Lea Vajnorsky, Executive Search and Leadership Advisor at Russell Reynolds Associates
Dear Lea, it's a pleasure to have you join us today. Please start by telling us a bit about yourself and your professional journey.
For slightly over two years, I have been serving as an Executive Search and Leadership Advisory consultant at Russell Reynolds Associates. Simultaneously, I am the Co-Founder and CEO at Wo/men Inc. for more than five years. Wo/men Inc. is a platform that caters to career-focused women across various industries, while also extending invitations to men. Our platform organizes exclusive events worldwide, connecting like-minded leadership talent and fostering personal and professional growth.
Furthermore, Wo/men Inc. demonstrates its commitment to social impact by donating a portion of our profits from sponsorships to organizations that support women facing educational barriers or human rights violations.
Previously, I was the Global Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) at Henkel, where I designed and implemented the organization's very first DE&I strategy. Preceding this, I was Venture Partner at Redstone, a venture capital firm based in Berlin.
Ultimately, my professional journey began at the age of 16 when I embarked on an internship at the Hessian Parliament. Subsequently, I ventured into entrepreneurship and founded my first business, Market41.
You began your career as an entrepreneur. How did this foundational experience shape your approach to leadership and problem-solving, and how have these learnings influenced your subsequent roles?
One of the most transformative moments in my career was my first entrepreneurial experience. At the age of 20, while finishing off my final year of university, I made a decision that went against the expectations of others, including my father. Rather than pursuing an internship at a well-known corporate company, I followed my entrepreneurial instincts.
I opened up the first Pop-Up shop in Frankfurt, called Market41. The shop became profitable in less than two weeks, and I still remember this very moment when I paid back the money I have borrowed from my father. This experience has had a profound impact on every role I have taken on and, more importantly, on the decisions I have made throughout my career. It provided me with a clear understanding of my greatest assets and illuminated the types of roles and industries where I can leverage my key strengths.
From that experience, I learned the power of making things happen, looking at risk without having fear, and always finding creative solutions. Most importantly, it taught me the value of perseverance and having the determination to never accept "no" as the final answer. These qualities have become my personal superpowers, guiding me in achieving success and overcoming challenges.
Moving from an entrepreneurial endeavor to Axel Springer, a well-established media company, must have brought new perspectives. How did this transition affect your understanding of corporate culture?
This first "real" corporate experience taught me invaluable lessons in discipline and the importance of stakeholder management. It highlighted the significance of being able to influence others in a corporate setting, as this is often a key factor in achieving success for anyone seeking to thrive in a corporate environment. On a personal level, this experience taught me that my path to success lies in an entrepreneurial environment where my creativity and unwavering dedication to getting things done quickly are not only valued but also nurtured. I realized that I flourish the most when I am in an environment that appreciates and further develops these qualities. Overall, this experience deepened my understanding of the skills and traits necessary for success in the corporate world, and guided me towards a career path that aligns with my entrepreneurial spirit and allows me to maximize my potential.
At the NOAH Conference, you were at the heart of the digital ecosystem, engaging with leaders and innovators. How did your experiences there impact your perspective on talent acquisition and management within the tech sector?
The impact of these experiences extends far beyond talent acquisition and management. Collaborating with digital leaders, entrepreneurs, and early-stage investors has honed my ability to recognize the hallmarks of exceptional talent: dedication and passion. I have witnessed these transformative qualities manifest more clearly and frequently among founders and investors than among talents emerging from corporate backgrounds (in most cases).
In my view, self-improvement is an unending journey, an intrinsic part of the DNA of truly dedicated and passionate entrepreneurs and talents. When evaluating candidates for my clients at Russell Reynolds, I instinctively benchmark them against these principles, knowing that those who embody a relentless drive for growth and personal development are likely to make the greatest impact.
By continually seeking out individuals who exhibit unwavering dedication and a burning passion for their craft, I am able to identify the game-changers, the individuals who possess the rare combination of talent, ambition, and a thirst for continuous improvement. These are the individuals who have the potential to shape the future and drive unprecedented success for themselves and the organizations they serve.
