The importance of empathy and taking risks: an interview with Comarch’s Country Manager in Italy
"My goal as a team leader is to bring out the best in my team and make sure they reach their full potential". Kamila Niekraszewicz talks about her leadership style, what brought her to Italy, and why taking small risks when following one’s passion pays high dividends.
Kamila Niekraszewicz is Comarch’s Country Manager in Italy. She’s been with Comarch for over 10 years now, building her way up the career ladder and learning a bunch of different skills along the way. She started out as a tester, and worked in R&D and system architecture. The experience she gained over the years, as well as the willingness to take some risks along the way, have led her to head Comarch’s team in Italy.
Kamila told us about her leadership style, the challenges she and her team face in the Italian market, what she looks for in new team members, and why empathy is a key tool on her belt.
How did your adventure with Comarch begin? Did you always know you wanted a career in IT?
Working in IT has been my dream for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been passionate about new technologies. I studied maths at university and quickly realized that the most interesting courses I attended were the ones related to IT. After graduating in mathematics, I majored in IT. I landed my first job in accounting however, and it’s no surprise that I realised pretty quickly that’s not what I wanted to do for the rest of my career. In 2008, I applied for a job in Comarch that paid less than what I was earning in accounting at the time. When I was offered the job, I also had to give up the company car but I never hesitated, knowing I was doing the right thing in the long run.
I started in Comarch as a junior tester of EDI (electronic data interchange) systems. I later got a team leader position in the testing department and was eventually assigned my first R&D project on SFA (sales force automation) mobile systems. I remember I was thrilled at the opportunity! We’re talking way back when mobile apps were in their infancy and the Android system was relatively unknown. My small, inexperienced, yet highly motivated team managed to create an SFA solution for Android within 6 months: it was a huge success. The SFA system we created back in 2010 is still running, Comarch clients use it to this day. The success of this assignment made my move to R&D permanent. Until I mentioned my ambition to travel more to one of Comarch’s Vice Presidents, that is. To my surprise, I was quickly offered a business trip abroad to give my career in Comarch an international spin. The fact that my ambitions were not only recognised but encouraged by Comarch’s leadership is something I am really grateful for.
I started working for Comarch in Italy as a consultant, and was promoted to Country Manager shortly after. Looking back, my advice for anyone at the beginning of their career or looking into a career shift is that knowing what you want, working hard to reach your goals and taking risks when necessary really do go a long way. My first job in accounting was stable and well-paid. I felt rewarded for my work but out-of-place. I gave that job up to join Comarch and build a career in IT, and never looked back on that decision.
Also, no one’s born a leader, or becomes one over night: for me, it was important to show my peers and the Comarch leadership I was responsible and engaged, and willing to take up progressively more responsibilities. What I like most about working in Comarch is that each and everyone’s work is noticed and rewarded with opportunities for growth, whether you are junior or senior, have just joined or have been in the company for years.
Upon agreeing to move to Italy, did you know anything about the country?
Italy was not completely new to me. My boyfriend at the time was studying in Pisa, Tuscany, and I would visit him often. I dreamed about moving to Italy: I loved the climate, history, art, food and wine. At the same time, I spoke no Italian and was not familiar with the Italian IT market at all. Moving to Italy was yet another risk I took. I did struggle a little at the beginning: the local bureaucracy was particularly cumbersome and the fact that I didn’t speak Italian didn’t help either.
What is your team’s focus at the moment? Can you name some of your most recent achievements?
We currently work in four areas: eHealth, Services, Telecommunications, and IoT.
The 2020 pandemic has put telemedicine and its potential in the spotlight, so e-health is our main focus area at the moment. We recently launched a partnership with Win 3, Italy’s biggest Italian telecommunication operator, to promote our telemedicine solutions. Comarch e-health systems have also been adopted by one of Italy’s most prestigious hospitals, Centro Cardiologico Monzino.
On the Services front, our EDI solutions have also proved very successful in the Italian market: among our clients are luxury hotels (Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental The Hotel Group, Belmond's Hotel) as well as big retail chains such as Kasanova and Auchan, and manufacturers like FILA, Italcementi, Sammontana and Monini, all very prominent brands in Italy.
The key to success has always been teamwork between our consultants, project managers and sales specialists, each an expert in their own field.
Last but not least, we recently won a multi-million bid for an M2M platform for Olivetti, owned by TIM, the leading telecommunication group in Italy.
We are also working hard to promote Comarch’s IoT products. Some of our most important projects in that area include smart lighting installations in La Scala theatre, in cooperation with utilities provider Edison, as well as a smart city project for Barilla.
Where do you place your bets when building a team: hard skills or talent and willingness to learn? What do you look for in potential new team members?
Knowing how to build a great team is key for a team leader. As Steve Jobs once said, "great things in business are never done by one person; they're done by a team of people".
When selecting new team members I pay close attention to their personality, as well as how they approach the various steps of the recruitment process. I also think a cultural match, i.e. candidates who would naturally get along with the existing team, is key.
