You don’t have to ‘act like a man’ as a woman or ‘act like x successful leader’ in order to succeed. It is sexist to think that if a woman is an assertive and capable leader, this is somehow because she is not your typical woman, ‘not like the other girls’; women of all shapes and sizes should lean into what makes us unique, and explore the roles we can best play and excel at in a company, rather than force ourselves into someone else’s expectations or image of success.

As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Katarzyna ‘Kasia’ Bargielska, CMO and Co-Founder of leading programmatic audio platform, AdTonos

A graduate of Gdansk University, Kasia moved to Germany to study Business Management at the University of Trier before launching her career in online marketing.

Kasia has worked with Agora (publisher of Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest and most prestigious journal in Poland), Wirtualna Polska (Poland’s first and largest Internet portal), and Polskapresse Media Group, and as Marketing Director for IVONA Software — an Amazon subsidiary that develops text-to-speech technology — where she developed marketing strategies that helped the company achieve a top-ranking position in the industry.

She played a key role in introducing new technology products on the market and creating successful marketing strategy to propel ClickMeeting — a leading video-conferencing solution — to the top of their field, and it is her 20+ years of experience that helps AdTonos remain at the forefront of the digital revolution.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

A massive pull for me is self-development and being able to make a meaningful impact through my work. I also take pride in delivering the best standard of work possible.

My C-level career began as a marketing director in martech and adtech, because they combine the world of technology with marketing, which makes them innovative and it’s also a space where I get to learn more every day.

Twenty-three years ago, I joined Wirtualna Polska, the company that rolled out the first internet portal in Poland. I’m proud to say that I was working for a martech company that helped pioneer the internet in Poland. What convinced me to take a leap of faith into the unknown? Curiosity. I wanted to know what the internet was and what it could do, and to meet all its challenges and opportunities head-on. In a short space of time, the company grew from a small team to a staff of hundreds.

As well as curiosity, I have an aversion to routine and monotony, and my thirst for bigger and better challenges is what led me to quickly rise to leadership positions in several of my previous roles.

My experience taught me not to accept all the advice I’m given about my career — can you imagine, I was warned not to take up the job with Wirtualna Polska because ‘the internet might not last’? So by the time Michal Marcinik approached me with his pitch for an audio advertising platform, there was no question about whether to take the risk or not! It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a huge impact in the audio AdTech industry.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Unlike some other startups that have access to ample funding from day one, we were rather low on resources at first! Then in 2018, we had a breakthrough. We were invited by the UK Department for International Trade to join the Global Entrepreneur Programme (GEP), a mentoring programme for ambitious entrepreneurs.

It’s funny looking back now, but I remember that we had to pool our money for fuel to drive to the UK Embassy in Poland for one of the GEP Programme events. It was such a strange juxtaposition that we were self-financing this passion project and struggling to make ends meet on the one hand, while on the other, we were enjoying a fancy meal at the embassy in front of a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II!

It’s incredible that we’ve gone from operating on a shoestring budget, and paying for everything out of pocket to keep the company afloat, to where we are today. We now have 27 employees, a global reach of 272 million unique users, and we serve over 5 billion audio ads monthly.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was on maternity leave during the acquisition of one of my previous employers. As a leader in the marketing department, I was asked to come in to deliver a presentation on our marketing strategy.

I was very stressed and didn’t have much time to prepare, never mind the fact that I had a 6-week-old newborn to look after! So off I rushed, baby carrier in one hand and laptop in the other.

I was so nervous and exhausted throughout the entire presentation, exacerbated by the fact that English is not my first language. And there I was, having to lead a presentation to an American director!

The presentation was going well despite everything, and I made sure that I practiced plenty of times beforehand — to the point where I virtually knew the entire presentation off by heart — then I made quite a big language mistake: instead of saying FAQ, I accidentally said ‘F**k You’ to the CEO and the senior team. The room became deathly silent for what felt like an eternity, and internally I was catastrophizing: “That’s it, I’m going to lose my job!”

After a very tense and awkward silence, one of my colleagues, the Chief of Technology, burst into a hearty laughter. One after another, everyone else in the room started laughing and in the end I didn’t lose my job! This experience was so critical for me as it taught me not to unduly stress myself out or worry too much about little mistakes. Generally speaking, if you’re well prepared then things will go well. There was no need to be so tense, and at the end of the day, we are all human, we all make mistakes.

Good leaders and great employers should create space for these mistakes, and also be able to deal with them when they do occur — because they will — with humour and openness!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people I’m immensely grateful to. In every company I’ve worked at, there was someone who motivated me and helped me get to where I am now.

There has never been a success I’ve had that wasn’t achieved without the support of amazing teams. It’s always been about teamwork: all my successes and marketing results were thanks to their support.

There are many people who have inspired me in my career. However, I am particularly close to Dobrochna Kedzierska, whom I met at Wirtualna Polska. Dobrochna massively contributed to the creation of Polish media by creating the first professional digital marketing editorial office in Poland.

