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April 2023

On the advice of John Denhof from NKBM, Urša Lakner and I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World before our interview in early April. Set in the year 2540 (or 632 “after Ford”), the story is about a society that artificially creates castes of people (from the exemplary Alphas to the deliberately deficient Epsilons), convincing them of universal happiness and belonging through psychological manipulation (hypnopedia) and drugs (“soma”). A society where the works of history’s great writers, such as Shakespeare, are hidden away. Where it is important that everyone plays their part in getting the work done. Where people are just effigies on a conveyor belt that is the history of humanity.

Castes in today’s world – fiction or reality?

Urša agrees that the novel can read like science fiction, but it is easy to draw parallels with today’s world, which is also run and manipulated by the elite. Just to what extent, we probably don’t even realize. In our world, too, we have castes, regardless of all the apparent career advancement opportunities available. This is not, of course, referring to the Indian caste system, but nevertheless, where and when you were born remains a very important factor – and something that none of us had any control over. If nothing else, there are major financial constraints on access to schooling; in most of Europe, we have, for now, greater solidarity on this issue. Looking at the inroads women have made into the corporate world, Lakner (who has worked in large international corporations for most of her career) notes that women have more opportunities in Eastern Europe because, unlike in Western Europe, under socialism, all women were employed because they had to work to support their families. Today, women want to work, which is normal and accepted in society.

She also observes a caste structure in some Slovenian companies, where control over workers, rather than trust, prevails. However, the company she works at has a different climate. As a leader, she recognizes and supports employees seeking opportunities to express and develop themselves in the work environment. She recognizes that people appreciate being noticed and rewarded for their work, but that as a company, you should also allow these individuals to have a life outside the company, whatever that may be: family, sport, hobbies, etc. Work-life balance is becoming increasingly important to people (perhaps also because of the arrival of Generation Z).

But today, as this line is blurred, Pfizer is committed to the health of its employees (including through an incentive called “wellness day”) and supports the integration of the company and its employees into the community, either through a volunteering day or through initiatives that promote sustainability and mobility. After all, trust is demonstrated when it comes to working from home, which has become commonplace at the company since COVID – as Lakner points out, “What matters is that the work gets done; it doesn’t matter where it’s done. Trust is everything. It creates such a healthy environment, where people are passionate and are able to come up with new ideas.”

More than a bookworm

Urša is a very passionate reader, and she has passed this passion on to her two children. When my daughters were younger, they would put on their backpacks, and they would go to the library together. Her mother was a geography and history teacher, and books were a regular gift during her childhood. She has a proper library in her home and a custom-made gallery to house all the books she has been given or has bought. When she talks about the library, I realize that it’s not just one huge bookcase because I begin to understand that it starts from the left with travel guides (they travel a lot), then come atlases, encyclopedias, history books, psychology and business literature, self-help books, books of sayings and proverbs, and very old books. The shelves rise all the way to the ceiling (I immediately invited myself to visit!), and on the other side of the library, there is space for children’s books, young adult literature, English language books, biographical novels, special editions (special mention goes to the Freising manuscripts, for example), other novels and collections.

She’s unable to single out a favorite because she feels she would be doing the others an injustice. She has read some of the good ones several times (at different stages of her life), such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace. She is very fond of Shakespeare, has Shakespeare collections in her library, and was even given several special reprints of his originals as a gift. She does not limit herself to genres and loves to read biographies of athletes, politicians, and celebrities. Still, she prefers historical novels, through which she has learned a lot about history. She is no stranger to crime fiction or, for example, Harry Potter, where she is impressed by the outstanding Slovenian translations of J.K. Rowling’s magical fantasy. With a smile, we realize that both her family and mine have a big Harry Potter movie marathon at Christmas time.

Book fairs are a real treat for her, and every year she comes away carrying at least five books under her arm. She reads two or three books at a time but keeps them dotted around her apartment, so she can take one from a pile on the bedside table and another from the living room. If the first is a novel, the second is for professional purposes; she is mainly interested in books on psychology, neuroscience, management, and leadership because she is looking for answers on the relationship between the psyche and the actions of different types of people: “Why do they behave the way they do? I also apply this interest in people when it comes to managing employees, which is crucial if you work in a multinational company with a matrix organization and you manage projects without people reporting directly to you (’leading without authority’). The greatest pleasure is discovering together with an employee what makes them special and how they can put their whole personality into their work so that they don’t feel the need to hide.”

“A book is a book,” (she says, holding up a copy of Brave New World and the book she is proposing for our next meeting), meaning that it should be in physical form, not digital form. She always takes books on flights (buying them at the airport if she doesn’t have them with her) and, of course, takes a bunch of them to the beach, dragging them around in a giant beach bag, which her family often teases her about.

What is real?

Today, information is taken “at face value” because we live in the age of social networks, a time when someone who has better rhetorical skills or who has better support (and therefore visibility) by virtue of the number of backers they have is able to stand out more (e.g., influencers). This is what draws young people in. However, this kind of media has a lot of “fake” content. Trends get “likes,” and posts can stray far from established truth. “I come from pharmaceutical science, which is very controlled with all the research involved, and independent agencies that typically lengthen a drug’s journey from the initial research stage to availability on the market (which takes as long as 10 or 15 years). All information is checked by the quality, regulatory, medical, and compliance departments before publication. Nothing that isn’t backed up by evidence gets out. All information must be balanced. On the other hand, an influencer can post whatever they want online or on social networks – and a whole lot of people will just fall for it,” she says, and of course, she’s not just talking about healthcare and the misinformation around the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccines (Lakner oversaw the distribution of Pfizer’s vaccine in all eight countries of the Adriatic region during the pandemic). In this regard, Lakner even compares the power of online influencers to that of religious leaders because people today are lost in this fictitious world and need role models.

How do we find our compass and anchor again?

For our next candidate, she suggested the book Čuječnost (Mindfulness) by Robert Križaj, which she also brought to our interview. It is very interesting that someone in Slovenia has started to do this. The book is designed as a practical guide and contains exercises. It is all about our own awareness because we have fallen completely out of touch with ourselves. For the last 15 or 20 years, things have been moving fast. But in the last five years, it seems to her that the world has gone mad. “We are running wild, drifting without realizing where we are going. We are yearning for ‘something,’ but at the same time, we are witnessing a steady rise in psychological disorders and serious psychiatric illnesses. Psychiatric clinics are full to overflowing. And worst of all, people are feeling the ground slipping from under their feet. The situation is particularly worrying among adolescents, and this should be of great concern to society.” She says, metaphorically, that we have lost both our compass and our anchor. We don’t know who we are, why we are, what we are, and, above all, that we are all OK just as we are. We are flooded only by the most attractive and photoshopped images and posts on social networks, which drives a huge disconnect from reality.

People should be more aware of the moment, the surroundings, the smells, the sounds in the background, and the conversation we are having – to be in the moment. Multitasking is the worst – it’s about getting things out of your head that you don’t need to deal with at that moment. At Pfizer, they have “Focus Fridays” – days set aside for in-depth work. Only meetings classified as “high business essentials” can be scheduled on Fridays. Once a quarter, they even have a focus week, when all regular (weekly, monthly, etc.) meetings are wiped from the calendar.

When Lakner leaves for her next meeting after the good hour and a half she generously set aside for our conversation (and mentoring), I take her advice to heart – I say hello to an acquaintance who I had already noticed sitting at the next table during the chat, and then I sit for a few more minutes and finish my delicious pistachio ice cream cake (which has melted quite a bit in the meantime) in peace and with a sense of joy.