Role models

Perks of giving up careful career planning

Nina Kowalewska-Motlik launched and managed Harlequin Books in Poland in the early 90s. This turned out to be such a successful venture that the Harvard Business School published a case study about the company. After publishing Harlequin novels, Nina managed the Young & Rubicam Poland ad agency. Since 2001, she has been running the marketing firm New Communications, which represents such media as the Financial Times, the Gruener + Jahr Group, CNN and The Economist. Currently, she also has her own perfume brand.

W Insight sat down with Nina, as she explained why not planning too much is the way to go. She also talked about Harlequin. Well, mainly about Harlequin. 

Joanna Socha: I’ve recently watched the 2008 JK Rowling commencement speech at Harvard University, which I interpreted: the biggest failure is the fear of failure. And when I’ve read about you, and all the bold moves you took in your career, it seems like you’ve never feared failure.

Nina Kowalewska-Motlik: It’s not that I’ve never feared any failure, but there are two types of fear. The fear that paralyzes you and the fear that pushes you forward. So my fear was the adrenaline that made me go on. What also helped me, paradoxically was a very low knowledge about what I was planning to do. So when I became the president of Harlequin Books, I knew nothing about publishing or romance fiction. I had no fear because I had no knowledge of how difficult it would be. And it’s a little like the baby walking. So I was learning about the risk elements as I was going on, but I kept going.

And somebody once asked me in a panel discussion – what was my plan B, if Harlequin failed? And I never had a plan B! If I do something, I’m not wasting time thinking about what happens if it fails. 

JS: “It’s easier to learn than to unlearn,” you’ve said in various interviews. Could you elaborate?

NKM: It’s easier to learn when you’re tabula rasa, when you’re a clear board, piece of paper, you absorb the knowledge. If you copy something from previous companies: “Oh, that’s something they did differently,” you lose focus. It’s much easier to learn something from scratch than to get rid of bad habits, worries and fears that come from previous experiences. 

You studied linguistics, but then you worked as a journalist for a short time, and later managed Harlequin Polska, and now – a perfume brand and shop. You mentioned that you didn’t have a plan B. But did you have a plan for your career at all? 

Absolutely not. And I don’t believe in career planning. I think that people who work in corporations and meet with HR to plan their next five or 10-year career pathing, are just hurting themselves. Because one day they might just sit next to someone on a plane and engage in a conversation that will change their lives. So, I think that the key to success is being open to opportunities. 

In my case, resigning from Harlequin Books was my personal decision. I was going through a divorce and I thought that since I’m changing my life, I have to change it completely. I didn’t know what I was going to do, I never had it all calculated. 

I also think it’s healthy to live now and here, one day at a time. I try to cross every bridge once I reach it, and perhaps I’ll never reach it! So why worry today about what I will be doing in three, four or even five years!?

We’re now sitting in the living room of my perfume shop, which has been around for five years. If several years ago someone told me that I would have a perfume brand and shop, I’d laugh. This was not my plan. I just happened to fall in love with these kinds of perfumes during my trip to the Middle East.

Nina Kowalewska-Motlik (Photo: Magdalena Trebert)

You say you didn’t plan your career nor did you have a plan B if your projects failed. Your advice about not planning anything is in contrast to what many business leaders recommend. How did you turn all the different companies profitable, if you didn’t anticipate their future? 

It’s a question of self-discipline and hard work. I was working hard.  Every day I was trying to get up at 5am and go to the Y&R agency. The agency was in big trouble when I took over. When I left it after five years, the company employed 135 people and we occupied 1200 sq meters of beautiful office space in a prime location in Warsaw. We had a $77m dollar turnover. I think the key to success is hard work and being with your people. If we had a pitch and people were working till 1am in the morning, I didn’t go home at 5pm. I stayed with them.

When I was opening the Sense Dubai perfume shop, I had to conduct a major refurbishment of this place. This living room was a basement with rats and red brick walls. I opened the shop at 5:30am every morning for the construction people to work here. And I closed it at 10pm when they were leaving. I was here all the time.

My family hardly saw me because I was creating something. But doing it, giving 120% of yourself is possible only when it’s a passion. And that’s why I was lucky that I was passionate about everything I was doing. And every time something stopped being my passion, I left.

What decisions in your career are you most proud of when you look back?

I think that Harlequin Books worked out well. I’m very proud of this because we had no templates. We were the first in the region and we just did it. At that time, it was just after Communism ended in Poland. There was no research about Polish women. What do they want? Who are they? There was this myth about Polish women being totally free and liberated. Yes, they were free and liberated because they had to work. They didn’t have their dream jobs. They had to get any job to be able to pay rent, buy shoes for their children or just pay towards the family budget because the men were not able to do all of that on their salaries alone. And at the same time, there was this total understanding that a woman is responsible for everything around the house. So, besides the fact that she was often better educated than her husband, she was paid less. And after work, she was expected to do the shopping, cleaning, cooking, helping the children with homework, washing, ironing and making sure that she’s a great lover to her husband.

It sounds pretty similar to what it’s like today.

It’s still ongoing, but today you may more often see a father with a baby carriage, a man coming out of the supermarket with lots of bags, or a woman having coffee with her friends. Coming back to Harlequin Books, it became a kind of a mission for me. I thought that these books were showing women how to be a woman who doesn’t have to be this, you know, this robot. But someone who has options. And it was totally natural for women after a hard day to be able to sit down or lie down and just read a romance novel, something which would make her happy and forget about everyday struggles. It was a pleasant way to escape. 

I believe that reading Harlequin novels had many positive effects, one of which was also – something that I call armchair travel. The women reading these books might have never been to Amsterdam, but they could read this very well-researched book and feel like they had traveled there. So, yes, it was a success for me. 

How about negotiating? You went on to manage Harlequin Books when you were only about 30 years old. How did you know how much you were worth? 

I had no idea. I knew nothing about this market. They (edit. Torstar Corporation) knew it. So, I asked them to offer something.

I believe it’s not the advice you would share today.

I know, negotiating a salary is extremely important. But back then, whatever I would have said, I had no imagination of the value of my work. 

When is a good time to change your job?

If you wake up three or four times saying: „Oh, my God, I have to go to that place again” – that means it is a good time to change your job. And the reasons for changing might be different: you might hate your boss or your colleagues. Or you might hate the work you’re doing or the pay you’re getting. It’s a combination of many factors.



Being a successful businesswoman, do you think you have achieved a work-life balance? 

Yes, absolutely. I have two daughters, the older one is 35, and she has been living alone for a long time. My younger daughter is studying at New York University in Abu Dhabi. So, she’s also away from home. Now I have to fly every month to just hug her and have her have mama close by. I love cooking. At home, I cook for my husband and myself. We have a glass of wine and we watch some Netflix series or read a book or something. We have friends over two or three times a week because, again, I love cooking. And I go to sleep at 12am and get up at 7am.  So, we have time for everything. For me, lack of time is the favorite excuse not to go to the gym. If I wanted to, I could be in the gym every single day. We don’t have time for the things we don’t want to do, or we don’t like doing, or fear to do.

Interview by Joanna Socha

Edited by: Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka

Photos by Magdalena Trebert


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