"A career is like a good book"

She Moves Us – Interview with Nina Graf-Vlachy, General Manager for Central Europe

April 29, 2021

She Moves Us – Interview with Nina Graf-Vlachy, General Manager for Central Europe

April 29, 2021

Her parents were scientists, she studied chemistry, worked in consulting and is now General Manager Central Europe at PUMA. Did Nina Graf-Vlachy plan for her career to look like this?

As part of our SHE MOVES US platform, Nina participated in an internal virtual talk that aired on International Women’s Day last month. This interview is based on that conversation. Here, Nina opens up about her career path, her motivation and the PUMA athlete she is particularly impressed by. 

Nina, you studied chemistry and you have a Ph.D. in the field. Then you went for consulting. Now you’re with PUMA. It’s not the most, let’s say, direct career path.  How did this happen and what did you learn along the way?

Nina: No, it’s not the most efficient way of getting here, I’ll say that. But it worked. What did I learn? First and foremost, that my parents were right, generally, with most of their advice! They told me to study something that teaches me how to think, so I would not be afraid of taking on new problems. And Chemistry did that. It was super fun to study, but also challenging at the same time. I also really liked working in a laboratory. It feels productive because you are creating something and wearing that white lab coat made me feel very smart 🙂. Then I went on to do my Ph.D., which is very normal in chemistry. I never even asked if that was the right path or not. Doing a Ph.D. is a really good experience, however. It is the only time in life where you need to focus your attention and work on one single problem for several years at a time. So, it teaches you how to keep that focus and persevere. It also teaches you how to manage your own time. That, coupled with moving to a new country (Germany), was a very beneficial experience.

It was only when I finished my studies that I realized I wanted to do something broader. At the time I had no idea what consulting was or why they would want me. But once I came in to do my interview, I was immediately convinced. The case studies that consulting companies have you do as part of the application process reminded me so much of the fun logic puzzles my parents would give me when I was a kid. I figured, that if this is what they’ll be paying me for, then I’m in. Consulting was a great experience. That job gave me a business education at two hundred kilometres per hour. I learned the business basics and how much you can get done in a short amount of time if you just focus and get to it, without allowing yourself to be distracted by the noise around you. Additionally, I met some great, lifelong friends along the way!

Have you planned your career to look like this?

Nina: No, never. I mean, to be honest, I’m not a very big planner, which is surprising for someone who used to lead the strategy department. But in general, I believe that you should always fully focus on where you are in the moment, enjoying and giving it your one hundred and fifty percent. And then I just trust that I’m going to end up in a in a good place. This approach has always worked out for me up to now. I did, of course, have some very strong influencers in my life. My parents for example, who taught me that nothing in life is to be feared, but only to be understood. They gave me the confidence to leave my hometown and start a very different career than what they were used to. Also, I had some amazing bosses in my past. They took the time to give me feedback – the good, the bad and the ugly, because otherwise there’s no way to improve. And then last, but definitely not least, all of the people that ever worked for me, all my team members. They’re the ones who shared my vision and worked hard in order to help make the goal we set for ourselves a reality. They are also the ones that challenge me and make me reflect on my leadership skills every day. All of that contributes to growth.

But in general, I’m actually opposed to planning a career too much, because I believe that if you have a very strict way of looking at things, then you might actually say no to a few opportunities just because they don’t seem to fit into that mold. And that in turn might even hinder you from getting to where you want to be in the long run.

Have you ever felt disadvantaged in a business context because of your gender?

Nina: Never! I know that maybe I’m lucky in that sense. I think it partially has to do just with the fields that I’ve been active in: science and consulting. In those settings, it’s mostly the idea that counts and less the person. The second reason probably has to do with how I perceive things. I mean, I’m very good at ignoring any type of gender related stereotype remarks that might be flying around. I either don’t hear them, or I forget them immediately.

How does your past as a scientist affect your management style?

Nina: It’s hard to know what’s education and what’s character, but I guess that I’m probably a bit more detail-oriented than most people at my level. I know that it sometimes drives my teams crazy because I come with thousands of follow-up questions. I think the second one is perseverance. I mean, in chemistry, you can do the same experiment for two years straight before you actually have enough results to be able to draw a conclusion from them. It is the same in a business context, where you also sometimes need to start a project five times before other stakeholders actually feel that this is the right time to give it their attention. I don’t like to take no for an answer and I try to make sure that my teams don’t either. And third, I try not to be a silo thinker. In science, you can’t stop trying to understand correlations, just because the effect may be bordering another field of study. That would get you nowhere. So, I’m someone who likes to work cross-functionally and who is interested in how things work across a wide spectrum of departments and processes. I look for that curiosity also in my coworkers. I really want to make sure that they look beyond their own scope of responsibility and that they’re aware that their decision, while it may seem best for them at the moment, maybe isn’t the best in the long term, or may cause problems three steps down the (supply) chain.

Be curious, dare to ask questions. Make sure that you always try to understand what the reason and the motivation behind something is and how things are connected to one another.

Learn from other people. Everyone has something that they're really good at. Try to look for that in every person and to incorporate some of that into your everyday.

Enjoy the now. One thing that young people sometimes forget nowadays is to enjoy and focus on the now. Don't just try to rush towards wherever you think you're supposed to be. I always say a career is like a good book. It's about enjoying each chapter as you're going through it and not about trying to get to the end of it as soon as possible.

Nina's career advice for young professionals

PUMA´s Virtual Talk on International Women´s Day 2021- Recap Video

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