By Kathryn Nenning
To meet Anita Kirilova is to encounter a force of positivity, energy, enthusiasm and belief in boundless possibilities. She has a broad smile, upright posture, and gives you the feeling you are the only person in the room. Anita has used this attitude and energy her whole life to achieve every goal she has set for herself. She has empowered herself to overcome challenges and obstacles, to keep going when things get tough, and equally important, she regularly empowers others so they, too, can reach their goals.
Empowerment was PWN Vienna’s theme in November, and our event with Anita Kirilova, who is the embodiment of how empowerment works and what it can help you achieve, was the highlight. Joy Medos, a President of PWN Vienna, interviewed her for our ‘Leadership Needs Women’ series. The lively discussion took us from Anita’s initial reluctance to enter sales to her achieving the highest levels of leadership in an industry where few women reach these ranks. Most of all, she shared with us her wisdom.
Anita began her career in the wholesale food industry, selling croissants to bakeries. According to her, they were bad croissants; croissants that weren’t half as good as the competition’s, and after one week on the job she was completely desolate. But bad croissants were no obstacle for someone with Anita’s determination. She saw that, for a bakery owner, her company’s croissants were better than no croissants, so she focused on what she could do – and that was guarantee that the bakeries would never have a gap in their supply. Instead of being discouraged, she found where her companies’ strengths lay, and used them to achieve success.
Given this determination, it will come as no surprise that by the age of 29 Anita was responsible for a workforce of 500 people, achieved promotion after promotion to positions of increasing leadership responsibility, won “Best Woman Sales Director Europe 2015‘, and is currently Distribution Head of MetLife Bulgaria, a worldwide life insurance and employee benefits provider, responsible for 100 % of the country’s revenue. She has also earned two master's degrees, all while raising her daughter.
During her talk with Joy, which felt much more like watching two friends sitting in a living room having a conversation than a formal interview, Anita gave us other examples of how to turn any difficult situation around to make yourself feel powerful and in control.
One of the most heartbreaking, but memorable, of these examples occurred during the financial crisis of 2008. Anita’s daughter was in elementary school at the time, and the winter after the crisis was quite rainy. When Anita went to pick her up, she would use an umbrella that had the logo of the company she worked for on it – AIG, a large insurance company. This umbrella made her an unwittingly magnet for peoples’ worries. Seeing it, person after person approached her and asked her if their life savings were going to disappear because of AIG’s irresponsible management.
Anita had the choice of getting a new umbrella and avoiding the questions, or continuing to use it. She continued to use it. She did this for several reason – because she felt a responsibility to the people who had placed their trust in her company, even if they were not personal customers of hers; because she believes that when there are problems, taking action is the best approach; and most of all, because, even thought she was terrified of what might happen to the people who had placed their trust and their life savings in her company, she believes in running towards fear, not away from it. Anita has a lot of faith – she believes that everything will end well – if things are bad at the moment, that simply means things are not yet over.
Where did this strength to endure the difficult and uncomfortable times come from, and what will its legacy be? Anita’s says she draws strength from her three core beliefs: the necessity of role models, lifelong learning, and paying it forward. Both Anita’s mother and grandmother were incredible role models. Her mother was the CFO of the largest Chemical Company in Bulgaria, and managed to balanced work and family beautifully. Seeing how her mother did this gives her the courage and determination that has carried her through difficult times.
I draw strength from three core beliefs: the necessity of role models, lifelong learning, and paying it forward. Anita Kirilova
Just as her mother and grandmother did, Anita wants to pass on everything she has learned to her daughter, and also her work colleagues. She spoke of empowerment as being a key ingredient in true leadership, and necessary for the success of the members of the teams she leads. She believes not in trying to control others, but in giving them clear instructions, then stepping back to let them do the job themselves – and even to make mistakes – while always letting them know she is there to offer help and support.
Empowering others also means listening to them, respecting that everybody is different, and valuing their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses. She found that her team needs to feel like they can give her feedback. Her belief that she isn’t perfect, and that it is okay to make mistakes, makes this easy for them, creating a culture of openness and free exchange of ideas and opinions. And, by reading the chat comments posted by members of her team on the event Zoom call, it was clear that her team felt she was a fabulous leader, and she that she was carrying on the legacy started by grandmother.
This brings us to her final words of wisdom. Here is the parting advice Anita gave us:
You cannot succeed alone -– collaborate with others and learn from them
Ask for help when you need it – this is not a weakness but a strength
Help others - pass on everything you know - pay it forward!
Forget trying to be perfect, it will just hold you back – be real and be bold, and yes, make mistakes!
Always keep moving – make mistakes, but take action and keep moving forward
For many of us, this additional advice gave us solace and relief: you don’t have to be perfect, and in fact, trying to be perfect is counter-productive and exhausting. Spend you time focusing on the work at hand, moving forward, and empowering yourself to do what you believe is necessary to get the job done.
Joy’s engaging style and the sometimes surprising intimacy of Zoom gave everyone who attended the call the feeling of sitting together by a warm fire, opening up the opportunity for sharing. Joy revealed that her original ambition was to be a journalist, and was delighted when someone said they enjoyed the conversation so much that they wanted her and Anita to start a podcast!
Thank you again, Anita – you have empowered us, and nothing can stop us now!