Natasa Djukanovic: “Keep learning”

Widen your interests — basically you can connect everything in life with your advancement in business, from walking to reading, from helping people and business to learning another language, from reading Stalin biography to sewing dresses. This is all learning. Most importantly, you have to give your brain a break from work. Some of the best ideas […]

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Widen your interests — basically you can connect everything in life with your advancement in business, from walking to reading, from helping people and business to learning another language, from reading Stalin biography to sewing dresses. This is all learning. Most importantly, you have to give your brain a break from work. Some of the best ideas I’ve had were created in my time off, when my creativity was free to take reign.

As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Natasa Djukanovic. Natasa is the CMO of Domain.ME, the international tech company that operates the internet domain “.ME.” She’s spent her entire career at the intersection of social media, leadership and technology, and is constantly trying to figure out the secret to being in three different places at the same time.

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?

Thank you. This is a real pleasure.

I never wanted or planned to do marketing. I was more into structure, organization, and financials. I jumped between three different industries in the span of 12 years and was in charge of rules and procedures, calculations, and reporting, as well as organizing processes and people in the companies I worked for. At a certain point, while working on reporting together with colleagues, we started brainstorming ideas on how to promote a product. I realized I lacked the structure in doing plans and started investigating. That lead to a lot of reading, doing courses and then, of course, testing my newly acquired skills. We started with implementing new ideas but with a focus on measurement. That kind of approach to sales and marketing gives much more feedback about your success. That also leads you to try to understand why trends change and why some patterns stick around for a long time. In this growing/learning process, I started widening my interests into psychology, communications, design, data analysis, even history. All of this, going from the point where I, as an intern, started with analyses, to implementing e-ticketing systems and credit card payments at a national airline, to doing finances and preparing reports at a bank, developed my attention to detail and to recognizing patterns. That lead to the point where I work now — with global multicultural business. All this to say — I built my career around being curious. And, having a great team of people around me is additional motivation to keep learning and stay curious.

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

What many people don’t know is that the CEO of the company I work for, Predrag Lesic, used to be an employee in the team I used to lead. I was a business development director for a national airline and he was in charge of IT in my department. Almost a decade later, when he started with domain.ME, the company I currently work for, he called me to be in charge of sales and marketing. We always joke that this was his payback. But in essence, I think our friendship, teamwork, and shared vision really helped set this company up to be what it is today. While we are often at separate ends of the debate table, we have a shared set of values and a vision of what a healthy and successful company looks like, which we try to lead by example. This helped us shape the company culture and build the team we have today. Also, having someone you can freely discuss and debate things over, and know that that someone is still your friend at the end of the day, helped us take some risks and face difficulties in a way I don’t think we would be able to otherwise.

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 “cleaning” and sorting out the list of premium .ME domains. Premium domains are domains that are set on a side not to be registered directly. There are many different reasons why you have a premium list, the main one being that you may want to preserve those engaging and catchy keywords for the best business ideas and initiatives out there. In any case, I wanted to arrange domains in groups they belong to. One of the groups consisted of “adult words” and I wanted to set those domains on a restricted list. The problem was that for many of those words/domains I didn’t know the meaning. So, unfortunately I asked out loud. You should have just seen the peoples’ reaction in the office when I asked. Everything fell silent. You know that strange moment when everybody is quiet and then they all start laughing. I am ashamed to say those words even today.

I learned my lesson, though — I Google first now after that.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

For me the strategic overview and planning always had a special flavor.

I got hired by Domain.ME when it was just starting as a company to do marketing but also manage the operations. Soon after that, we managed to set up the way we work in this way: we train people, define the strategy, and let people lead and implement their own projects in a form of “intrapreneurship.” That means that our hierarchy is pretty much flat. Everybody can make decisions by themselves. However, in order to make this possible, we have to set up the strategy right. We are a tight team. We brainstorm together, we propose ideas, listen to others, work together, and, at a certain point, make a decision together. This is because we want everyone in the team to be in line with the strategy, to understand it, and to feel accountable for their share; so, this can serve as our guideline during decision-making. Seeing this process come to life, and seeing people grow because of it, is what makes me feel really good as an executive.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?

For me being a CMO means being in contact with the team and making sure we are all in line with the goals and objectives of the business. That does not just mean in terms of revenue and profit, but even more importantly, in terms of the image of the company and the employees. This is true even for people from outsourcing companies that do work for us. This is the best way to make sure that, whenever somebody who works for your company thinks and speaks about the company, he or she has the image of the brand in mind. All the decisions that we make, from simply speaking about the company to signing an important contract, all have to be in line with the values of the company. That’s the most important responsibility of an executive.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I really like that I can start the brainstorming sessions. My team just gets crazy and their creativity flows. I then set the goals, constraints and limitations. We laugh a lot, even when I have to bring everybody back on track, but it always pays off.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

I don’t have much patience when somebody is not engaged in their work and the company, or when I think they are not engaged. I can be snappy. Thanks to my team and their experience with me, they also can be open and tell me to calm down, and I try to respect that. Another downside is that you always feel responsible — for everything, and you have to be able to deal with that.

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

“You can’t be a good executive if you are friends with your employees.” This has been proven wrong so many times for me. I think it’s really important to be friends with your employees. You spend more time with the people from your office than with your spouse or even your children. If you are not friends, if you can’t be open and honest with each other, your life can become a nightmare. Being open means talking about problems, saying when you do or don’t like something, when something hurts, or when you feel really excited about an idea.

