Elena Livshina remembers well the times where she’s been the only female at a table full of senior executives.
“You get goosebumps just thinking about it,” she recalls.
Now, Vice President for the Insulin Growth Portfolio at Novo Nordisk in the United States, Elena is not one to let adversity - much less her gender – stand in her way. No matter where you are, what company you’re in or which table you’re at, she has one piece of advice:
“If you have something to say, make sure you do.”
It may seem like simple advice, but it can be surprisingly hard to do, she explains. Many people, particularly women, tend to hold back their thoughts for fear that they may not be relevant or important. “We’re at the table because what we have to say is important,” exclaims Elena.
A person who has spent her career following her passions, taking risks and daring to dream, Elena is also extremely dedicated to helping the employees she leads do the same. She has found that this can be a particular struggle for females. “I’ve seen numerous examples where an individual’s dream job was right in front of them but, for one reason or another, they were just saying no. I’m not ready. It’s just not me yet.”
Elena has seen the issue from both sides—in the recruitment process and as co-lead and mentor for an employee resource group at Novo Nordisk, Women in Novo Nordisk (WINN). The phenomenon, she explains, seems to intensify as the seniority of the position at hand goes up.
“The further up you go, the more difficult it is to find talented, skilled and ready female talent. The reason behind it is not because they don’t exist but that a lot of them don’t take the opportunities and are not actually seeking the opportunities out, for one reason or another,” Elena explains.
Curbing the problem
Elena is adamant that ensuring the readiness of female leaders comes down to both company policies and individual actions on the part of females.
On one hand, it takes a company-wide dedication to employee development.
“Companies need to systematically open up opportunities to connect, for people to grow and for people to develop - be them male or female,” Elena explains and continues: “Despite the fact that I’m really busy, I will absolutely always find the time to meet with the people on my team and make sure we talk about them, their needs and focus on their personal development. If something I say can help them, that makes me super happy.”
It also requires thorough and open-minded recruitment procedures.
“The more aware people become of biases or discrepancies, the more open they become. Nobody is biased on purpose,” Elena notes and adds: “We’re all biased in one way or another—by our upbringing, family, history, etc., but we have to make sure that we’re interviewing a balanced group of candidates, establishing certain trainings and ensuring that we have checks and balances in place, so we’re as balanced as we possibly can be.”
Ultimately, though, Elena feels the readiness of female leaders rests with having strong individual development plans in place. Elena’s goal for the women she mentors is an ambitious and comprehensive vision of their futures, with just enough flexibility to be achievable.
“I want them to not just think about their next position or next step but also what is going to develop them as individuals and professionals. I want them to be open about their career gaps and build on their own strengths to get to where they want to go. I actually ask them ‘What do you dream about being in 10 years?’ We start big and work backward, to talk about the opportunities that could get them there,” she says.
Practicing what you preach
For Elena, the idea of a development plan is no elusive managerial tactic, it’s something she’s embraced, with much success, in her own professional development.
Every step in her career has been on an unrelenting quest to follow her passion and continue her development. From leaving the finance and banking sector to pursue a new degree in international business to choosing the Novo Nordisk Business Processes Graduate Programme over a senior project manager position at another international organisation, Elena’s focus isn’t just moving up, it’s moving forward.
Elena’s journey, so far, has taken her up through the ranks at Novo Nordisk and to eight different countries. Born in Russia, Elena has also lived in Denmark, Switzerland, the UK, the Czech Republic, Australia, Canada and now, the United States. At the modest ages of three and six, her children already hold three passports a piece, something she notes causes a double take when clearing passport control and makes for a plethora of holidays celebrated in the home. Her favourite of which is International Women’s Day, which in Russia is recognized as a national holiday allowing for a day off of work to celebrate women.
Where will she go next?
“For me, it’s about following my heart and the passion of where I want to be,” Elena explains and continues: “Sometimes this can be scary. You just need to be brave, take a step and see how it goes.”