Interviewed by Lin Peterse
Meet Rania Ekaterinari, a C-level executive with experience in Banking, Consulting, Energy and Utilities, Investments & Asset Management, Strategy, Corporate Transformations and Corporate Governance, and an independent board member in large listed companies.
She talks about crisis management, her experience in corporate boards, the impact of quotas, and the importance of self-belief.
We had the opportunity to interview you five years ago, and since then a lot has changed, both in the world and in your career. Could you tell us briefly about your career path during the last five years?
My career was never linear. I always wanted to be exposed to new challenges and take up new roles, without being afraid to leave my comfort zone. I am an electrical and computer science engineer by academic background. However, I did not work for long as an engineer; soon after graduation, I started working in the oil and gas industry in business development in the Caspian region, and then a couple of years after, I switched to corporate finance, focusing on oil and gas. I stayed in financial services for 10 years but because I missed the industry and the real economy, I assumed a C-suite position for the biggest electric utility in Greece, just at the time when the Greek sovereign crisis started to unfold. This unprecedented crisis in Greece lasted for 10 years and found me at a position of high responsibility as Deputy CEO in a multibillion company with 7 million customers and great exposure to sovereign. There are things you learn at university and things you learn during your career, but there is nothing compared to what you learn when you have to navigate a big ship in times of great storm. There were so many things that I learned: how to face your biggest fears, how to be resilient and how to be courageous, to name a few. When everything seems to be falling apart and there is no sense or normality, everything that you have been taught and trained to do before does not work. Managing crisis primarily requires self-control, resilience, and the ability to connect with and empower your employees, customers, partners and stakeholders.
Unfortunately, crises are not going anywhere. A year after Greece exited the sovereign crisis, there was the coronavirus pandemic, followed by the energy crises and inflation. The pandemic disrupted everything and created a new norm. Such an environment demands a new kind of leadership with a mindset that is adaptive, inclusive, and innovative. Most importantly, you have to care about your people. You need to understand what people want: what your employees and stakeholders want in times of crises and uncertainty and be able to manage this.
Another important element from my career over the last five years is the fact that I took the decision to lead the Sovereign Fund of Greece for four years. This was a newly established organisation which aimed to run public wealth in a professional manner, transferring majority shareholdings in large State-Owned Enterprises as well as public real estate under a single corporate structure. State wealth in many countries is like an unexploited gold mine, which, if managed properly with strong corporate governance rules, can greatly benefit the economy and society.
What has been most instrumental in contributing to your career advancement over the years?
I think the most instrumental thing is that I never wanted to lie back; I always wanted to explore new things. I believe that getting exposure to different environments is what helps a woman accelerate in her career. You get to understand the different corporate cultures, different team dynamics but also politics, and gain experience not only about how you succeed, but also about how you manage failure. In this way you test your strength of character and you become more aware of your strengths and weaknesses. This leads to being able to move forward more quickly and decisively. Getting exposed to these things and constantly trying new things was what drove my career and brought me to where I am today.
Did you have role models and what was the most valuable advice given to you by another woman?
When you have a full and ‘’restless’’ life, you come across many personalities. I feel blessed to have met so many great women in my life. So, yes, in my personal life I have had many role models, starting with my mother. My two teenage daughters are also role models to me in a way as they represent the new generation. It is exciting to discover how they think, how they are driven by their own strong set of values, and how important it is for them to have a sense of purpose. I have also met many strong women in my life, who have become close friends and who I trust and love dearly. They are by my side whenever I need them and vice versa.
In my professional life, I have also come across some amazing women, mainly through networks. Being part of the Rising Talent pool of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and the Society at the age of 37, for example, was a great experience. I have had similar experiences with the European Network of Women in Leadership, which I have been a member of for almost 10 years, and the 5050 Women on Boards network, which I recently joined. Through these networks, I met some amazing women from different parts of the world, some very successful in business, others with exceptional scientific recognition and some totally fearless about standing up for their rights in countries where women have no voice. It has been a source of positive energy and inspiration to meet all these women, either online and in-person events. Each one is a role model in her own right and they have become examples of how to improve myself.
You have served as a Career Development leader on WIL’s Women Talent Pool (WTP) Leadership Programme. As you are a role model yourself, what are the ways that you help other women develop their careers and advance into leadership roles?
I once heard from a female politician that if you are fortunate to have an opportunity in your professional life as a woman, it is your duty to make sure that other women have similar opportunities. It is very important for us as female professionals to raise awareness about why diversity and gender balance in the work place matter, to become advocates of inclusion and why this is so important not only for business, but for society too.
I believe that every woman should be an active sponsor of another woman, and this is something I have always done in my life. In professional networks, we often talk about our own need for support, but it is equally important to give help and support other women and to be an active sponsor for those who are looking to get promotions. Personally, I do lots of mentoring, either to women in their mid-careers or to ambitious young talents getting started in their careers. I have also been a Career Development leader for WIL’s WTP programme.
There are always dilemmas and trade-offs if we choose both motherhood and our careers. And usually my message to women who are starting a family is that they have to stay true to themselves and to their spouses and feel happy with the choices they make, even if sometimes there are trade-offs to be made. It is important to explore, open their horizons and try new things. Look for the opportunities with confidence.
