Interview: Veronika Petřík | Photo: Petr Vágner and the archive of Česká Spořitelna
Do you see yourself as a child of fortune?
Good question. In the sense that I live in a safe country where women can vote, where children are not forced to work, where there is ample freedom and where I had access to education, then yes. I guess we’re all in the same boat in this regard. Sometimes when I complain about conditions in the Czech Republic, I pause and realize that I have a decent home, because we really do have it good here.
And the rest? You have a successful career, a beautiful family, from another’s perspective, your personal and professional life seem to work.
Looking from the outside is one thing, but of course it is not that we never have problems at home, that the kids always pick up the phone and that my job is simply awash in sunshine. I believe I’m in the same place as everyone else. But I can say that I’m fortunate in the people surrounding me, whether it’s at work or my husband. I have however worked a lot to achieve the rest, there is a lot of energy invested, I had to put a lot of “elbow grease” into it as they say. Changing many things about myself and coming to terms with other things, but I imagine everyone had to do that sometimes.
Today you are the most influential woman in Czech banking and perhaps the best-recognized face of Česká Spořitelna in the media. You have certainly come a long way in your career. Was it a matter of planning or coincidence?
More like a coincidence. When I was younger, I had other plans for what I would eventually do. It was very much determined by what a young person can even imagine about the world. Hardly anyone at sixteen wishes to one day be on the board of some big, traditional company. At that time, all my dreams were focused on a café that my friends and I were planning to start up after we had discovered Medúza Café. We split up the roles, who would manage what, and we had a clear plan. Then for a while I wanted to become a teacher or have my own beauty salon, until I got into banking again through acquaintances. And I am where I am today thanks to these people who supported me and gave me space in the beginning. I am not saying that I am not capable at work – this is only a necessary condition, but it is not enough. Finding yourself in high positions is the result of what chance you are given by those around you, how they trust you, if you are a good fit for the team through your profile or experience. Ultimately, everything is a patchwork of similar coincidences. It is said that fortune favors the prepared, and my readiness probably consisted in the fact that I always let myself be persuaded into everything. I got up the courage, and even though I wasn’t sure, and I knew that the position was one size too large for me, I thought I’d give it a shot anyway.
You’ve been getting a lot of media attention these past few years. Are you comfortable with that, or is it the other way around?
I feel it more as the weight of responsibility. Today, we often hear debates about the fact that there are not so many women in politics, that women in leadership positions are still a bit of an exotic species and so on. I realized that society constantly watched and commented on every woman, and what an individual woman said could become attributed to all the other women. That doesn’t happen with men. I think it’s customary that men, like kings or politicians, have always been in leadership positions. Everyone was different, but we take that for granted, we don’t generalize. We women tend to do that. For example, I recently overheard a conversation between two men who did not know that I’d joined the call. They were sharing their views on the political abilities of Angela Merkel or Ursula von der Leyen, including the subsequent controversies that all women holding management posts do this and do that…
I realized that by the way I talk and conduct myself, someone is surely labeling other women. I’m relatively verbose and spontaneous, and I can imagine someone saying that having more female managers in leadership positions as spontaneous and verbose as Daniela would not be good. So, I feel responsible for my actions, because I give female managers a certain amount of credit among the public. The second thing is that I feel a particular responsibility to the institution with which people associate me. I do not know exactly how the general public perceives me, but I know who is watching me very closely: employees of Česká Spořitelna. In a way, I’m really their face, and whatever I say outwardly resonates most strongly in internal communication.
What did banking look like when you joined – how many men versus women in leadership positions? And what is it like now after 14 years at Česká Spořitelna?
I started in the American bank GE, which was already aware of the power of diversity at the time, especially because they had been labeled a “white male company” on Wall Street. Naturally, they did not want to let that stand, not only within gender, but also within minorities, religion, sexual orientation, etc. So, I joined a company that was pretty much living the issue and laying the groundwork for people other than white men to succeed. And besides, my boss was an American woman, so I didn’t really feel the issue there. That came later as I climbed the ranks. From American culture, I moved to Austrian Raiffeisenbank and then to Erste Bank, where the setting was somewhat different.
Even my personal attitude was changing. I used to be relatively selfish, saying that I didn’t need any quotas either, and that if a woman was capable, let her fight for the job. I see things differently today, and when someone asks me, I say that the non-militant support of quotas need not be at the expense of anything else. Parallel to this, any company desiring to achieve something is good by how it explicitly sets its goal. It is not enough to say, for example, regarding client satisfaction: “We want a little more next year.” You have to quantify it, then it becomes easier to head towards achieving it. This also applies to the bank: it is not OK to only set clear goals in the number of satisfied clients or in the degree of their satisfaction, and when it comes to women in management, just to say “more". I don’t mind at all when someone says, “not more, but two more.” Then it is much easier to think about how to achieve this.