She was a member of Parliament, a lecturer at several universities, and it’s no exaggeration to say that she raised many journalism students and helped a lot of people. She is an amazing woman with strong values, a brilliant mind, and a lot of compassion. She is very active and has achieved a lot — basically an all-round amazing lady.

I was fortunate enough to be able to pick her brains directly and learn from her. She showed me that being a woman doesn’t have to be an obstacle in reaching senior positions and succeeding professionally. Dobrochna was also one of the first investors who trusted in the AdTonos project. She believed in our vision and project, and became our very own Adtonos’ Business Angel. She taught me how women, too, can be brave, strong, consistent and able to accomplish great things.

As you know, the United States is facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organisation to have a diverse executive team?

According to a 2019 McKinsey report, the most diverse companies are also around 36% more profitable than less diverse businesses. Diversity offers huge value to companies at every level, both in terms of business and general human terms, beyond just being trendy.

Only with true diversity can you gain fresh perspectives, see issues from all angles, and adapt to change. Drawing on the lived experiences of people from all walks of life helps us reach better solutions and anticipate consequences that others might not be able to predict. It also lets us see how we can manage companies better, how we can do business or develop services better, as well as create more extraordinary and innovative solutions.

Every culture — social, educational, professional — brings something valuable to the table. We can draw on the best resources from all of our cultural understandings to inspire the future trajectory of the business. What’s important is that teams share a similar basic value system and everyone from junior to executive level is motivated by the same goals. Maintaining this balance between underlying values and diversity is a recipe for company growth.

At Adtonos, we have people from different cultures, countries, ethnicities, religious, social, and educational backgrounds, as well as neurodiverse employees. As we have grown in the last year, so has the number of women in the adtech company: 42% of our team are female, from the junior to C-level, and this has only made us go from strength to strength! This year alone we noted a tenfold growth — coincidence? I think not!

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

We need to remove obstacles to equal participation at work, and employers should give young people a chance to kickstart their career and learn on the job. Healthcare should be accessible to everyone, especially for people with disabilities and additional needs, so it’s not just the well-off who can thrive. Women should be encouraged to try and do what they love in their careers and empowered to take risks.

We need a system that teaches us that everyone needs to be respected regardless of what makes them different, to see the value in others, to understand that generally speaking, everyone has the same feelings and needs: the need for respect, dignity, meaningful work, and opportunities to make a real difference through their talents. We might speak or look different, but everyone needs to feel appreciated. Every conversation we have needs to reflect that tolerance and acceptance!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

A CMO, CTO, and CEO are very different titles despite being C-level. Yet, every C-suite leader has to be a visionary in their respective area, and extraordinary in different ways.

They all take more risks, take greater responsibility for employees, shareholders, business operations, the company, and have a strong ability to pre-empt trends and anticipate how the market will develop. Executives chase important news updates and constantly try to have their finger on the pulse. They are attacked from all angles with different sources of news, so should be able to sift out the most relevant or important updates, and make lightning-fast decisions about what should be priorities in the short, medium and long term.

The job of a senior leader versus an executive at C-level doesn’t change that much, but what distinguishes the two is the C-suite leader’s ability to pick themselves up no matter how massive a failure might be. They build back better, becoming more resilient to setbacks each time, and are passionate. They are laser-focused on their business goals and on the bigger picture, not getting too stuck in details or micromanaging. Executives motivate people and inspire them with their vision. They have a magical ability to convince you that their vision is also the vision you want to strive towards, and recruit you on a journey of a lifetime.

C-level is less about how to do the job, and more about which personality is best placed to do the job. For example, Steve Jobs was such a charismatic personality, believing in his vision enough to convince the team at Apple to develop products in ways that were unthinkable for tech companies at the time, and Apple has enjoyed tremendous success off the back of his ideas. Don’t be afraid to be revolutionary and perfect your storytelling to get people behind your vision!

Elon Musk is another example; not everyone has the persuasion skills that he does to send people to Mars, or the credibility he has as a leader and one of the world’s greatest thought leaders.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

That executives can do it all alone — it’s hard juggling the responsibilities of multiple people in just one day, day in, day out! Another myth is that executives play the biggest roles in the company’s success. Yes, C-level leaders need to be able to convince employees of a united vision, motivate them to achieve greater goals together, while at the same time giving them the freedom to work and grow without micromanaging. They also need to ensure all processes and internal mechanisms run smoothly, adjusting where necessary. Despite this, I strongly believe that junior and non-executive level employees keep companies alive and ensure the smooth running of services and business operations by doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women entrepreneurs outperform their male counterparts, but despite their businesses generally being more resilient than male-led organisations, funders can be biased against women. According to data published by the Centre of Entrepreneurship, the U.S. Census Bureau, Dow Jones, the Harvard Business Review, the World Economic Forum and The French National Agency for Research, women make better entrepreneurs. They are more ambitious, focused on long-term success, are fairer negotiators, take less uncalculated risk, prioritise business success over egotistical gain, and overcome more barriers to success than male entrepreneurs do.

