This is the second interview we publish on women’s leadership. Christina Bakopoulou talks about the obstacles she has faced and is facing in job and in life, how she deals with leadership challenges either coming from people and situations, or stemming from within the leader herself or arising from the nature of the role.
Christina Bakopoulou started her career as an English teacher and Director of Studies. She then changed gear and joined Burlington Books. She became Consultant, Area Manager, Marketing Manager and Managing Director.
- What is it like to run a publishing company with so many departments and so diverse groups of employees?
It is a true blessing. My Burlington Books family is such a lively bunch of talented, hard-working, fun, good-hearted, loving individuals with a great sense of humor and a generous nature. I’ve been working together with most of my colleagues for more than twenty years. All our individual qualities keep us truly interested in each other and bring us closer together. All our similarities bond us and help us support each other and work for our common cause. And to answer your next question, our common cause is providing teachers and students of English with quality books with a smile and the best possible support ever. And we want to do all that in an environment that is safe, respectful and pleasant for each and every one of us. This is not something you can organize, but it is certainly something you can provide the conditions for, cultivate and nurture along with everybody else in the team. One of the most challenging times I’ve had during the Covid years was ‘seeing’ my colleagues through a screen… We kept ‘together’ as best as we could. Thankfully, we’re slowly adjusting to our new reality and are getting to meet each other in real life again.
- What were the challenges you had to face in the beginning?
I think believing in myself was my greatest challenge and the fact that I was quite young each time I got a demanding post. I became a Director of Studies of a school when I was 21 years old, I started my own business when I was 24, I became Area Manager at 29, Marketing Manager at 33 and Managing Director at 42. Each and every time I got promoted, I felt that I was either too young or did not know enough. However, I was always blessed to have amazing colleagues and generous mentors. Throughout my life I have been aware of what I do NOT know and this has been my greatest strength. Recognizing my limitations instead of concealing them, asking for help, ‘programming’ myself to learn and ‘fill the gaps’ and surrounding myself with teammates who are strong in areas I am not. I have always been a good listener and have never been too shy to ask for help or admit my shortcomings, and I feel this has helped me overcome any challenging situations that I have had to deal with, and trust me, there have been a lot.
- Modern leadershipis more difficult now than it was in the past. Is being a leader a journey of hard work and discipline?
Being a leader is definitely a journey to different lands; Hard work is certainly one of them… you need to set an example for the people you wish to inspire and hopefully earn their following… if you want your team to work hard and devote themselves to a common cause, you have to set the example yourself. Discipline is necessary because you will often come across tasks you would rather avoid, problems and situations that you do not want to deal with, but an effective leader clears the way, deals with the obstacles and tries not to let issues pile up and this can be a daily struggle. I would like to add, though, a few other qualities that I feel make a true leader stand out and these are their ability to listen carefully, their ability to identify people’s talents, invest in them and empower them; their ability to accept people for who they are and create an environment of safety, respect and togetherness; their ability to assume responsibility for their own shortcomings and their ability to keep the team spirit alive especially when external conditions are challenging; their ability to make tough decisions and follow them through… I have been led by such people and I am grateful to be experiencing this journey now, and hopefully providing a similar one to my team.
- What is one thing you know now about women and work you wish you had known earlier in your career?
What a wonderful question…I don’t have an answer, though… I think all the new things I learnt about women and work, I learnt at the right time, meaning when I was ready. Women have always played a significant role in my life. My mom is one of the strongest women I’ve encountered in my life. I am the youngest of three sisters. I started my career as an English teacher and I always found myself in staffrooms full of women. When I moved into publishing, ten years later, I was, once again, surrounded constantly by female customers and co-workers. I love women, I love working with and for women. We are passionate, hard-working, devoted, funny, full of life and energy, tireless and loud, and when we are in a bad mood or in a mood to complain we usually have a very good reason to do so. When we women work together, supporting each other, empowering each other, respecting each other and everyone around us, the world becomes truly a better place; full of compassion, love, warmth, fun and productivity.
- Have you drawn professional inspiration from other women? Tell us about someone who has inspired you.
Oh… there’s an army of women that have inspired me and do so on a daily basis. Some I’ve met, some I hope I will one day. Linetta De Castle, whom I’ve worked with very closely. Her sharp eye and her commitment to quality teaching materials cannot be described adequately. Olga Perifanou, an ex-colleague, mother of three, pursued her childhood dream of becoming a midwife and went back to school while working and raising her three little children, Glennon Doyle and her messages of ‘finding your true self and being who you are and not who the world demands you to be’ and quite recently State Senator Mallory McMorrow for being a living example of fighting the hate that separates people and declaring that it is up to us to get in the way of hate and change the world!