We once went out for a birthday party, and we drank and sang and danced. The party was over at 2.00 am, and one of my employees asked if we needed to be in the office early tomorrow morning. I said — of course, with a kind smile. Everybody was in the office at 8.00 am. Your authority is not destroyed if you are friends with your employees. Plus, if you know your employees personally and keep track of their skills, challenges and interests — as only a friend can do — you can use these skills to their fullest potential and help them grow.

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

Women are usually less prone to risk and are often seen as too risk-free. I personally don’t like to take risks; however, there are situations when you have to take a step, or a leap, forward, during which I become really analytical. I like to put everything on paper and then making a decision becomes slower. Men at that point usually see me as a typical mother and protector; they evaluate me as slow and indecisive.

The point is we as women have to be more decisive and take the risk with more self-confidence.

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

I never thought the most important part of being an executive would be my relationship with the people around me; everything is so personal. This relationship and internal communication is the one thing, even before the operations, that builds the company and makes your job fun and successful.

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?

It is very difficult to say what a successful executive is when you hear people lauding leaders like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, and by every measurement they are not good leaders. For me, the best executive is not just the one who takes the company where Jobs took Apple or Musk takes all his businesses. It is more about what happens when they are gone and how the team continue to lead the company.

I think that to be a successful executive you first must have empathy for your employees, to be able to find the best in them and help them thrive, whichever leader type you are. Even authoritative leaders can be good leaders in terms of growing their employees and creating an encouraging and supportive work environment. I heard once that you should lead your company to become a place in which you would like your children to work. If you can do that, you are a good executive. This implies that people with low emotional intelligence should avoid being leaders, but even then — if they are willing to be open and non-judgmental, they can lead well, too.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Women are the greatest supporters or the worst enemies of other women in business. If you are a woman leader, find other women who work hard and help them. If you are just starting, find a woman mentor to help you.

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?

When I started working there was a female executive leading another department at the time. She called me and said that she saw how hardworking I was and that she would like to give me some advice. That was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. She behaved in many ways as a mother, but in so many ways as a friend. We didn’t talk a lot, but she kept checking in on me, and I kept going to see her to talk about problems, challenges and solutions. The trust we built is something I want to transfer to other women. I often help female entrepreneurs in their businesses (pro-bono). Sometimes I give professional help and sometimes I am just there to “hold their hand”. I think we all need it.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I have co-founded an NGO, with the goal of helping citizens and organizations in Montenegro to understand and realize exciting new opportunities for social change and business in the digital environment.

But I also try to help other women thrive, both as a mentor inside Domain.ME and as part of my community involvement. I think if you help people build their own businesses, your effort has a much bigger impact.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Don’t fight with people. — I didn’t used to like authority and I always fought it. I wish I knew that if I controlled my temper and fought less, I would spare myself a lot of stress. That doesn’t mean I would stop pushing for what I believed in, I would just do it in a more diplomatic and less aggressive way. Sometimes, if you manage to count to 10 first and think about your best approach, you can be heard better.

2. Don’t be quick to judge people. — In allmy impatience I used to blame people when they are, in my opinion, lazy. I called one of my colleagues in because of this once, and when we talked she told me about her sick father and how she needed a break. I felt really bad about it. Now, every time somebody behaves below my “standards,” I first try to see what the background story is.

3. Listen to people around you. — It was always difficult to explain to my kids what my job was. When they started understanding, they started giving me ideas on how to solve problems and later on, they even started to be invested in informing me about what was going on in certain fields I didn’t pay attention to, like gaming, different cultures, sports and at certain point good examples of advertising and promotions in different fields and channels. Also, when I had to explain “internet” to my 80-year old aunt and what my job is actually about, her questions actually gave me an insight on how people see the industry of domains. Based on that we started research and created a campaign that showed really good results.

4. Use reporting as a tool to reevaluate your efforts. — My team always makes jokes about me going back to the basics. Whatever we do I always go back to thinking about what the goal is and who is in our target market. That kind of thinking is connected to my mental preparation for reporting and it always puts us back on track. It is very easy to forget about your goals when you are under pressure and you have to be creative. That’s why reflexivethinking brings you back.

5. Keep learning — If you are working in any industry that is Internet-based, you have to follow the trends and changes in technology, but I also try to understand psychology, history and different cultures. That is not only reading the news, it’s also using everything the internet offers, being informed about different subjects from different standpoints. Sometimes that comes in the form of online courses, sometimes YouTube videos, and quite often it’s the people you surround yourself with.

6. Widen your interests — basically you can connect everything in life with your advancement in business, from walking to reading, from helping people and business to learning another language, from reading Stalin biography to sewing dresses. This is all learning. Most importantly, you have to give your brain a break from work. Some of the best ideas I’ve had were created in my time off, when my creativity was free to take reign.

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.

I think I already started that and the plan is to make it bigger. My friends and I started a women-entrepreneurs mentorship program, which originally was my solitary effort but now, with the help of my friends, is something much bigger.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Nikola Tesla — “Our virtues and our failings are inseparable, like force and matter. When they separate, man is no more.”

This probably goes well with some of the 5 things I shared, but my emphasis on empathy and my need to understand people. This also goes well with understanding and accepting ourselves, because you can’t make any progress in life unless you know yourself. Jordan Peterson compared knowing yourself to an inspection of a house you plan to buy or invest in. You have to understand what is wrong with the house if you want to start working on it. But for us it’s not just important to “inspect”, it’s important to accept. We have to accept our faults in order to learn leverage them strengths.

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

Sheryl Sandberg. Not just because she is one of the most prominent women in the world, she is also a human being, and she is not afraid to show it. (Plus, she and I share a birthday!)

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

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