Anna Elwart is the CEO at EL Passion, a custom design & software agency. Appointed in the middle of the pandemic after being a Managing Director at one of the top media agencies in Poland. She took over the most passionate team in the Polish market. The team, however, was also frustrated after the experiences of long lockdowns and many challenges that came with the pandemic. In one year after Anna became a CEO, EL Passion implemented their new website and rebranded their name, started working in a full Agile mode in self-managing teams, introduced a new salary formula for developers, and many more.
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Welcome to your ValiantCEO exclusive interview! Let’s start with a little introduction. Tell us about yourself.
Anna Elwart: I am the CEO of EL Passion – a custom design and development agency located in Poland. I have over 11 years of professional experience focused on digital and connected world. Before joining EL Passion I was a managing director of Resolution Poland – Omnicom’s performance marketing agency.
NO child ever says I want to be a CEO when I grow up. What did you want to be and how did you get to where you are today? Give us some lessons you learned along the way.
Anna Elwart: When I was a child I loved the cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Even back then I knew I wouldn’t become a ninja turtle, but in that story, there was an awesome reporter who was the biggest ally of those green superheroes. She was smart, she was funny, and she was saving the world and the turtles from all troubles. I wanted to be like her. Straight after high school, I got an internship at a radio station and quickly discovered that I was not built to work in the world of quickly fading news. I wanted to build things that last. I was mesmerized by the opportunities of the internet and I wanted to focus my career around it.
Tell us about your business, what does the company do? What is unique about the company?
Anna Elwart: EL Passion is a design and software agency. You would expect that with such a name, we would say that people with passion are our unique selling point. But the truth is that the industry is full of people who love what they do and even though we take much pride in our really passionate team, we do know it’s not enough to be unique. What really makes us unique is our culture of exchanging knowledge and our craving to improve, to be constantly better at what we do. You just can’t put a price tag on the results when you’re surrounded by people like that. The engagement in both our internal matters and projects we deliver for our clients is the secret sauce of EL Passioners. This engagement also comes from mutual trust, reasonable expectations, and clear goals of our self-managing teams. As a result of this, our clients don’t simply buy design and development services – they are getting way more than that.
How to become a CEO? Some will focus on qualities, others on degrees, how would you answer that question?
Anna Elwart: To become a CEO it’s helpful to be excited about changes and challenges in general. Because they will be on top of your to-do list. You have to be able to use your own voice – sometimes to ask difficult questions, and other times to be the one that has the courage to say “I don’t understand this” while others are conveniently nodding. It’s best if you assume you can’t make everyone happy and sometimes conflict is unavoidable, but also you should be able to easily understand others’ points of view and motivations because they will come seeking your advice in solving problems.
It surely helps if you are this rare type of unicorn person: both analytical and creative enough to appreciate great ideas but to also be grounded at the same time. The future of your business and of your employees is very much determined by your decisions. Also, you can’t predict everything, and sometimes you need to take a leap of faith. Be ready to do that, and to own the consequences of your actions.
What are the secrets to becoming a successful CEO? Who inspires you, who are your role models and why? Illustrate your choices.
Anna Elwart: Before I started my professional career I had a gap year and went to Iceland to work and travel. I was working at McDonald’s and I had this amazing boss who is my role model to this day. Not only her personality but also her story are unique. She came to Iceland for a sports event and never came back to her homeland which was politically unstable at the time. She found refuge in this cold remote country and she turned it into a home. She was our restaurant’s manager and as our direct boss, she was always leading by example.
She knew that once she was doing all the tasks she now supervises us doing. She was demanding and sometimes came across as harsh, but her expectations were always clear. Many of her team members came to work there with a hope for a better life or for a good start in their adult life. It was a mixture of people from all over the world. And she was there to support us, to challenge us, and to make sure our clients got the best service they possibly could. So long story short: I’m not inspired by big shiny names, I’m still under the influence of a real people manager whose goal was to help others succeed in life.