You engaged with numerous startups and innovative technologies as part of Redstone Venture Capital. Could you share how this experience informed your understanding of early-stage companies, and how do you see the role of VC firms evolving in the future?
I share a deep admiration for individuals who possess the willingness to take risks in pursuit of solving potential problems through technology. The early-stage founders and investors I have encountered exhibit a relentless dedication and passion for their endeavors, placing the risks they must undertake in a secondary position. This, to me, exemplifies true entrepreneurship and encompasses some of the most crucial leadership traits to consider when assessing talent as an investor or HR professional.
Even if their investments or ventures do not achieve the status of a resounding success, these entrepreneurial talents view setbacks as valuable learning experiences that inform their future career moves and ventures. They possess a mindset that embraces failure as an opportunity for growth and apply the lessons learned to their next endeavors.
The role of venture capital (VC) firms is continuously evolving, and at RRA, we have observed an increasing trend of VC firms recruiting experienced HR professionals to support their portfolio companies in making critical leadership decisions. The significance of people and leadership culture is now recognized as a core key performance indicator (KPI), no longer relegated to the realm of soft factors. This is particularly evident in founder-led ventures, which often require a different kind of leadership as they undergo critical stages of growth.
Handing over certain responsibilities to external professionals requires a significant level of trust from the founding team. These conversations are frequently part of our work, and when an experienced and respected HR professional is involved in assisting the founding team in building the best possible leadership team, the outcome is typically more sustainable and well thought-out.
Leading the Global Diversity and Inclusion initiative at Henkel, you faced the challenge of implementing DE&I at a multinational level. Could you share some of the challenges you faced and the strategies you found most effective in designing the DE&I strategy?
Before starting the process to design a comprehensive DE&I strategy, it is crucial for key stakeholders to recognize that while there are shared dimensions of DE&I across companies and communities, a customized and tailored approach is necessary to ensure the strategy's success within each unique organization, its employees, and the regions in which it operates.
A pivotal step in this process is gaining a deep understanding of the organization's current standing in relation to the specific DE&I dimensions being prioritized. This often involves meticulous data analysis, such as examining gender representation at various levels and assessing the existing status quo. Additionally, conducting interviews with individuals across all levels of seniority proves invaluable in identifying areas of focus and uncovering the educational needs that will help garner buy-in from all stakeholders.
Central to the success of designing and implementing a DE&I strategy is achieving stakeholder alignment and a clear articulation of the "why" behind the initiative. Each stakeholder group requires a distinct definition of the purpose, which can be challenging to define. Some companies may have investors who demand transparency and specific gender-related KPIs, while others place the utmost importance on their existing and future employees. Establishing this clarity from the outset is of utmost importance.
While the challenges encountered in this process were not overly significant, the task of securing the necessary time to prepare a compelling "why" statement in close collaboration with the entire Management Board proved to be a task itself. However, this was crucial in order to ensure the successful implementation of the DE&I strategy.
Currently, at Russell Reynolds Associates, you are shaping the leadership of many organizations. How have your past experiences influenced your approach to executive search?
To start with, I am immensely grateful for each experience I had so far.
I am convinced, that having worked in companies spanning from 10 to 55.000 FTE multinational public companies (DAX40) gave me a unique opportunity to see a variety of success stories, failures, cultural approaches as well as unique insights on how state-of-the-art leadership can look like.
This breadth of experience has provided me with a unique perspective and a broad horizon from which to approach talent and leadership questions of all kind. It allows me to think about talent and leadership in a way that differs from those who have only been exposed to a single company or industry.
These experiences have nurtured my creativity and in my role at RRA, creativity can be extremely helpful.
A lot of our search work seems straightforward in the beginning of the process as there is a clear role and candidate profile that translates well into a comprehensive search strategy, but this is not always the case. There are instances where a more creative approach is necessary. This involves considering candidates from industries and companies that may not initially seem obvious on paper. However, in reality, these more innovative search strategies can prove immensely valuable.
