My recipe for a balanced life? A good mix of challenge and close relations, spiced up with some sport − interview with Katarzyna Szemro

Eager to face still new challenges, constantly setting herself goals, supportive and always ready to encourage people to find their ways. She prefers a triathlon to a marathon. And she believes one day she’ll put into action all the great ideas and plans that come to hear mind. Katarzyna Szemro, Marketing Director at Goyello.

Kasia, I usually start the conversation with the question of how the interviewee joined the company. I cannot ask you this, however.  Your husband, Peter Horsten, is the co-founder of Goyello. So you have been with Goyello from the beginning. What made you leave such a safe country as the Netherlands and start your own business in Poland, known to be rather unfriendly to entrepreneurs?

Well, it’s a complex issue but the major reason why we decided to move was our need for changes. We became quite settled in the Netherlands and things seemed a bit too normal, I would say. I’m not saying it was quiet, as we lived active lives, both private and professional. We had a feeling, however, that we needed new challenges and wanted to have an influence on what was going on around us. We couldn’t or didn’t want to develop any further at the companies we worked for. I was in sales for instance, but didn’t want to become a sales manager. I was much more into marketing but I didn’t want to work for a big corporation. That’s why changes were inevitable.

Was it you that took the final decision?

Most people think I was the one willing to go back to Poland. In fact, it was Peter’s initiative. One day he simply said: „And what if we moved to Poland…?” We had been considering going to Poland for a couple of years, so that Peter could learn some Polish, among other reasons. The suggestion, spoken out loud, made the idea evolve in our heads. And when an idea starts evolving, new opportunities arise. You suddenly notice things you haven’t seen before.

What opportunities opened up for you?

There were a number of them, but let’s take for instance our house. Our neighbours’ property wouldn’t sell for months. Ours was exactly the same. We managed to sell it very quickly after it was put up for sale and we could set off for Poland.

In the meantime, Peter and his business partner Arie de Bruin came up with an idea for a new business. The company was to address the needs of the Dutch market. In the Netherlands there weren’t many good developers at that time and the few available were simply too expensive. In contrast, there were plenty of great developers in Poland. Developing a new business, especially an international one, is a time-consuming process. For me it was a great opportunity to work in a number of various fields, such as marketing, law, finance and recruitment.

Didn’t you have any doubts? Any second thoughts at all?

Both Peter and I are eager to face challenges. Even if it means times will be tough for a while.

An American marketing guru, Jack Trout, said “Differentiate or die”, which means that a brand has to distinguish itself from the competition to succeed. What made your newly founded company stand out in the market?

Goyello was supposed to be a company delivering high-quality IT services at a reasonable price to Dutch clients. As an employer, we knew from the beginning we were going to take a completely different attitude towards employees and that we were going to be a flat organisation, which was quite easy then (laughing). We adopted a partnership approach, both to employees and clients. Today, we still favour it. We were one of the first companies of that kind and size in the Tricity market, developed with own effort and funds, that’s for sure.

Today, 9 years on, can you say the approach you adopted then was the right one?

I’m fully convinced an open corporate culture gives you substantial benefits. The beginnings were tough, though. Neither our employees, nor our clients were ready to accept it. Some people found it difficult to start an open conversation with a person holding a higher position on the corporate ladder. People were afraid of the consequences of such a behaviour and couldn’t believe they could talk to their managers on equal terms. Fortunately, things have changed since then and today I’m truly convinced that holding onto certain values, such as partnership and openness, brings about good results.

If a person hears the name Goyello today, they think: “Ah, right, the company that…”. What follows the word „that” in this sentence?

Our aim is to let people and businesses profit from IT. To achieve that we put people and their needs central. We are known for high-quality software development. That is one thing, a result actually. The point is to find out what kind of solution a client actually needs and why. Having done a bit of a research on that you can come to surprising conclusions, e.g. that in fact they need something completely different. I hope that’s how our clients perceive us − as a supportive and innovative business partner.

As for our image as an employer, we often hear opinions that Goyello is a company where you can develop professionally and work in a good atmosphere. And I know that people don’t mean games and stuff like that. They rather mean there is a kind of power here, able to bring everyone together and push the organisation and themselves forward.

Do other companies try to follow your example as regards management methods?

The conclusion that they follow our example may be a bit far-fetched but the fact is that more and more companies do adopt similar attitude. However, not all of them succeed. That’s because it is important to be deeply convinced about everything you do. Just like we are. The way we work and manage the company is in line with the way we actually live and values we hold onto. For instance, on our website you can find information that high quality and knowledge sharing are issues we find important. And those are not just words. That’s the way we really are, think and act.

Goyello promotes sports activities very much. The team members have plenty of options – matches, workouts, regular competitions with prizes. You are known to be an active person, keen on different sports. Was it your idea to make Goyello a sports-loving team?

Both Peter and I like sports, which makes us much more willing to promote sports activities at Goyello. But the idea was neither mine, nor Peter’s. No member of the management team was responsible for that, actually. It was at our former office that we once heard from our employees that they wanted to do some sports together. It was indoor soccer and two guys got injured during the first match. Despite that, we decided to support the idea.

Today, we can do much more, also as regards money, to provide our employees with nice opportunities. There are more of us at Goyello as well, so it is easier to gather a team of people sharing the same interests. As a member of the Management Team, I feel I should be the one to encourage them to adopt a healthy lifestyle. We even started an initiative called Goyello Power Club. The Club offers all kinds of activities that are related to healthy living.

Is this issue particularly important in IT?