Personally, I believe deeply in mixed teams, for the simple reason that with them, there is much more fun and energy. Banking changes like everything else. Women are a huge topic, and a lot of people must be sick of it, because there is only talk of women. But the way I see it is that, for instance in education, it is mainly about a lack of male teachers, and in banking, a lack of female managers – the less prevalent of the two genders is always protected and promoted.
What was your first experience with your bank like? I’m assuming you didn’t start at the top of the board.
I’ve always been in operations. Think of it as the call center, debt collection, credit approval, back office and customer care all in one. That’s how I came to Česká Spořitelna too. I didn’t really perceive the way our own clients saw us. In retrospect, I think that it may have been the times, it was more about whether one earned money, and client satisfaction was measured in parallel or pushed aside. But by the time I moved to the board, this had become a huge topic, and I learned that our people were actually ashamed to work in Česká Spořitelna.
We gauged satisfaction in the entire client market for the first time in 2014 and found we were the least popular bank on the Czech market. We had more people among our clients who hated us than recommended us. I think it all came down to the difference between what we wanted at the price of services and what value we were delivering. The entry of competing banks such as Air Bank, mBank or Fio shed light on all this, and showed us the difference. We had approached it with a certain arrogance as a big successful company, and our client satisfaction reflected this. Since then, we have done a great deal of work in rectifying this. I see it not only in measuring client satisfaction, where we’ve matured and find ourselves in the middle of the market more or less, but it also translates into more general trust. For the last four years, we have been growing in the number of clients who regard us as their main bank. We had a lot of work to do, and for the bank it was quite the cold shower. But it is good in that it is invigorating and affords great concentration. I don’t think anyone wants to work in a company anymore that is financially successful, but not really popular.
This begs the question, does your bank have the ambition to be a love brand? Or do you see it as a love brand for a certain group of people?
Our bank aspires to be a well-respected brand, and it is awfully close if not already there today. I think everyone would like their brand to be a love brand, but a better example is George, the mobile banking that inherently enjoys these emotions of popularity, modernity and playfulness. Česká Spořitelna itself deserves respect, having been around as a brand for 200 years and developed into an enormous institution. Size also plays a role in whether something can be a love brand or not.
How big is your team today, what type of leader are you, and what is your leadership strategy?
I have nine people on my immediate team, and I manage about 6,000 people through them. I am also in charge of the call center and branch network, so these are huge groups. I am the type who is very performance-oriented, but at the same time I understand that without a positive atmosphere in the team, solid performance can hardly be achieved and is fleeting, so I am also a relationship manager. I have to manage, because I manage the people who manage people, who manage still others. However, I also have to put my trust in them, to be capable of building a team out of them and getting them to a place where it is not just an eight-to-four job to them, but rather a part of their lives. I try to combine it in some way, but I measure my success on results and performance. And many of my good friends are work colleagues, so I think the combination is going well.
Is it fair to say that your closest team is connected by some key attribute for which you chose its members?
I think they’re relatively diverse. A colleague of mine said that he wanted to have people on his team who were cheerful and at least a little useful, and I feel the same way. They are indeed cheerful, useful, and have loads of energy. But then again, they are all completely different people; one is into the minutia of things, another can be more of an introvert, an analyst, a cynic, an idealist and so on.
What is the ratio of men to women on your team?
I was afraid you’d ask since I claim to be so passionate about diversity, because I only have three women on my team today and the rest are men.
This probably corresponds to the general situation in the Czech Republic regarding women in managerial positions…
I guess, but over time, it would be nice to mix it up. Now it’s like this, and they’re simply the best. (laughs)
In one interview, you mentioned that you were trying to make your way around to every single branch of Česká Spořitelna, and that it was impossible to do it in a year. Is that so?
It is, and it’s absolutely impossible. We have 400 branches, so with about 250 working days a year, a vacation, and so on, there just isn’t enough time. I gave up on this dream. Paradoxically, now things have moved on where we already know each other in a few branches, there is more trust and less stress when I have to come, and I rather go there repeatedly because I learn more.
You’re a mom to teenagers. How do you think the bank will work in 10, 20, 30 years? How will your children’s generation utilize banks?