The recruitment process in Comarch Italy consists of several steps: candidates are given specific tasks, which allows us to evaluate not just their hard skills but also their level of engagement, responsibility and flexibility, and see how fast they learn. We’ve seen all sorts of responses to this approach: some candidates improvise, while others prefer to come thoroughly prepared. Though the recruitment process might seem rather long, I find it’s very effective and helps me add diverse yet complementary skills to my team.
Curiosity and hard work are the qualities I value the most in candidates and team members: I believe these are indispensable for success. If you are curious and unafraid to get on a learning curve, you’ll find Comarch a perfect place to work and build a career in. There is lots to learn here and so many interesting people to meet.
I also value the ability to solve problems and overcome hurdles. Knowing how to face challenges with a positive attitude is tremendously important. Here in Italy, things are not always easy on our team: we are far from Comarch’s headquarters, and still perceived as a startup by the local market: we need to constantly up our game and find the right solutions to our challenges, rather than counting on others to step in for us.
What can a multinational company like Comarch do to make it easier for teams to work together?
This is a tough question, and one I’m grappling with myself. I think it’s crucial to stay in touch with your team, always leave the door open and listen to co-workers’ challenges and ideas. Each team member is unique, and I think a key leadership skill is to recognise and leverage those unique qualities. Sharing knowledge, promoting best practices and listening are also paramount: I always offer to help solve problems together with my team, and make sure to be always available if issues arise.
The lockdown period was very hard for us: being a tight-knit team, we were used to seeing each other every day and chat over coffee. The sudden shift to remote work challenged the team’s unity. I introduced daily scrum meetings to try and make up for lost time together: each morning, we would share information on how each project was advancing, discuss problems and cheer every milestone and success. This was a little time-consuming, but it did go a long way toward keep us together.
A team’s success depends on its leader: which qualities in a leader do you think bring people closer, and which scare them away?
First and foremost, I think one needs to be a good listener. Empathy is absolutely fundamental: not only listening to your teams’ ideas but also supporting their execution is crucial. By contrast, forgetting to give people credit for their work, or trying to sell their ideas as your own are the perfect recipe to scare them away. My goal as a team leader is to bring out the best in my team, make sure they reach their full potential and shine.
Trust and transparency are also essential in a team. As much as I value new ideas, being a team leader means having to say no sometimes, or having to prioritise. This can be hard, and I think being honest and explaining the reasons behind a decision is crucial. As a team leader, I learn from my team as much as they learn from me, and I am grateful for that feedback.
What is decisive for a team's success IYO?
Believing in what you do, working together as a team, and sharing both failure and success is crucial. I’m a fan of deadlines (they help everything stay on track) and I value team members who show commitment and accountability for what they do. For a team leader, making the effort and taking the time to understand each team member’s strengths and weaknesses can lead to extraordinary results. To quote Phil Jackson, “the strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team”.
How did the pandemic affect your leadership style? And how will it continue to evolve?
Without the slightest doubt, the pandemic has changed not only the way we work but our very lives in so many ways. One lesson I learned is to trust my team more: remote work has definitely accelerated that. One’s leadership style evolves constantly, but to be honest I think most of it depends on the team itself. A young, inexperienced team building its skills can’t be compared to a team of veterans. I think the pandemic has mostly influenced the way teams communicate and interact. Here in the Italian office, we have implemented a hybrid model that combines 2 days in the office with 3 days of remote work a week. I feel this approach provides great balance between having a strong company culture, keeping that tight-knit feeling, and knowing that we can achieve our goals whilst working remotely.
The European Commission’s 2021 Women in Digital Scoreboard highlights that a significant gender gap still exists in specialist digital skills. Did you experience this gap first-hand?
The data is certainly worrying, and I look forward to seeing progressively more balance in our industry. In my experience, I must say I have seen many things change for the better over the years, which is an encouraging sign. I remember receiving a dinner invite shortly after my appointment as Italian Country Manager. When I got to the venue, I quickly realised all guests were men: I was the only woman at the table. At the time, I was very new to Italy and I knew none of the guests, nor did they know who I was. As I strived to make conversation and break the ice, one of the guests asked me to take his empty glass, assuming I was a catering person. I did not let that bring me down, and answered “no problem, and I am so pleased to meet you”. A business conversation ensued and I was finally able to break the ice. Much has changed since that dinner, however some prejudices are hard to shake off. I find that, as a woman, my skills and experience were not enough: I had to prove that I knew what I was talking about to be treated as equal by men.
Do you enjoy your new life in Italy?
Life in Italy is good. Though I miss Poland, my heart is here now, so much so that my daughter was born in Italy. I sometimes have to deal with some cumbersome red tape I wasn’t used to before, but the country’s wonderful history, art, and cultural diversity more than compensates for that, not to mention the delicious food and wine.
Each Italian region is great, I wouldn’t be able to choose my favourite one. The one place I love the most, however, is Rome: the most beautiful and mysterious Italian city. I’ve been there thousands of times, including on business trips. Even when I don’t have time for sightseeing I am happy to just go and be there: enjoying my morning cappuccino surrounded by all the famous monuments is more than enough.