The fact is that programmers work in a sitting position. That is why it is highly recommended that they regularly do some physical activity. In the past, the majority of our employees were young students so the idea of “a sound mind in a sound body” was not a very popular one. Today, the average age of Goyello team members has risen. They are more likely to adopt a different way of thinking, partly due to their current personal situation or, sad as it might be, some health problems. My mission is to prevent those problems and encourage them to live healthy lives. Regular physical workout and healthy lifestyle make you feel good but you also work more effectively, which I know from my own experience. So, Goyello creates some opportunities. We encourage our employees to consider them. But the decision whether to take them or not is always theirs.

Let’s talk about the role sport plays in your life. In October you ran a half marathon, 21.0975 kilometres. Your finishing time was great − less than 2 hours. Recently, you have also taken part in a triathlon. What does sport mean to you? Is it a pleasure? A passion? An opportunity to prove that if only you want and try hard, you can achieve a lot?

stezyca18-2015-00595I don’t think sport is my passion, but I’m sure it’s an important part of my life. Regular exercise makes me feel and function so much better.

I started playing sports when I was at the university. Before that, at school, I was strongly discouraged by the Physical Education classes. Despite that, I used to go running in the forest even then. So my body might have already been craving for sports.

Today I know that doing sports is a perfect way to spend quality time with your family, friends and colleagues. My three sons like taking part in sports activities very much. Thanks to that even when children grow up and don’t want to share with you as much as they used to, you can still have great time together.

 

There are theories that doing business is very much like playing sports. They tell you how to use sportspeople’s experience to be successful in your professional life. Passion, perseverance, regular exercise, fixed rules… Can you say this approach is something you also follow?

I‘m the kind of person who sets goals and tests herself, both in the professional life and in sports. I’d rather have a clear aim and know I’m making the effort to achieve that aim. It’s like the half marathon you’ve mentioned. I’d rather do some workout knowing that’s because I’m getting ready for the run than work out for the sake of the workout itself.

In sport things sometimes don’t go as planned. There are injuries, ailments, limitations… Do you think difficult experience in sport lets you learn how to overcome problems in your everyday life?

This may sound strange, but I have never had any serious sports injuries, mainly because I do my best to prevent them. However, different things may happen in your life and you are not able to have full control. The rule I stick to is that when something bad happens you should not contemplate it too long. Instead, you should act.

You can have a sports injury and stagger ever since, just because you did nothing about it. But you can also go to the doctor’s, hire a personal trainer and finally get well. The most important thing is to stand up and face the problem.

Motivation is important in sports. Just like at work. In the IT industry employees are offered certain benefits. Most of them are similar and quite predictable. It is hard to imagine they can be motivators. What, in your opinion, really motivates people to work?

Well, it seems it’s a topic we could start a separate conversation about. In my opinion, people are mainly self-motivated, to work and to all other things in their lives. I don’t believe external factors, like money, are the best motivators. Sure you need money to be able to live at a certain level. One day however, you realize they don’t matter that much. Other things are more important. Like happiness, for example. Everyone wants to be happy in the end. And happiness doesn’t come as a result of a large amount of money that you possess.

Speaking of motivation, it also depends very much on the people around you – whether they share your passions and are driven by the same forces.

It’s like the game we developed for the Future3 job fair. The team members got extra money for their work but I know it wasn’t the main reason why they wanted to take part in the project.

You have three kids, you run the department, you run the house, you regularly do sports. You surely find time for other activities as well, such as meetings with friends, etc. I don’t want this to sound trivial but for many women you may be a bit of a heroic figure. What’s your perfect time management secret?

It’s not the matter of heroism. The way I am has much more to do with ambition and certain individual features. I sometimes would like to have a day or a week off and I can appreciate such leisure time. But if it lasts more than a week I start to feel anxious. And that’s the time when new plans and ideas are born in my head.

I like to do many things simultaneously, to a certain extent of course. My whole life I’ve been seeking work-life balance and in my case work and private matters particularly intermingle. I know that I will never find ideal balance between these two areas of life.

There is a rule that turns out to be very true in my case ­− the more tasks you need to deal with, the more time you seem to have. If I have too few things to manage, I’m not effective at all. So, my motto is “live intensely and do plenty of things” (laughing).

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Do you try to promote your time management methods among your team? Are you successful in your attempts?

Everyone of us functions differently. That is why I only watch, listen and ask questions. By doing so, I’m trying to encourage people to find their own ways. I want them to be able to test certain methods and find out whether or not they work for them.

I like to know that the fact that someone had an opportunity to talk to me let them reach a higher level or move forward.

Paweł Bejger, who I talked to previously, said that he’d rather have goals than dreams. And what about you? Do you pursue goals or make your dreams come true? Or perhaps having one thing doesn’t mean you cannot have the other?

I’m not as strict as Paweł in separating these two issues. A number of different ideas come to my mind and I know I would like to make them reality one day. I think about them but do nothing in particular. Then suddenly something stimulates them to evolve and I say: “OK, the time has come to do something about it.”

It’s just like that Italian course I started in the secondary school. I wasn’t motivated enough to learn the language. I didn’t have an opportunity to go to Italy so I gave it all up. Today, we travel to Italy more often so I started to learn Italian again. And my most recent idea is to go cross-country skiing in Scandinavia. When will I make it reality? I don’t really know, but I’m sure one day I will.

What are your plans, goals and dreams for the nearest feature?

My family is very important to me so my major goal and dream is that my kids grow up to become great adults.

As for career, I would like to start a professional training to become a coach. I don’t know when I will start it as it is a time-consuming thing and it requires plenty of attention.

And as for sports – a marathon?

Next year I’m might be taking part in the one fourth of the Ironman triathlon. So I will do twice as much as I did this year. Will I run a marathon? Well, I don’t really know. To tell you the truth, it seems long and tiresome. A triathlon is more my style – three disciplines, transitions and varied workouts.

So, no matter which one you will choose – the Ironman or a marathon – I keep my fingers crossed for great results!

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