Banking as an industry will remain, but it is already transforming as technology develops. Today, most people no longer go to the bank for simple things like ascertaining their account balance, changing limits, or for transactions, and this trend will continue. Banks that have gone digital will gradually offer solutions even in cases for people with a decent amount of money wanting to set up long-term personal security, though, for example, investments, supplementary pension insurance, term deposits… People will increasingly trust in technology, so the logical question then of course becomes security in the digital environment. Attacks and fraud are increasing exponentially as people move to banking using mobile devices. But I still think that complex banking will have a role to play, and there will be times, maybe even ten years from now, when people will just want to consult with someone or just make sure they’re doing the right thing. And they want that reassurance from a live person who sees 1,000 such cases a year. For example, the decision on buying a first home, the topic of financial literacy... or on the other hand, solving specific problems, a kind of financial outpatient clinic. Such discussions need not take place only at the branch; they may occur remotely via video or chat, but there will be a real person at the other end who will consider the case and handle it. The smart phone will certainly play a vital role, as it already practically equates to banking. But just how smart it will actually be, how much it will understand you as a client, I don’t know – right now however, this is where the biggest investments are going.
You mentioned financial literacy. Do you think we’re getting better at education? Are you educating your children in this area? Do you teach them to invest or think more about finances?
Sadly, I don’t think it’s moving along, it’s still not part of the Czech school curriculum. However, more banks are starting to engage, and Česká Spořitelna is extremely involved. We have programs like The Alphabet of Money: we visit classrooms, we explain the principle of entrepreneurship, we allow children to invest small amounts and find out what happens… It is a great pity that today’s adults did not receive this education, because in my practice, I see many families who lack basic literacy in the sense of providing for others. They cannot say that expenditures in the long term must not be greater than income, but mainly they do not know that all these problems can be solved, but must not be ignored. The paradox is that the same people come to us with an extreme desire to know everything, but they should have come a year ago, and had they, they might not have fallen into an unfortunate situation at all. It is a matter of knowledge or lack thereof, like any other, it is about taking an interest and not closing one’s eyes to it.
Our kids had an account and a card as soon as it was possible. This is partly for my convenience. I do not want them carrying around banknotes in their pockets for security reasons. Rather than risking the potential loss of cash, it is better for them to pay by card. But it is also because I see their every transaction, and I can figure out where they have been and what they are buying. I have to say that our daughters (17 and 21 years old) still mainly use cash, but our son (12 years old) pays only by card – even chewing gum for 12 crowns. Our daughters also manage their budget with cash, knowing that they can’t spend more than they took out of the ATM. It’s harder to keep track of on the card.
I’m trying to explain the value of money to them, but I find they have to learn on their own. I had the impression that my 17-year-old daughter had a fantastic grasp of it, but it wasn’t until she went to work a part-time job and found out how much she made in an hour and what it all meant that I saw that she actually understood. It wasn’t until she found out for instance that if she earned 130 crowns an hour, she wouldn’t get it all because of taxes, and that seemed terribly unfair to her. (laughs) Suddenly she began to realize that in order to buy her favorite drink for 100 crowns, she had to work an hour – and began to think in a whole new way. Now she realizes how much things cost, how hard it is to combine work with school and how much energy lies behind it all. My husband and I were amused when she came home completely beat at half past ten in the evening, and said to us, “I don’t know how you keep up with it all, I’m so tired.” (laughs) And then she even came to me saying that she had calculated the impact of inflation on her pocket money according to statistics, that I hadn’t changed it for four years, and so she wanted to ask for a raise – and I couldn’t argue, it actually made me happy.
Our girls are not interested in investing, but our son is very much. He’d even like to invest in cryptocurrencies, so I arranged for him a meeting with an expert to find out how. Of course, he sees this as a huge opportunity to get rich quickly, so I think that he also needs to lose his first bit of money and realize that it is somewhat akin to gambling…
Speaking of kids, how do you actually combine a double-career marriage, devote yourself fully to the kids, and do all these jobs right?
I can’t really answer that because I don’t think I can. I have days when I’m happy that everything is under control, the children are healthy, they manage everything, and so do I. And then there’s one thing that derails the entire order. Today, it is easier because the children are older, they depend on us less, but it is still a daily struggle. Every Sunday, planning with my husband and my mom, who will do what and when. That constantly troubled conscience that I could devote myself more to the children, because that time often goes to my work, which I also bring home, and sometimes our children consume my thoughts at work... It is all about constant balancing, otherwise I could not manage.
Honestly, I don’t know a mom who would say that she was always 100% devoted to children, that she was full of energy and that she only had time for them. There are always moments that we feel bad about it, because maybe we were indeed with them, but our thoughts were on 100 other things. I think you have to deal more with yourself in your head than you ever do with kids blaming you. Or perhaps kids will always assign blame. Either that their parents work too hard or, on the contrary, that they stay home and aren’t developing their careers and greater independence. That’s normal, it’s part of the process of separating from your parents.
