DIANA ELENKOVA: LEADING THROUGH EXAMPLE
The Managing Director of Zühlke Bulgaria on why this is not yet another service company
When Zühlke, a global IT service provider, opened their first office in Bulgaria, in 2018, they were seeking a leader that would fit the company's culture of truly individual approach towards technologies, businesses, solutions, talents and partners. They found the right person in Diana Elenkova, a veteran in the Bulgarian IT field. Under the Zühlke brand, she built a team where everyone is free to share ideas, is encouraged to grow, and leading by example is the norm. Today, the company has an office in Bulgaria, in Sofia, and about 70 employees with the option to work from wherever they feel productive who deliver high tech solutions. This approach towards leadership, success and result also shines brightly in our interview with Diana.
What makes Zühlke Group a different IT company?
I crowdsourced this question, despite having a good answer for myself. A company's differentiator is what everyone thinks, not what managers believe. The response rate in the chat we have for the 3 countries that comprise our Global Delivery Centers – Bulgaria, Serbia, and Portugal, was astonishing. I got 18 replies in the first hour or so. Here are the most interesting of them:
• "Hardcore, yet gentle."
• "Emotion recognizer, acknowledges that it's not just about the numbers."
• "People: Amazing people to work and grow with."
• "People first company."
• "The irony is that the question "What makes your company different?" in every company has the same answer: "People, Culture"... But that's another topic. What I found different is that you could challenge everything and everyone, and it won't fall on deaf ears. I don't know many companies that work like that."
• "People, Culture" is pretty boring, and everybody tells it. However, in Zühlke, culture is real and alive, and everybody has a chance to see and experience it. That is a challenge/test that not many companies can win, and the fact that we are still here in the company means that we believe it."
• "Believing and living our values, often putting them even before the "bottom line"."
• "I always felt comfortable sharing what is happening no matter how hard/awkward/XYZ it is."
• "New employee here: I would say for now that one important aspect is the support of the employee's choices in relation to the projects – being asked and able to refuse some project that we feel is not the best for us. I think it is an important difference."
• "In my opinion, 'The Synergy' is one thing that stands out. Synergy by definition, is 'the combined power of a group of things when they are working together that is greater than the total power achieved by each working separately'."
• "Transparency in the company and towards the clients, based on very well developed feedback culture."
• "I was actually thinking about this in terms – of how the hell we manage to work through continents, countries, and cultures. And I came up with an answer; maybe this is what makes us different. It's the core that matters. So... We are different by applying basic principles in business and human behavior:
1. We stay true to our profession, not deceived by trends and hypes.
2. We stay true in attention, regard, and consideration to people.
3. If you have this core strength, you can build anything."
Here are my own two cents:
If our engineers reply like that to such a question – we must be doing something right.
Are we the best or perfect? No, of course not. But the fact that we admit it and are ready to talk openly about it across grades, countries, and roles already makes us a different company.
What is the role of Zühlke Bulgaria within the group's activities?
It's strange to think about Zühlke Bulgaria as a separate entity. I haven't seen an international company with zero competition between its locations in my entire career. Zühlke managed to surprise me from that perspective. In this sense, Zühlke Bulgaria is playing an equal partner role.
What's very important to me is that this partnership is visible in the projects – where people spend most of their working time. There's no "throwing work over the fence" or "project selection" based on location. We practice "one backlog, one team, ownership by competence."
It's not rare that senior engineers from Bulgaria lead project teams with less experienced colleagues from Western Europe. The opposite is true as well. We value expertise more than any other factor when composing our project teams.
Specifically, Zühlke Bulgaria is the second location we opened in 2018 as part of the Zühlke Global Delivery Centers (GDC). Together with our colleagues from Serbia and Portugal, we take care that the promises to our clients are kept. We are the growth engine for the Group and the glue that connects all Zühlke countries as we are working day to day with all of them.
What defines working at Zühlke Bulgaria as an experience?
I believe the first vibe you get when you enter our office is the lack of "corporate" looks and feels. This was an office designed and furnished by the first colleagues that trusted Zühlke as a company before we even had a proper office. They had a lot of opinions about it, and we implemented all of them.