For example, if a client or portfolio company is undergoing a specific transformation, it may be beneficial to consider candidates from different industries that have already experienced a similar transformation, for example. The talent from these industries may possess the exact experience and expertise that the client is seeking. By thinking outside the box and considering diverse industries, we can uncover unique and highly qualified candidates.
Much of my time is spend working with technology investors, both in private equity (PE) and venture capital (VC), assisting them with crucial leadership decisions and recruitment. In this fast-paced and dynamic space, speed, persistence, and creativity are essential. By leveraging these qualities, we can identify and secure the top talent that will drive success for our clients in the technology sector.
There's an increasing focus on diversity beyond visible traits. How should organizations address the balance between visible diversity and less immediately apparent forms, such as cognitive diversity, socioeconomic background, or hidden disabilities?
Thank you for the insightful question. In my view, the key to accelerating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) within an organization can be summarized in two words: inclusive culture. Prioritizing inclusion is crucial. When a company wholeheartedly commits to being inclusive and implements tools to enhance and measure inclusive leadership, it sets the stage for natural progress in all forms of diversity, both visible and less apparent. Addressing unconscious bias, for example, is a critical component of this process.
I would recommend starting by working with senior leadership to develop inclusive leadership dimensions and principles that will permeate the organization's culture. This approach enables every individual, regardless of their visible or invisible diversity traits, to have equal opportunities for growth and active participation in their career development.
Leaders who aspire to accelerate DE&I should ask themselves if their leadership teams are prepared and equipped to navigate an ever-evolving environment, unleashing, and sustaining the value of DE&I. Organizations that are leading the charge in this area are integrating DE&I as a core value, input, and outcome of their business and talent strategies. They prioritize recruiting leaders who are well-versed in navigating the shifting landscape, attuned to the needs of shareholders and stakeholders, and empowering a diverse workforce.
By fostering an inclusive culture and ensuring that DE&I is integrated into every aspect of the organization, leaders can create an environment where diversity thrives, and the full potential of individuals and the business can be realized.
With the growing use of AI, on some dimensions the human element is dwindling. What is your recommendation for leaders to define a suitable AI strategy?
First, when implementing generative AI it is utterly important to consider its impact on culture, leadership, organization model, organization model, commercial strategy and risk management. I would always recommend starting with the commercial strategy and talent perspective. From a talent perspective, this may lead to resistance towards AI, rather than viewing it as a tool for enablement. As organizations grow increasingly technology-oriented, leaders can cultivate a culture of innovation and transformation by establishing two seemingly conflicting approaches:
A test-and-learn mindset that allows for quick iterations and first-mover advantages
A slower, deliberate approach to integrating AI into existing processes
Both mindsets are crucial as organizations embrace the core tenants of transformation, which include Systems thinking, empathy, curiosity, versatility, adaptability, continuous learning.
Furthermore, it is extremely important to transport the right facts and messaging to the workforce. Germany for example is definitely not at the forefront of understanding that actual value of AI I would say, and some facts speak for themselves.
A recent paper from Google has revealed, that under the right conditions, new AI-based technologies can create economic value of over 330 billion euros for the German economy in the future if they are used by at least half of the companies. That's not just a big number - it's untapped potential that everyone in Germany can benefit from: every sector, every industry, every employee…
In the end, it is all about leadership. Culture and talent strategy is fundamental to an organization’s AI strategy, determining who will lead the transformation and in what way. The most important question for each leadership team is to answer who will be responsible for overseeing and guiding the organization's AI initiatives, and decide whether the existing leadership team is sufficiently tech-savvy to make decisions that will commercialize AI capability and the company’s data assets.
It is my passion to drive systematic change within organizations and develop strategies to cement this change, and therefore I cannot wait for what AI can bring to those who are open to face this disruption and change.