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I Like Change. It Keeps Me Sharp.

Interview with Katja Kraškovic, MSc, CEO and Dean of GEA College

When we think about managers and business leaders, our brains sometimes – and still way too often, to be honest – remain stuck with cliché images of stern professionals in charcoal grey suits and paisley ties, and are frequently visualized as old, male, Caucasian, and somewhat authoritative. To help erase such clichés from our collective subconscious, we’ve interviewed a female business leader who’s in her forties, is the driving force behind Slovenia’s oldest private business school, pushes the boundaries in both business and education, and is an avid adventurer who rides heavy motorcycles, enjoys kitesurfing, and once climbed the tallest chimney in Europe. Dear leaders, meet Katja Kraškovic, MSc, CEO and Dean of GEA College – Faculty of Entrepreneurship.

Let’s start with an easy question. What’s on your plate right now?

Where do I start? Busy times. It’s been rough for many organizations for the past two years, we were no exception, but somehow my team and I managed not only to swiftly adapt, but to add more to our portfolio – an MBA program in partnership with UNYP (University of New York in Prague) and a very time-relevant program in Information and Cyber Security. Because our organization is small, adaptable, and has continuous learning embedded in its DNA, we embrace changes and volatility. Most people don’t want to be challenged by changes, because it’s easier to stay in your comfort zone. That is just how we’re built as people. Personally, I like changes, they keep me sharp.

What are the biggest challenges facing education right now, how is it changing, and what are the trends?

Big shifts are happening in the educational sector. From kindergarten to higher education, we are noticing that new ways of teaching and transferring knowledge are being introduced. If ever, now is the time to change the manner of delivering knowledge to our students, on all levels of schooling.

The educational system today does an excellent job producing theorists and specialists for certain fields. But what we need to focus on is giving students practical knowledge and equip them with skills that will help them adapt and cope better with constant changes. What education needs to achieve is to prepare students for the work they will be doing once they graduate.

Because of the circumstances of the past two years studying moved online and there is an increasing interest in this type of learning – it’s higher than ever before. But I think that the combination of live on-site lectures and virtual ones is the most optimal, as we get to foster a personal approach towards students, something that I’ve advocated for ever since I got into education.

GEA College has been a well-known educational establishment for over 30 years and you have been at the helm of the organization for about 7 of those years. How do you view the GEA College brand?

Our organization has had its ups and downs when it comes to the brand and for the last 7 years my team and I have been working diligently to keep the brand name up. I sometimes hear that we are a school for children of wealthy entrepreneurs who just want to pay their way through school and get a degree the easy way. Sorry to disappoint, but not at my school! In reality we’ve had students quit sometimes and seek refuge in other institutions, where they had an easier time finishing their education. We pride ourselves in being fair and delivering an excellent experience for our students, giving them just the right balance of theory and practice, favoring the practical aspect of business and entrepreneurial studies, of course. We have evolved from being a school for future entrepreneurs to a boutique business school with a practical entrepreneurial mindset that helps shape the leaders of the future.

Let’s move to you as a leader – how do you view yourself?

As a leader, I build on listening and trust. I make sure I choose the right people to work with and build the right teams. I believe we can achieve anything together as long as we all know why. Why are we doing what we’re doing? I try to teach my team the values I live by. I try to be genuine and clear. I say only what I believe in. I am surrounded by colleagues who don’t follow me as a leader, but rather follow themselves and each other and our joint mission. That is what shapes the future. In my team there are individuals who surpass me in many fields and I am proud of that. I believe that is the best way to lead, to create a bright future for us all. That is why I promote an entrepreneurial mindset, being innovative, and being different. I believe that passion for innovative solutions, courage, knowledge, quick response to changes, and perseverance are the key entrepreneurial competencies that also characterize me and help pave the way to success.

Photo: personal archive

Rarely does a person have a successful career without the help of a mentor, official or unofficial. I am not going to ask you who your mentors were, but I am interested in what memorable lessons they gave you along the way?

Leadership takes courage and that means doing something you know will be challenging, maybe even nearly impossible. Good leaders don’t just do things to be noticed or praised, they strive to accomplish what needs to be done. Break away from status quo if needed and remain faithful to their core values. We all need the courage to expand, change direction, or move into uncharted territory, and inspire others to follow us.

What are the most important attributes of successful leaders today and how does that relate to you as a leader?

It should be a leader’s mission to ensure a safe and healthy environment where all stakeholders can maximize on their potential and create added value. I put a lot of emphasis on how important it is that the entire educational process is focused on students, on their active involvement, and creativity, so that the process is more dynamic, interactive, and focused on teamwork. I believe that leaders should engage their teams to stay relevant and focused on the future. So, I strive to keep our study programs contemporary and try to instill into students an entrepreneurial mindset, and relay the importance of adjustability, responsiveness, effective communication, and ingenuity.

How do you keep your team motivated? 

I let people be who they are, trust their abilities, and hope that their vision is aligned with the vision of our company. When leading people, I try to lead by example and show my team what is important. To me, to us all, for us. I keep the focus on that. Being honest and fair are some of the core values I pursue, even though that may prove difficult at times. But in the long run, it always pays off.

How do you continue to grow and develop as a leader and how do you make room for continuous learning while leading?

With the little time that I have for myself, I need to make sure I spend it wisely. I am an avid reader and a big promoter of reading, so I read as much as I can. I also challenge myself to do things that might have previously been out of my comfort zone: I go on long motorcycle road trips, I enjoy kitesurfing, travelling, and last year I finally did something I wanted to do for a long time – I climbed the tallest chimney in Europe, which is 360 meters high. I used to be a passionate climber, so this challenge was manageable, but still exhilarating. I also regularly attend business events where I can talk to other successful leaders and let myself be inspired by them, connecting with them and encouraging them to collaborate with our students on various GEA College projects. These collaborations are beneficial for all of us, as we all learn and grow from them. Being an active networker and content creator within various business organizations is really important to me as I like to get involved with projects that matter. AmCham Slovenia has a lot of fine initiatives and projects that positively influence the environment we live in and I am happy to be a member. In 2023 GEA College is going to try to support AmCham more by becoming a Patron Member and partnering up with the YOUng platform. It’s a real honor for us.

Photo: personal archive

How do you align your organization with your mission and vision and where do you see yourself and GEA College in 10 years?

My goal for GEA College is to become the best educational institution for the education and training of entrepreneurs in Central and Eastern Europe. We are dedicated to becoming a center for developing excellent projects in business education and innovative business programs. I want GEA College to be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a boutique private business school that fosters an entrepreneurial mindset and builds on innovation, business pragmatics, and international competitiveness. We will remain an international educational and research institution with a well-developed regional network of strategically connected educational organizations. I wish for all our graduates to become outstanding individuals, fantastic leaders, and of course successful entrepreneurs.

I plan to enlarge, develop, and empower my team further so that at a certain time in the future, I can step aside and others can flourish and realize their potential. I am a long way from retirement, but I believe that every good leader, regardless whether they’re also the owner of the organization, should prepare a good succession plan to ensure success and continuity. For me, success means that my team is as inspired and passionate about our goal as I am. So that at a certain point I can go and pursue other challenges. That way I will have time for new ideas and ventures and I will be able to give back to society even more, and maybe, make our world a slightly better place.