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There is no risk of routine, when you work with people, Monika Balcerzak and Valentina Stranieri say

How difficult is to move for work with the whole family? What was the decisive moment to chose to accept working abroad? And how to deal with burnout syndrome? Monika Balcerzak, Reinsurance Accounting Manager at VIG Re and Valentina Stranieri, Member of the Board of Directors and Head of People & Culture at UniCredit Bank, Czech Republic and Slovakia were guests of this episode of Women Leaders Beyond Borders podcast. A series hosted by Jaroslav Kramer introduces elite foreign female managers in Czechia. 

You can watch the episode on YOUTUBE or listen to the episode on SPOTIFY and APPLE PODCAST.

Women Leaders Beyond Borders: Monika Balcerzak, Reinsurance Accounting Manager at VIG Re and Valentina Stranieri, Member of the Board of Directors and Head of People & Culture at UniCredit Bank CZ & SK
Women Leaders Beyond Borders: Monika Balcerzak, Reinsurance Accounting Manager at VIG Re and Valentina Stranieri, Member of the Board of Directors and Head of People & Culture at UniCredit Bank CZ & SK

The professional path always coincides or, on the contrary, misses to some extent with the original student's ideas. This was no different in the case of the participants in the debate. Monika Balcerzak's ideas were half fulfilled. She was always attracted to insurance, but not to accounting. „This is the challenge I took two years ago when I came to Prague. I just needed something new, something different. I didn't want to start from zero and I decided this is a chance. VIG Re is giving me a chance to switch responsibility to deal with accounting. And I just took the chance, and I grabbed it,“ she explains. Although people usually think of accounting as a rather boring profession, Monika Balcerzak says it is a matter of perspective. „You can always find something interesting there. I like transformation. I like processes. For me, it's never boring.“

Valentina Stranieri certainly didn't see herself in HR when she was younger. She was interested in banking, specifically in corporate banking. That's why she chose UniCredit and headed for corporate banking department. „After one year, my HR department was calling me to propose an experience in HR, and I said, no, thanks. Then I understood it was not really a proposal. It was a suggestion to move into HR because they could see some potential in me for this job. And out of 17 years in UniCredit, I've been spending 16 years in HR. So probably they were right,“ she describes. 

Different motivation

There is no threat of routine in the high positions held by both participants in the discussion. Above all, because work based on communication with people brings something new every day. Monika Balcerzak says that enjoying the working day is essential for her. „If you enjoy what you do, you don´t feel it as difficult,“ she points. This perspective, perhaps too idealistic for some, is based on a previous negative experience with the opposite approach. „Previously, I was worried always about if the opportunity will be good for me or not. I was always overthinking, creating the scenarios. And I came to a point that I was burnout. I just crossed the line. After that, I just stopped being afraid anymore. And it changed the perspective,“ she says. The result of this shift was a change of employer and a move to Prague.

On the other hand, Valentina Stranieri's road to Prague was not such a milestone for the Italian manager. She had already moved frequently for work, albeit within Italy's borders. „At a certain point, I started to consider necessity for my career to find motivation and further boost. When this international opportunity came, I said to myself, it will not be so different from what I'm doing. Changing languages, changing country, moving abroad with a family. So not a big change,“ the Italian says with a laughter. She adds that she always wanted to work abroad, and although she had other offers, moving to Prague in the summer of 2023 turned out to be the ideal solution.

For both ladies, Prague is their first foreign work placement. From Valentina Stranieri's point of view, such an experience is enriching for both the expat and his home team of colleagues. That is why, in her opinion, it is important to come with an open mind, but at the same time to keep your identity so that an "exchange of values" can take place. Moreover, Monika Balcerzak appreciates that the Prague position has given her a new perspective and a different age composition of her team of colleagues.  

No worries, you will learn

More or less everyone can encounter the danger of burnout. However, it is more common in managerial positions. Although this risk has been known about for many years, things have only been moving more recently. Monika Balcerzak can judge this well from her own experience. In her opinion, there is already a general trend in corporate cultures that helps to draw adequate attention to this topic. „I believe that having the right space dedicated to wellbeing, not only to work-life balance, but to wellbeing initiatives supporting all our colleagues, but also the ones that are driving teams. The managers, giving them the right tools to face critical situations that may happen is really a key responsibility. And it is something on which we are keeping investing because of the very high value we recognize to this tool,“ she promotes one of preventive measures, adding that newcomers to VIG Re greatly appreciate this. 

She says that she was encouraged to accept her first foreign management position in Prague by a VIG Re manager whose magic formula during her first interview was the phrase „No worries, you will learn.“ Seeing that he was making less of her shortcomings, real or perceived, than she was, she began to look at the opportunity without the usual dark scenarios. „If somebody believes in you that much, why not to try? And I think that's why I'm here.“ The very helpful attitude of the whole HR finally convinced her that such an offer could not be refused.

The Prague team around Balcerzak is very international, which the Polish manager herself considers a fact that tests everyone. „Work itself can be quite easy after some time, but the challenging part is that to go the same direction even though we think differently and see things differently.“ She sees this keeping the team on the same page and focused on the same thing as the biggest challenge not only in good weather but especially in times of transition or other changes.

While Balcerzak has recently switched employers, Stranieri has remained loyal to UniCredit for many years. She has no shortage of new initiatives there. „ I've been spending like eight years in Milano at a certain point from 2011 to 2019, but I was doing like five different jobs in that time frame. I was moving from not only one building to the other, but from completely different realities within the same bank. This is why I always found challenging this job, even staying in the same company, because maybe it's coming from the dimension of the company, but also from the mindset. Challenges are always behind next door.“

Power to change things

Throughout our careers, not only do the people around us change, but also the work habits as generations and their interests and ideas about work change over time. Monika Balcerzak has already seen such a change in the Polish labour market. „I remember, we just wanted to have a stable job. And the labour market was focused on people who are stable, who will long work within the company, who are reliable and who have connection to the company. Now we are facing a different labour market. Young people change jobs more frequently. Once, we called them jumpers. Now those people are bringing the changes, and this is the future. I try to see the positives. They are the ones who have the power to change things. I mean, in Poland now, it's easier to have hybrid work. It's easier to simply have a work-life balance. It was almost impossible a couple of years ago.“

If today's younger generation isn't as drawn to corporate jobs as past ones, Monika Balcerzak has good news for them from the world of reinsurance. „I was very positively surprised that reinsurance doesn´t have to be corporate. It is a nice place to work, very unique, with a specific approach to people and to creating the environment for people.“

In this context, Valentina mentions the interesting fact that when she took up her current position in Prague, she found herself among people who were mostly younger than her, something she was not used to from Italy. In the end, however, she welcomes this shift. „There are people in my team still completing their university studies while working. There are others in their first years of working experiences. And then there are people that are also bringing 20 years’ experience to our team. I feel this as a challenge on one side, but a tremendous opportunity as well, because what the oldest members of the team can bring in terms of experience, of even risk sensitivity, for example, is very well compensated and balanced by the creativity and the innovation spirit that is coming from younger generation.“ 

More information about the podcast can be found on the website HERE or on the podcast's LinkedIn profile HERE.

Women Leaders Beyond Borders - FinŽeny


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