Many CEOs fall into the trap of being all over the place. What are the top activities a CEO should focus on to be the best leader the company needs? Explain.
Anna Elwart: I strongly believe that as CEO your job is to hire experts, help them collaborate, and to remove obstacles from their way. That’s it. It’s that simple.
The Covid-19 Pandemic put the leadership skills of many to the test, what were some of the most difficult challenges that you faced as a CEO/Leader in the past year? Please list and explain in detail.
Anna Elwart: Back then I was still working as a Managing Director, not yet at EL Passion. But I think it was a big test of real leadership. It was important to stay in line with your values as a manager. You can’t just say you are here for the people and simultaneously ignore their needs. I found it hard to follow corporate rules while my people felt in danger by coming into the office. So I did what I could to change the rules and once I failed I didn’t obey them. I don’t think at the time the risk was really there but the fear for the people was real and for me, that was enough. In a typical B2B services company, you don’t need to make life-threatening decisions. But at the beginning of the pandemic, it certainly felt that way and I think many would agree it really was that way.
I think keeping things real was a virtue during the early pandemic. It was the time when difficult decisions had to be taken. I had decided to close all our internships right away, but also kept everyone else and their jobs despite clients canceling and pausing their projects. In perspective, I know now that those were the right decisions. Also, this was a chance to improve your offering, optimize processes, and come up with new ideas on how to support your business (and we have done it as well, to keep our team busy during the slow business time and to explore new emerging business opportunities).
What are some of the greatest mistakes you’ve noticed some business leaders made during these unprecedented times? What are the takeaways you gleaned from those mistakes?
Anna Elwart: In Polish, we have this saying that when the times are bad you will discover who your real friends are. I think some companies’ management forgot they are in that pandemic and lockdown situation together with their people. So they felt obliged to take action on their own without consulting the team members. As a result, the companies that decided to fire people instead of discussing some cut-down in pay are now struggling to rehire. And people felt bad not having a choice to downgrade their pay instead of seeing their colleagues go.
In your opinion, what changes played the most critical role in enabling your business to survive/remain profitable, or maybe even thrive? What lessons did all this teach you?
Anna Elwart: EL Passion went through the beginning of the pandemic the hard way. Clients freezing finances and limited resources ultimately resulted in somewhat unavoidable cuts in the team size. In a chain reaction, some people started leaving and others’ motivation and trust in the company dropped.
I joined the company a couple of months after that happened. Within one year the CEO, CTO, Head of Design changed, we hired our first-ever Head of Marketing and a part-time CFO. We all knew we had to use that setting as an opportunity to start over, regroup, and introduce self-managing teams as a core of our company structure.
During my first 2 months, I had a 1:1 meeting with every single employee and went through all of the exit interviews to get a better understanding of what this company is and what it needs. They had all the answers, they just needed someone to allow them to act on them. The solution to getting back on track sounds simple now, even though it wasn’t at the time: identify the core of what makes this company special, embrace it, and focus on it.
What is the #1 most pressing challenge you’re trying to solve in your business right now?
Anna Elwart: I believe that remote work is a great solution for most. But it is extremely difficult to introduce new people into your team and your company’s culture while you are remote. I would say that we, as a whole IT industry are currently dealing with the second pandemic: an epidemic of depression, demotivation, and lack of engagement. Some people assume that it’s enough to change your workplace to fix all those problems. I believe that often there are deeper reasons that need to be addressed so everyone can feel at peace and enjoy their life, in and outside of work.
You already shared a lot of insights with our readers and we thank you for your generosity. Normally, leaders are asked about their most useful qualities but let’s change things up a bit. What is the most useless skill you have learned, at school or during your career?
Anna Elwart: I learned how to bind documents. I have done that once since training, that is: If you can call it training.
Mike Weiss, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Anna Elwart for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Anna Elwart or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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