. Actually, I believe that this is exactly what differentiates managers from the leaders. Managers focus on What and How, leaders start with Why. My own learning is that once people understand the WHYs, they are able to truly embrace whatever the idea is and make it their own, thus becoming a Team rather than a Group. This is a very powerful tool, to start with WHY.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
I believe a key is to build it in disciplined and structured manner:
a. There should be a formal, organization-wide and globally driven talent review and development program, focused on recognizing and developing leadership potential, that is applied in a consistent manner, according to the same evaluation criteria and timelines across the entire organization in all departments and geographies.
b. Those recognized as High Potentials shall be helped to map a career path and supported to achieve different career milestones, involved in cross-functional projects and provided with the development stretch assignments. Adults learn the best on the job, so practical assignments are key.
c. What I find working really well, is assigning a mentor who is also a senior executive, better yet, an executive sponsor. This is a role for a senior and well-established executive, who enjoys developing talent and who will take an active role in the successful career development of their mentee. Granted, this is a two-way street, and the most active role in the development of the leader belongs of course to the individual being developed.
d. The progress is tracked on a regular basis, at least annually, and course corrections made as necessary.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
I want to share the best career advice that I ever got, which was when I was promoted to my first ever executive role. I always was very work and results focused, and never had any issues speaking with anyone, no matter how high in the organizational hierarchy, but as long as it was work related. My spare time I preferred to spend with like-minded colleagues and those I would form natural bonds with. So, my boss at times gave me a performance goal to have at least two lunches a month with one of the Board Directors, or C-level executives. I was supposed to meet them all, not just those I would have a better connection with. I had to bring back lunch receipts to prove the meetings, and I was forbidden to speak about work. The goal was to form informal connections, get to know people on an individual level, and develop a muscle to make this informal networking a regular routine. Speaking of stepping out of a comfort zone! I will never forget how uncomfortable it felt the very first time reaching out to someone very busy, very senior and powerful, introducing myself and asking for a lunch meeting, that this gentleman agreed to much easier than I thought. I persevered and powered through, arranging for more meetings to deliver on my performance goal, and each next one was easier to arrange, more productive and more enjoyable. Networking is my second nature now, and boy, it helps! I will be forever grateful for this very practical career advice structured in a very unique way that you can’t help, but deliver, from a wonderful mentor who truly cared for my professional development and success.