Women entrepreneurs tend to secure more return on investment and use company funds more wisely than some of their male counterparts, and often try to ensure win-win situations for businesses and their stakeholders.

So why are there so few women entrepreneurs in the first place, when there is so much potential out there?

Research suggests that banks are biased against female entrepreneurs, even though women-owned firms generate significantly higher revenue, create more jobs, have lower portfolio risk, and 97%-98% repayment rates on loans, and all this despite the fact that women are 10% more productive than men and do more work in less time.

Existing women entrepreneurs are under-resourced, and aspiring entrepreneurs lack the confidence to get started in the face of all the structures that are set against them, especially if they come from marginalised backgrounds.

What might also complicate matters is that women-led organisations more often than not take on a more social dimension and seek to resolve a social issue, so often the foundation of their business decision is not for personal gain but rather for the greater socioeconomic good. Personally, I think that the biggest challenge is convincing women themselves that they are able to establish businesses, scale them from small to large, achieve success, and manage this effectively. This is achievable for any woman, and the first step to business and C-level.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

A lot of my time currently goes into event planning and organisation as well as stakeholder management and budget meetings. I expected that we would focus more on digital marketing, but events were prioritised this year due to years of pandemic-induced lockdowns, as we decided to make up for lost time and focus on building relationships with potential business partners and customers in 2022.

Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

It’s only natural that we always look at the biggest business leaders and try to follow their example, but no one particular leadership style or role works for everyone.

Personality isn’t something you can totally change, or ‘copy and paste’ onto yourself. We should be open to learning from experience, but have realistic expectations that rather than being a second rate Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey, the only option we really have is to learn from the best to become better versions of ourselves. Weakness in one area is a strength in another, and it may very well be that you’re the right executive in the wrong role.

For example, empathy is a strength in marketing and other relationship-based industries, but it may be a weakness in other industries. Instead of forcing a square peg into a round hole, aspiring C-suite professionals should find their unique niche. Where do you best fit? Where can you be the best version of yourself? What is the unique role that only you can play? Maybe not everyone can do my particular executive role, but there are hundreds, if not thousands of executive roles out there, so there may just be something for everyone who’s willing to put in the work and self-development!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? 

Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to be perfect and perform flawlessly all the time.

Prioritise wellbeing and mental health, no one will say to themselves ‘I wish I worked more overtime and cancelled more holidays’ on their deathbed.

You don’t have to ‘act like a man’ as a woman or ‘act like x successful leader’ in order to succeed. It is sexist to think that if a woman is an assertive and capable leader, this is somehow because she is not your typical woman, ‘not like the other girls’; women of all shapes and sizes should lean into what makes us unique, and explore the roles we can best play and excel at in a company, rather than force ourselves into someone else’s expectations or image of success.

Take all ‘expert advice’ with a pinch of salt and balance it with your own expert opinion — even the best of us aren’t always right. Take Bill Gates for example — he famously stated that in a 2-year period, we would eliminate all spam messages, yet here we are in a much less spam-less world than he hoped for! Sometimes we will be advised about the directions we should take our businesses and services, but in our dynamic world of rapid change, there will always be new situations and technologies where nobody is really the expert. The best you can do is make calculated, data-driven risks, and hope for the best, whilst planning safety nets in case the worst-case scenario becomes a reality.

Sometimes I wish I had better coaching around recognising the Sunk Cost Fallacy. We all have a tendency to pursue projects destined for failure because so much time and effort has already been invested. Persistence is good but we don’t always know when to throw in the towel and move onto bigger and better things. I wish someone had taught me the value of ‘failing forwards’ sooner, it would have saved me a lot of time, energy, and resources in my previous roles!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger…

As the global energy crisis deepens, sustainability is more critical than ever. It will be a massive challenge for our times and our industry to become Net Zero, or even better, Carbon Negative. I would love to be able to create such solutions that combine profitability and financial sustainability with environmental sustainability and social equity. For example, listening to x hours of audio could help us plant trees, fund ocean cleanups, and support initiatives that support the educational and professional outcomes of disadvantaged young people.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them!

Hands down it would have to be Jeff Bezos, mainly because he is the head of one of my previous employers! You could say he was my boss in the past, even though I never met him directly during my time at Amazon. I remember going to Seattle on business, only to have my colleagues advise me: “You need to have an elevator pitch prepared in case you meet Jeff in the elevator!” I didn’t meet him then, and still haven’t met him unfortunately, so now, if I had the opportunity, I’d like to meet him for lunch and find out what it’s like to be the owner of such a big company, whether he has any plans, dreams, or if he wants to achieve something else. It would be interesting to get some insight into who he really is as a person, not just as a business leader. Since I am a Co-Founder in an audio adtech company, I would certainly ask Jeff Bezos what kind of music he likes to listen to, if he has a favourite radio station or podcast! It would also be fascinating to hear which direction he sees interactive ads heading, especially on Alexa smart speakers.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

This interview with Candice Georgiadis originally featured on Authority Magazine.