Romania – a path to personal development

I came to Romania in 1977 already, my parents decided to go for unusual winter sport locations and so we found ourselves in a Tarom flight to Bucharest. At that time I was only 14 and have never been so far into Eastern Europe before.

What a strange moment when we arrived at the airport, soldiers everywhere, I understood that this is not Austria or Germany here. After a night in a big communist hotel we left for Poiana Brasov by bus and I only remember how dark everything was looking through the windows. The holidays where great in terms of snow, hospitality and human relations. I learned to ski and owe this to the excellent ski teachers there. At that time, I could not know that I will touch ground with this country again.

26 years later, in 2003, I had the next encounter with Romania. I was offered a management position in a German publishing house in Bucharest. In my previous activities, I already spent 11 years in France, some years in Germany and one year in Serbia. Of course I was dreaming of Paris, Madrid or London and than a place was available here. I was not excited to be honest, I feared to be too much detached from the head office and to be finally forgotten. Eastern Europe was not supposed to be a glorious location, still it was the only region in Europe where growth was to be expected. So Romania was not a deliberate choice, at least not from me....I remember my farewell party in Germany, where people wished me luck and asked me if I would need a bodyguard down there...Still until recently, visitors and friends where feeling uneasy about a trip to Romania but then lost all their fears once they discovered the real Romania.

During the first days when I started my job as General Manager, I was somewhat lost, I stayed in a hotel on calea victorie, thinking about what to do, how to find my place here and also what to do with the fragile company in a fragile market I was supposed to turn around. I was wondering, if it was the right decision to come down to this place. I was thinking of all my friends in comfortable positions in Germany.

In the beginning of my assignment, I travelled regularly between Munich and Bucharest, enjoying both worlds in parallel. Later on, traveling to home became more rare and I felt more and more at home here.

My new collaborators in the company were friendly, still they were waiting now for concrete signs to move forward. I did not have much time. The first days and weeks I spent on understanding what the business is, the players and also what to do next in terms of operational decisions. I started to build up a network, went to all events I was invited to and presented myself everywhere. My initial fear of not seeing where the road would lead me to faded away and made space for curiosity and a refreshing spirit of initiative. I felt like new born, able to do nearly anything.

In that line of thought, in the summer of 2003 I started to realize the charm of this new assignment, develop, restructure, launch new magazines, buying a local publishing house and integrating it in ours. Only after some weeks we started to create an initiative with the publishers to negotiate with the Government for a reduction of VAT for print products, which was normal in other countries around us. I felt an incredible energy and the freedom to do things right now without obstacles and limits put on you by the corporate rules of the head office.

During that time I discovered the people in Romania more and more, their history and sufferings during the revolution. One collaborator explained his experience with food shortages and long queues to wait for basic food. I only knew from stories I have heard from my parents after World War 2. I also became aware what it means to have a good health insurance. In this country you should not get seriously ill, so called VIP’s fly out to Austrian or German hospitals when they have something, that gives you an idea how much they trust their domestic system! I was shocked to see so many old people in the street begging for money to buy medicine. Once I bought a “rolator” for an old man in the streets of Bucharest in Germany and gave it to him so he could walk around better on wheels. It was a pleasure to see how sometimes little things can make people so happy.

I became more and more acquainted with my team in the company and appreciated them for their openness and also their commitment. Some of them even spoke German which made communication and socializing easy. I understood also the incredible motivation people have here once they trust you and know you are going forward in a good direction. Of course I was chocked a little about the simplicity of life, especially in the office, no luxury like I was used to from Germany, an old hangar, dogs running around everywhere and very modest facilities.

In the first 2 years after arriving, I was still a little careful travelling in the country and moving around in the city, two times I was attacked by Gipsies in the street but somehow managed to get away. I was „on the move“ permanently, gliding from one challenge to the other. Also traveling in the country became more frequent. I wanted to see how things are outside of Bucharest, I visited clients, readers and cities, tourist attractions. I also realized the enormous discrepancy between Bucharest and the „rest“ of the country. Also mentalities were not the same in different places, somewhere closer to me than others.

What a great time it was, during these first years, I had the freedom to develop, to „do my own thing“ even if it was in a given frame from the company.

In the mean time I met a lot of interesting people, Romanians and International Managers like me. We were exchanging experience, helping each other, it was more like a family. This was a great feeling, a feeling of belonging and solidarity, which I have not felt that intensely in Germany.

After 2009, the crises also hit the publishing market very hard and I decided to give my career a new orientation. I thought a long time, shall I leave Romania, shall I not? Shall I stay in the same sector or not? I had seen so many things about people and basic needs the last years, this has clearly marked me. In the end, I opted in favor of my present host country, I felt comfortable here and first of all, useful. I realized that with my experience, I could do more good here than „back home“. Still the transition was hard from a well protected “expatriate status” to a local one. I was now on my own, forced to take care of everything myself. I had tough weeks and months thinking what would be the right thing for me to do. This was the time when I started to look inside of me, I now wanted to find the “real thing”, an activity that really motivates me from inside.

Now, my activity is much more centered around individuals, Top Managers, and it is much more discrete than before. Instead of looking for fame and recognition outside, I am now more focusing on my inner happiness and on what I can do for others.

