As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katherine Kostereva, CEO and Managing Partner at Creatio (formerly bpm’online) — a low-code, process automation, and CRM company, focused on accelerating marketing, sales, service, and operations for midsize and large enterprises. Kostereva has bootstrapped Creatio and has grown it to a global software company with offices around the world, a team of 600 engaged professionals, and thousands of customers worldwide. Katherine’s vision and strategy have produced fruitful results — Creatio has one of the highest customer satisfaction scores in the CRM and BPM industries. Its team of 600 people are passionate about its product, which is highly recognized as a market leader by key industry analysts.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Ico-founded Creatio (formerly bpm’online) 17 years ago to help businesses accelerate digital transformation and bring their business ideas to life through automation.
As a young sales professional, I was tired of not being able to automate processes within a home-grown CRM. The system we used was outdated and was hard to integrate whenever new technologies were added. I set out to create not only a process-driven CRM that would encompass marketing, sales, and service in a single platform, but a CRM agile enough to change processes on the fly. With this in mind, we bootstrapped Creatio without any external capital or support.
As the company grew and took shape, my role transformed too. When we started, we were a team of five enthusiasts in a small office in Europe. Today we have over 560 employees in five offices around the world. To drive the company’s growth, I had to take up more managerial than entrepreneurial functions. However, this is what I like the most and what is in the DNA of the company — changes require us to be agile and adapt rapidly to the business environment.
What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
I wasn’t head over heels about the position itself. I was driven by the idea to help companies — midsize and large organizations — to automate processes and get better business outcomes. The CEO position allows me to apply my knowledge and skills in the most efficient way. As a co-founder of the company, I could have hired a CEO a while ago. But I really enjoy what I do, I enjoy being a part of our dynamically growing business. I can practice my skills and reach my full potential. I can’t imagine any other position that would make me feel as happy as I do now.
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?
In a few words, it’s strategy and leadership. The CEO’s job is to make strategic decisions to fully achieve the vision of the company and at the same time build a strong team of leaders able to execute this strategy.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I enjoy any opportunity to leverage the never-ending possibilities that our business has, and helping other organizations accelerate their digital transformation.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
The fact you are working 24/7. Even when you rest and try to lounge around, you are still in work mode — your thoughts are all about work. It’s hard to set boundaries between work and personal life when you are always mentally on the clock.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The main myth is that executives are people who have a flexible schedule and a high level of freedom. But we all know that the more freedom you have, the more responsibility that requires. Being an entrepreneur and an executive isn’t about autonomy, it’s about discipline. Independence requires you be responsible. Thus, the key trait executives should have is discipline.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I’ve been in the IT industry for 20 years; 17 of those years I have been a CEO and managing partner at Creatio. The truth is I’ve never faced any challenges that were directly connected to my gender. I believe the challenges that women and men face in business when building companies are absolutely in the same vein. Through the years, I’ve noticed both women and men have the same talents, skills, and capabilities. Both male and female executives face the same challenges, because achieving any goal — especially a big, ambitious one — is always a challenge paired with obstacles, difficulties, and problems.
However, society fosters men in a way they cannot even think of giving up. The society teaches them to grow a thick skin and keep trucking along no matter what comes their way. When women face the very same difficulties in business — no greater than those men face — because of social norms, they know they have an escape route of being a good wife and mother. We’ve been taught that someone should embody hearth and home, and that this someone is female.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
What interested me most was the path to our global growth. We started the company in Europe, then I relocated to the US, and now we have 5 offices and 600+ partners around the world. The journey there was the most interesting endeavor that I ever took part in.
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?
As part of our efforts to build better partner network and attract new customers, we organize tour events around the world. Last year we had 12, all in different countries and continents. Some of the events were held back-to-back.
The funniest thing happened a couple of years ago, when we had an event in Australia followed by one in Indonesia. I had to speak at both, but because of an emergency ended up flying to USA right after I was on stage in Melbourne.