I heard once from a female politician that if you are fortunate to have an opportunity in your life as a woman, especially in your professional life, it is your duty to make sure that other women have similar opportunities.
You have a technical background in electrical engineering. How was this beneficial to your career development and are you still reaping the rewards of this technical training in your working life today?
Yes, absolutely! Having a technical background and thinking like an engineer was pivotal to my career because it taught me how to approach and analyse things in a way that is useful in times of crisis. STEM is very important because in today’s world; companies need to have a strong technology and innovation mindset. We need more women to graduate from STEM and it has been reassuring to see more and more doing so, and some with great distinctions!
You are on the board of four large multi-billion companies, two of them listed. You shared your experience in a WIL workshop on How to Become a Board Member in March 2022. Were there surprising questions that came up? In your view what is needed to enhance the pipeline of female candidates for board nominations?
The ‘’Boardroom’’ did not happen overnight. Having completed a career across different sectors and fields of expertise, and being in C-suite positions for more than 10 years with demanding managerial mandates in large companies, I was selected and nominated as an independent member in the boards of four large companies. It is important to note that before becoming an independent non-executive member, I was an executive board member (being a CEO), thus I already had experience of how a board functions from the position of an executive, clearly different from the non-executive one, but equally valuable as board experience.
At the workshop, I have received many questions from younger women about how they can build their path to the boardroom. It is important to understand that being a non-executive board member is a demanding job. It helps to have previous executive experience: you cannot be part of a collective decision-making body like a board if you do not understand the duties and responsibilities that a CEO has when it comes to running a company and executing a strategy. That is why it is important to have gained some operational experience and to have managed people and stakeholders.
It also helps to think about what kind of board to target, as there are different kinds. You need to have an idea of where you want to go, or at least what kind of sector or industry. It is also important to start thinking about what kind of board. There are boards of listed companies and publicly traded companies where members have demanding duties and liabilities. You can also join the board of a private company or a non-profit company or a start-up. They each have different corporate cultures.
Last but not the least, keep in mind that the path to the boardroom also requires to raise your profile. To better understand how to make it to the board one day and shape its strategy, it is important to network. Joining networks of women where some of them are board members can provide insight on what is going on globally and what kind of profiles companies are looking for.
To better understand how to make it to the board one day and shape its strategy, it is important to network. Joining networks of women where some of them are board members can provide insight on what is going on globally and what kind of profiles companies are looking for.
Many believe that more diversity will not happen naturally, and evidence shows that quotas introduced in many European countries have resulted in a rapid change in the number of women serving on boards of publicly traded companies. What is your view? What is the situation right now regarding the number of women serving on boards in Greece?
Historically speaking, boards have been very slow to change; they are supposed to represent the pillars of stability and wisdom within their organisation. But this is changing and quotas have helped to make the first big step of change. Regulators and investors have been pushing for more diversity and require reporting on progress made. They are also pushing for boards to have more independent members: not just members who know the company and were ex-employees for example but for qualified professionals, who can contribute to a better decision-making process and strategy-setting dialogue, through an independent mindset. And that is where the opportunity emerges for younger women to feed the pipeline of candidates for future nominations as independent members.
However, we cannot talk about diversity if the senior management of each company does not believe in it. Quotas do not fix the problem for ever. We need to set the tone at the top and lead with intention towards a more inclusive work environment that supports both men and women. This goes beyond regulation and quotas; it goes beyond the ticking of a box. And it says a lot about the DNA of each company, their senior leadership, and their corporate culture.
We cannot talk about diversity if the senior management of each company does not believe in it. Quotas do not fix the problem for ever. We need to set the tone at the top and lead with intention towards a more inclusive work environment that supports both men and women. This goes beyond regulation and quotas; it goes beyond the ticking of a box
With the wisdom gained over the years, would you do something differently? What advice would you give to your younger self?
The first piece of advice would be to believe in my strengths and not be so judgemental of myself. Perfectionism is good, but it is not always an advantage. Sometimes it can consume a lot of your time and energy and keep you away from other things that could make you happier. We should not lose valuable time by trying to be so perfect in everything because there is no such thing in life. You can be a good mother, but you cannot be a perfect mother.
The second is to always try to find satisfaction and happiness, wherever you are in your life, and avoid thinking about what could have happened differently. I think that it important to feel happy and take pleasure in the little moments in our daily lives and try, by faith and by having this attention to little things, to find harmony and balance in our relationships—personal relations, family relationships and professional relationships.
I also think it is important for women to choose their battles and try to develop something we already have: our emotional intelligence. We need to understand the impact we can have on others and how to connect and empower them and I think this is something that we can do easily. We must not go into battles that are unnecessary, or which waste our energy, potentially affecting our happiness.
Last but not the least, whatever you give in your life, you will get back. When you care for others, you lead through strong values that do not change over time, creating a network of people who value you deeply for who you truly are. That, to me, is considered success.
Whatever you give in life, you will get back. When you care for others, you lead through strong values that do not change over time, creating a network of people who value you deeply for who you truly are. That, to me, is considered success.
Video edited by Marella Ricketts