Since 2 years, I am working with Stein & Partner, a leading Executive Search Company in the region, and enjoy it a lot. Besides the placement of Top Managers we also coach Executives to help them when they go through change processes, when they want to develop their personality and skills or just to assist them in important decisions and widen their perspective. What I nice feeling this is to “open up people” and to be able to participate a little in their personal development.

Bucharest is certainly not the most beautiful city in Europe. There is still a lot to be done. On the other hand, the city has something, it is chaotic, creative, a little decadent, I would guess, a good mixture between Paris, Berlin and Buenos Aires. Bucharest does not impose you a certain style like other big cities. The Bucharest society is not so segmented yet, groups are still quiet fluid and accessible. You feel free to move and to go wherever you want, there are always surprises waiting for you....In this city, I met artists, interesting spiritual people, business people, in short, very unconventional profiles.

In the morning, I usually take time, have a coffee around the corner before going to the office. Our profession has it that we are not so much bound to strict office hours but more following our projects. My life style here reminds me a bit of the time I was living in Paris for four years, mainly as a student.

In recent times I discovered the metro which I now take every morning. This is probably one of the most underestimated elements in Bucharest traffic. Every day in my work, I find an interesting cocktail of languages that is permanently „consumed“. In the cafe and in public places it is mostly Romanian, in the office German and English, with friends also French. I think this is a good ingredient to keep you alive and open, your brain has to work permanently.

Today, after nearly 9 years in Romania, I can say that the country gave me a lot, gave me interesting playgrounds to develop my personality, helped me to put things in perspective and not to loose ground with reality. Knowing more realities of life gives you not only the freedom to decide where you feel more at home, it also helps you not to be too easily conditioned by the environment, the society, advertising, friends, families and the like. Every time I am flying to Germany now, after 2 to 3 days I intuitively feel the temptations of conditioning you are exposed to. People, the media, advertising is telling you what to do, what not to do, what to buy, not to buy, what to be afraid of, how to be a ‘good’ citizen, what it means to be a “good” husband or wife, etc. The more we understand to identify these layers of conditioning, the more we learn how to be really more free thinkers and feel ourselves what is right for us!

Romania also made me aware about what basic needs are, how important human relationships are. In Germany and other countries of the like, we are more and more pushed into an efficiency driven mentality, everything we do must pay off, material things dominate. Here, there are more basic material problems how to survive, which is different. Still it helps you to filter out, what is really important and what is fake and artificial in your needs. In Romania, nevertheless, relationships are still more important, not only to profit from, but also to share, to celebrate and to be solidary. You can say what you want, Romanians, are generally nice and open minded people, they are spontaneous and like to be emotional. In the office very often, people “touch each other” as a sign of sympathy and friendship. Women caress each other, take their hands and hair, it is nothing unusual. In Germany this would look strange, people prefer to take a distance, at least at work, with the exception of Carnaval and the Oktoberfest of course, during this time, everything is allowed.

They also have an inborn purity, which makes me humble. When I talk to taxi drivers, older and younger people, many of them have kept their curiosity. They open up quickly, especially if you face them with deep respect for their person, not for their position in hierarchy. Especially the young folks like to learn, also from us, the foreigners, they do not filter out things so quickly. Their ‘ego’ is not so strong yet. From time to time, I do teaching at the university, I am all the time impressed by the openness of the students, also to think differently. It is easier here to excite people to share emotions. Once we organized a digital birthday greeting for our Director Eastern Europe in Germany. The whole company worked with excitement on this projects, brilliant ideas came up, we ended up filming our office with our stuff, cheering for the Director. I think that our “performance” was outstanding and by far the most dynamic from all the contributions handed in by our colleagues from other countries.

I have met people here that have enriched me enormously. I think it is a rewarding challenge to introduce a bit of efficiency in a relationship driven world with human warmth! I do believe that this is a major motivating factor for many expatriates who want to stay. This kind of bridge building between two worlds is also a major driver of sense. Isn’t that nice to see business activity in that perspective?

It is also true, there are little surprises in every day life, nothing is static. Mostly it comes over you when you are just enjoying life…. Either there is a water cut, a humid wall after heavy snowfalls, a client who goes bankrupt and cannot pay, a new law which entails tax increases overnight, a loyal collaborator quits the job and leaves within a week, a gas tube broke in front of your house, a nail in the tyre because of garbage lying around, all of a sudden, the landlord wants you to leave your nice apartment in 1 week, etc. Life is not too much predictable here, not like in Germany. There is also a nonchalance to go over these things, to accept them and not to take things so seriously. Isn’t that a deep spiritual principle that we discover here? Perfectionism does not exist, it is just an illusion of the mind and creates stress, the more you are aware of that, the more you are also detached. It is true that all this can happen, but it is also true that if there is a water leakage and your neighbor under you comes up to inform you, he does that humanly, he is not coming with a lawyer and threatening you of a trial and payment of damages like in Germany. Indead, everything is more fluent and more flexible, even if you have to pay your rent late. Usually people find a way, they get along.

Destiny brought me here, again. That means that I have something to do here, I think I more and more understand what it is.....Thanks to Romania, I discovered myself and what I was capable of doing. Travelling is indeed an important element of personal development, it is a means of discovering new things, comparing, enriching yourself. In fact, travelling is one way to find your real self…

Source: English version from Michael Schroeders' contribution to the the Romanian book: Mai români decât românii? Polirom, Bucharest 2013

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