That meant we needed someone else to go to on stage in Jakarta, speaking in front of 500 people. Due to time constraints, we couldn’t bring anyone from Europe or USA. The only person who could fly to Indonesia at that point in time was our first employee in Melbourne, who we just hired the day before. It was literally his first day at Creatio, and his first “assignment” was to speak about Creatio on a stage in front of hundreds of people. He handled this difficult task amazingly well though, especially considering the circumstances. 🙂
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Something I cannot get used to how many new things and skills there still are in the world that I’d like to learn to be more productive in my role. Every day I discover that I know even less than yesterday — a new, far greater layer of knowledge and skills I need to grasp shows up, and I had no idea I would need them. The amount of knowledge and skills I thought I needed to have 10 years ago was much smaller than of today. The scope of it expands on a daily basis.
That’s a good feeling, of course — it always drives me to become a better version of myself.
Certainly, not everyone is 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?
Becoming a CEO is not a matter of luck or even persistence alone. It’s a set of skills that includes being courageous and having a mindset geared towards growth as well as a backbone, intelligence, and an ability to deliver results. Having this well-rounded skillset ensures success both for the CEO and for the organization.
If a person lacks proactivity, drive, and the ability to envision the roadmap for growth, then maybe being a CEO isn’t the right choice for him or her.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
First off, if you believe in your goal, it’s easier to be an inspiration for your team. Stick to the ideas you strongly believe in and follow them!
Secondly, a team of like-minded people is the strongest asset you can have, so it’s your job to engage them and make sure you all are on the same page.
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 am grateful for. Some top executives have been with the company for over a decade. We’ve been growing together, supporting each other and bringing our boldest ideas to life together.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Our tagline is “Accelerate,” and as part of our corporate social responsibility we have a program “Accelerate good deeds!” Our teams and I personally always enjoy giving back to the community — taking part in charity fairs, supporting orphanages, and helping non-profit healthcare organizations on a regular basis. Whatever resonates with our employees, we embrace it.
For instance, our Boston team recently not only donated to the Cradles to Crayons organization, but also visited their location and filled backpacks with supplies for children in need. One of our teams in Europe regularly donates to the children’s cancer hospital. They also hold creative and art workshops and give a ‘chest of courage’ to kids fighting the disease. Other colleagues recently took part in a charity marathon. On Halloween, we hold a blood donor day. We also support various eco initiatives in our offices and make sure we consume sustainably. At Creatio, we form a culture that helps employees across all offices give back to their communities.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
There is actually one thing I wish someone told me. An executive’s job is a 24/7 engagement. To achieve your goals, you really need to go the extra mile. When looking at celebrities or great leaders in business and thinking they do it with ease and grace, understand that it also takes a lot of effort, strong will, and discipline to accomplish extremely difficult tasks. You have to give it your all, and it takes a lot of work.
Everything is achievable, challenges can be overcome, and knowledge can be gained — any smart person can learn anything, but it takes hard work, often so much work that you won’t have proper work-life balance. Becoming a better you will sometimes require sacrifice in many areas of your life.
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.
We create a world where any business idea can be automated in minutes. Our solutions focus on helping organizations accelerate business process automation and CRM, which ensures people dedicate their time to less routine and more creative or strategic tasks. I see it as our mission to help organizations focus on the tasks that require a human approach and free their minds of anything that technology can process.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite is a quote by Lewis Carroll: “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” It is relevant to the fast-changing environment we are in, and the quote is a great illustration of the problems we address: we help companies accelerate, because it’s crucial to do so when facing constant changes and fierce competition.
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
Can you please tag Jeff Bezos? ☺ His approach to developing business — focusing on customer satisfaction — really resonates with me. All processes, the company culture…everything is built around customer obsession principle. The customer is at the center of their philosophy, vision and strategy.
Secondly, I really like his attitude regarding the growth of the company. He has always given leading roles to people stronger than himself and this has helped his company significantly.
Thirdly, he has high standards and is uncompromising in a good way. Amazon has always been his top priority. I admire his commitment to making tough decisions, because it is required of you to make a lot of hard choices for the benefit of the business, which isn’t always easy to do.