You and I know each other through sports. Even with your heavy workload, you still find time for a lot of other activities. What is your stress relief valve?
Certainly sports, that’s true. When you and I first met, I was exercising less than I do now. I was compelled by wanting to feel fit, to feel good physically. For instance, I work out using the TRX system to relieve back pain and so I feel good about myself. But as for the valve, someone once said, and I like to use the phrase: either to the bar or to the church. Either I have to talk through things, so I choose to be with company, or I have to get my head straight and make a retrospective of myself.
We see each other in the DOCK environment where I work, and you live with your family. Was your relationship to sports one of the reasons why you chose to live here, in this area, by the waterside, cross-country ski trails and bicycle routes… and yet still be close to the center?
The reason was water. It’s fascinating, there’s always something going on with it, gazing out at it is great. In my opinion, we humans have it in our DNA: either we like to live on a hill with a view or by the water, these two elements fascinate us in some way. For me it was the water, and so this locale stole my heart. Before DOCK, we were living blissfully in Prague 6. One of our friends even got scared and asked us if we’d gone bankrupt when he found out that we were moving from Střešovice to Libeň - he was genuinely worried about us. (laughs) That was so honest, but we were actually seeking a larger apartment. As a family we are no strangers to moving house, the children go to school in Holešovice and my mom lives in the same complex, so the reasons just came together like that. I had suspected there were cross-country ski trails here, but I only discovered them afterwards. Even in Prague 6 there are nice trails to Šárka or Hvězda, the sports activities to be enjoyed there are also great.
So, what does home living mean to you?
Home, the realization that I will create it and furnish it myself, family. Cozy, safe, mine.
Work led you and your husband to live outside the Czech Republic for many years. Would you call yourselves world travelers? Where else could you imagine living? Although you said at the beginning that you have not traveled that much, but still...
We always enjoyed living abroad. I do not know if it was because we felt that it was only for a while… It is great to live somewhere where no one knows you, you are on your own, you need to make new friends, get your bearings, and it makes you far more observant. I notice that every time I travel. I can think of completely different things, I notice every little detail, whereas in Prague it is like being on autopilot. Being abroad is simply different, we can capitalize on it, and we enjoy it. I can imagine that we could probably live anywhere, but the Czech Republic will probably always be home for family reasons. I’m not tempted to move away forever.
I can’t help but wonder – after all, it was a question that several of us wanted to ask – what kind of work would you imagine doing if you didn’t do this? Your dream job, after all the experience you have gathered?
Tough question. Ultimately, I would probably conclude by saying that I am quite opportunistic, so it would depend on people. I imagine someone would inspire me or even talk me into trying something. I am not longing for anything towards which I would gravitate and look forward to finishing up here and proving something, like opening a beauty studio or a cafe. It’s not like that anymore. That was the fantasy of a younger Daniela. Maybe something will come up one day. I think that when my time is up at Česká Spořitelna, I’ll need some time to get my head around having left the job, and something will come up in the meantime. I guess I have a lot of faith in myself that I could do a lot of things, that I could make a living. Even with my hands. But right now, I don’t see any dream job in my future.
For successful artists or architects, for example, the question arises of where to draw inspiration. But where to go when you’re in the banking world? Where or from whom do you learn something new in order to develop?
I look to banks in the world. For us at our bank, the hot topic now is financial education, healthy finances, and how to manage one’s budget. Some banks in Europe and America are doing a lot in this area. Not only are they devoting themselves to people who have a surplus of money and advising them on how to valuate it, but I am more fascinated by their efforts in helping people who are struggling financially, how to help them find money in the budget and get more. By the way, more than a third of people in the Czech Republic experience these kinds of problems. I think banks can play a key role in helping people solve them. I also look to technology companies and those that function strictly online, like Basket. These fields are fantastic in how they work in the digital world. Banking today is mainly about technology; banks are more like IT companies.
This magazine issue is devoted to women. What would you advise girls who see you as a role model and wish to be successful like you?
May they be fearless, and most importantly, may they be who they really are. When I got in, I was getting various advice – for example, that a woman must not put lipstick on in public, even uttering the word lipstick was rather frowned upon. It was about how to adapt so that a woman would succeed in a male-dominated company, and how to alter her behavior to make it easier for men to understand. I am incredibly happy that women remain women today, and just as they understand that men are different, men are beginning to understand that women are different. And that’s why it’s important to be yourself. I believe that when someone really desires something and envisions actually attaining it, they will succeed, whether in their private or professional lives. And if anyone finds me to be a role model, I’m flattered and possibly terrified at the same time. (laughs)
Thanks for the interview.