This is also how a couple of colleagues and I learned to use a drill.
After the Covid-19 pandemic, we work from wherever we feel productive with zero pressure to come to the office.
Zühlke Bulgaria is full of proactive, highly competent people who smashed our extensive selection process and proved themselves in complex projects with high stakes and impact.
We communicate openly with each other. I don't have a separate office, and I never will.
I believe the experience can be described as "we are serious when it comes to our promises, but we never take ourselves too seriously."
How did you become a part of the Zühlke team?
I was contacted via LinkedIn. I remember that on the first interview, I was thinking: "Oh no, not another IT service company". Eight interviews later, Zühlke managed to convince me they are "not another service company," and I somehow managed to convince them I am the right person to open and run a Zühlke location in Bulgaria.
The rest is history.
You have impressive experience in the tech sector. How did this environment change since you started your career in it?
It made me brighter. The tech sector is full of exciting people with extraordinary interests and hobbies.
The girl who entered an IT office for the first time, claiming she didn't know the difference between a server and a PC, had no idea she'd just entered a world with infinite learning opportunities. Now I know better.
Every time I speak with a software engineer, I learn something new. That's the magic that kept me in the industry for so long.
What does it take for a woman to become a leader in your field? What was the hardest thing you had to do, and what is the best thing about being a leader in the IT sector?
Hard work, empathy, and curiosity, and I don't believe those are gender specific.
The hardest thing I had to do is also not gender specific – letting go of a person is always an unpleasant and traumatic experience. For me, it means that I failed as a leader – either during hiring or later failing to help this person show their true strengths.
The best thing about being a leader in IT is that stagnation is not an option. You work with brilliant and qualified people – you cannot afford to get behind.
I love it because most of them demand a clear "why", openly challenge decisions and are ready to help with everything they got.
That pushes me never to stop improving so I can call myself a qualified leader for these fantastic people.
How does your personal and professional philosophy align with the culture established in Zühlke?
I like looking reality in the face and thinking about what I can do about it instead of wishing for better situations.
What I love about Zühlke is that we don't waste time trying to lie to ourselves or our people that things are different than they are. We look at the facts and start discussing what we can do about them.
At the same time, we care for everyone's well-being. I like to keep my mental state healthy, so this is an excellent place to be.
How do you inspire the people in your team to be leaders themselves?
I just let them lead – their own career development, different initiatives, and their peers.
I let them fail. My only hard constraint with mistakes is: "let's make new mistakes".
Of course, I am here to share all the other constraints, my experience, and my thoughts, but I am not there to make all the decisions or take all the actions.
Help is there for anyone driving something new, but the road is their to walk, not mine.
Most of my colleagues do a splendid job walking it – I learn as much from them as they (hopefully) from me.
I often act as a coach rather than anything else. I've heard once or twice it's highly appreciated.
Leading is not deterministic; it's the world of the unknown. Training is there, of course, but you learn leadership by practice more than by anything else.
We also have pretty strong Mentoring & Coaching programs, so people have a different perspective than mine. Versatile perspectives on the same problem are critical to building yourself as a leader.
I am also relentlessly vigilant about how I communicate the opportunities people can get so they're transparent for everybody.
What is the most important quality you strive to cultivate in your talents in order to inspire and enable them to self-organize?
The ability to make informed choices.
First, the skills to get the context they need – active listening, the ability to ask the right questions to the right people.
Second, the skills to gain trust through open communication and feedback.
Third, to decide together with other people what can work and what will not work in their specific context.
What are the benefits of this approach for the organization, the clients, and the talents themselves?
The most significant benefit for the organization is the high retention level we have.
People crave autonomy and the other two main motivators – purpose and mastery. Most projects offer purpose and mastery (a project without a goal shouldn't be called a project). Still, autonomy is rare in service companies because it's highly effective but not efficient.
The opportunity to discuss, challenge, and be part of a decision on how a team should function takes time, but it's a well-worth investment for our clients. They get the context they need first-hand from a team organized to accommodate their specifics as well.
The ownership our people have transforms into a confidence for our clients that we are not only able to execute, but also to guide them to their success.
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