- Do you experience resistance when you are leading men? How do you deal with it?
I don’t think I do even though this was something within my expectations since I was raised in a patriarchal society and still live in one despite the decades that have gone by since I was a kid. I have always gotten along with men; this is definitely related to my relationship with my wonderful dad. Some of my best friends are men. But I do not think that gender is an issue here. I’ve always worked with people as people regardless of their gender. I have gotten along great with both men and women, but I can also think of a few instances of men and women resisting my role as a leader. In my experience, this was not an issue of gender roles but more of a personality clash or faith in each other’s abilities. When such cases come along, I try to focus on my work even more, walk my path and let my work and my work ethics speak. Usually, this is enough. When it isn’t, I try not to take it personally.
- Have you ever been afraid on the job?
I am afraid of heights and speed, I am afraid of disease, I am afraid of my loved ones suffering, I am afraid of all people suffering… I have never been afraid of the job, or hard work. I’ve been working hard since I was a teenager, and I will probably work for as long as my brain allows me to. Work brings me balance, gives me a sense of purpose, makes me feel at home. I have been uncomfortable with difficult decisions and situations but in life you can’t pick and choose… you have to deal with what comes along, otherwise, you don’t feel the joy and the fulfillment of a job well and fairly done.
Now, on the job, I had to face all my fears when the financial crisis hit Greece for the first time. Colossal companies were collapsing, businesses were closing, multinational companies were locking up and people were losing their jobs here, there and everywhere. I did get afraid, but I soon realized that this was not going to help me or anybody else in my team. So, I locked my fears away and hid that box as far away as I could, and I let my internal compass guide me, and once I did that, what surfaced was my deep faith that when it comes to learning, crisis or no crisis, we parents do the best we can for our children’s education. I was one of the poorest kids in my neighborhood, but learning English was always a priority and these things are engraved in our DNA here in Greece. So, I had faith that our field would not disappear overnight… the rest was as always, a matter of hard work, and keeping that box of fear locked away until the time was right to release it and let go of it.
- Have you ever been so discouraged you wanted to quit?
At a professional level, no, not really. I have been through really tough times on the job especially since the multiple financial crisis our country has gone through since 2011, as I told you earlier. I am pretty stubborn, and the more difficult things get, the more determined I become. I get into battle mode, and I just keep pushing ahead. I think the fact that I was raised by hard-working parents who were not afraid to do anything and everything in order to make ends meet and raise their family in a dignified way, equipped me for difficult times. There have been a lot of times when I found myself discouraged but always kept going, rethinking, trying something else. Abandoning the ship has never been an option I would give myself, especially at tough times.
- How do you balance career and personal life? Is there such a thing as balance?
There is no such thing as balance and the minute you accept that with honesty, the more relaxed and effective you become at both. I’m a working mom of three wonderful children. No matter how much time I devote to my family, my loving husband, my work… it will just never be enough. There is always more to do both at work and at home. There are always places I will not make it to. I try to choose wisely, and I try to learn from the mistakes I make when my choices are wrong. I try to focus 100% on what I do each time. When I am at work, I am 100% at work, when I am with my family, I am 100% there; I try to multitask as little as possible, unless I’m driving. If there is an emergency either at work or at home, I fly to be either here or there and take care of the need that arises. I have a very loving and understanding husband who is an active dad in every sense of the word. We weather the practicalities of our life together as best as we can, and we share and talk very openly about everything. We still go on dates, and this has saved us on multiple occasions. I also have a very understanding boss. An amazing mentor who’s also very devoted to his family and has supported me completely whenever I needed to take a break for important issues. I gave up perfection a long time ago. I never found my happiness there anyway. I’m a very tidy person, but my house is not a museum, and my desk is always messy. People are constantly coming and going, both at home and at my office. My family knows I’m always there and my colleagues know my door is always open. Of course, I would like a couple of extra hours in my day and a few more days in my week but Santa keeps bringing me jigsaw puzzles instead!
- What advice do you have for women looking to grow either their own business or within the company they work for?
Find what makes your heart sing and do it.
Respect yourself and others.
Never doubt your worthiness.
Let your work speak and then let your words speak for your work.
Share and care.
Treat others as you wish to be treated.
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
If toxic people give you a hard time, stop giving them the power to do so. Focus on doing what you are doing with a genuine smile.
Be good to yourself.
Search for the little everyday miracles that surround you and draw strength and joy from them.
Keep going but rest when you’re tired.