Do you know many women who, in their 60s, decide to up sticks and move to a different country? Unusual, isn’t it?
The conventional view of 60-something women, is that they are slowing down, preparing themselves for retirement in familiar surroundings near their grandchildren.
But that’s not the narrative of my Page 1 woman, Terezia Koczka, because for her, age is not a barrier. And she doesn’t fit the stereotype of a woman in her 60s.
My Page 1 Woman was brought up in a Communist dictatorship where life was strictly controlled. People weren’t free to learn what they wanted or travel abroad. That came later.
But, she proved to be a fearless dynamo from an early age, because she knows who she is and what’s important to her and she goes all out to live as her authentic self. And in this space she has found the platform from where she achieves.
Her recent move to London reflects a life of going against the grain in the context of her native Hungary – married and divorced twice, (when this wasn’t expected of women); qualifying and working as a civil engineer (when few women in her country were doing this) and being one of the first Hungarian woman to get an MBA (studying at Edinburgh University, in English – a language she didn’t feel terribly confident in). The list goes on.
For a woman to defy conventional expectations in a democracy such as the UK is difficult enough. But to do it in a dictatorship when things were tightly regulated was risking a criminal conviction.
So how did Terezia Koczka get away with it? Read on and find out more.
Describe your work.
Terezia Koczka: My company, ‘Key Coaches’, specialises in executive coaching working with company leaders who want to be great and with their teams.
I mainly do developmental coaching, working on a specific goal of behavioural change. I believe that those who decide to develop their personal growth through coaching, change effectively, develop resilience and become inspirational leaders making a difference in the world.
I believe in conversations – which is what coaching is. It’s the most ancient and easiest way to cultivate the conditions for getting to know the values we want to stand for or for making desired change. Conversations can give us the courage to act, to be open and honest about our fears, struggles, dreams and ideas. It’s the way we discover how to transform our world into one that we really want.
‘Key Coaches’ was set up in 2000 in Hungary. I recently registered it here in the UK. I was unhappy with life in Hungary and I couldn’t see how I could continue to develop there.
The name ‘Key Coaches’ came about when I worked for Ernst & Young between 1995-99. In 1998 there were rumours that KPMG and Ernst & Young would merge. Jokingly, together with my colleagues, we came up with this K from KPMG and E and Y from Ernst & Young. ‘Key Coaches’.
What was the journey that took you to ‘Key Coaches’?
Terezia Koczka: As a teenager, I wanted to escape from my family and be free and the only way I could do this was to go to a university outside my home town, which happened to be technical. So I chose to study civil engineering in order to get there.
When the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1990, I was the owner of a small engineering company designing bridges and structures. There weren’t many women doing this at the time. I did civil engineering for 19 years but it wasn’t my passion.
I discovered my passion, – coaching – at Ernst & Young and got my first coaching client in 1997. In those days, I was told that when you support the sponsor of change, you could call it coaching. Although I didn’t really know what coaching was, I was keen on making a contribution, by helping people achieve.
In 2006, I got my coaching qualification in the UK, set up the Hungarian branch of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council and became its president. I wanted Hungarian coaches and mentors to join a community which had the most compelling vision for the future of the profession. I became the Director of Standards (responsible for best practice and accreditation) in the UK earlier this year.
I’m someone who likes to do things my way, according to my values, but it sometimes gets me into trouble. For example, I’ve been married and divorced twice as I wasn’t able to be who I really am in my marriages. I worked as a civil engineer for so long because I had to give my children a stable life. As soon as they grew up, I went after my dreams.
What essential step did you take to get you to where you are today?
Terezia Koczka: I quit my job. I had two sons and was expecting the third. I was exhausted and couldn’t spend enough time with them. I wondered how I would manage with a third child. So I quit work which made life easier. As usual the solution was based on my values.
At that time, in Hungary, you had to have a registered job. It was recorded in your ID booklet. Without that, you were illegal. The country had been centrally controlled by the Soviet army since 1956. So quitting my job was a risk. I went freelance for 4 years and built up private business in civil engineering.
But I was lucky. In 1980s Hungary, the communist regime became more relaxed. New laws were brought in, amongst them, one which allowed us to set up private companies. And I set up my own civil engineering company – one of the first in Hungary.
If I hadn’t taken the risk and quit my job I wouldn’t have set up my company and I would now be counting the years left before I die. Instead, at the age of 63, I’m in the UK looking for new opportunities and new people. I’m learning new things in a society I love but hardly know. It’s inspirational and keeps me young and physically fit. As for Hungary, I like the people and the country but I don’t like what is going on at the moment. The current approach and the tone, takes my energy away. What a shame to have that after 25 years of being a democracy.
What was the most significant thing that got you into your current position?
Terezia Koczka: I decided that if I wanted to die being true to myself, I needed to persist in creating that person. When I knew ‘it’s time to step forward’, I did it without fear and I quit the job. I got divorced when I had little support. As a woman you were expected to stay in a marriage even though it wasn’t right for you. You were required to live according to what people expected of you rather than follow your instincts. But I didn’t care about other people’s expectations. What I now offer is to inspire people open to changing their lives to fight external expectations and restrictions and find a way to create a more authentic life.
As a woman, fighting and competing like men isn’t an inherited behaviour. But I’m good at negotiating and I’m persistent. If I set a goal, I persevere until I’m there. I’m actually quite competitive but I do it like women do - with harmony.
What was the greatest challenge you faced on your journey?
Terezia Koczka: Managing the multiple roles I had in my life. I was just 23 and at university when my first child was born. There were practical challenges – managing time, money and my family and the logistics of home and university. It required resilience to keep cool and do it all.
And there were challenges of facing the unknown – for example, studying for the MBA. I didn’t know what it meant but I felt it was something I wanted to learn. And then moving from my birth country aged 60. Although I didn’t know how I would progress, I had enough energy to do it. I just trusted myself. And because I’d already experienced tough times I knew I was resilient, clever and persistent.
In Hungary if you came up with an idea, you’d soon get a list from everyone about why it won’t work, blah, blah - negatives. But if I’ve an idea, I list how I can make it happen. I don’t waste energy and time thinking much about obstacles. If your mind is focussed on getting what you want, it will happen. That’s how I overcame these challenges.
What was your biggest light bulb moment?
Terezia Koczka: Aged 17, on the train ride home from Budapest one night, I realized, that I wanted something different - to know the world, learn more, be independent in every sense.
My second revelation was in 2005, walking 30 km every day on the Camino in Spain. Although it was hard, I got the optimal psychological experience. I thought ‘Wow! I’m part of this beautiful universe and it would be different without me’. I felt that my contribution to the wider world mattered. I’m valuable. I learned that what I’m doing is right. That’s important as I want to be an inspirational role model for my grandchildren.
My third revelation came recently – that my motherhood is over but life is offering me more.
What key resource has been crucial to your success?
Terezia Koczka: Authenticity, persistence and how I was raised. My family wasn’t rich. Hungary and the area we lived in weren’t rich. These challenges taught me a lot. My grandma was a strong, great woman, who taught me alot. My dad taught me ethics in my relationships. So the biggest resource was my family and my friends and my parents supporting me and my crazy actions. And I know that I can go back to my mum’s house whenever I want to.
What do you understand by leadership?
Terezia Koczka: The best leaders inspire others. They create a learning space for their ‘tribe’ and give them freedom to grow and fly. I love visionary and caring leaders. But it’s not enough to realise change. It’s better to break the status quo and generate change before something goes wrong. Everyone can be a leader.
How has this informed your role as a woman leader?
Terezia Koczka: A woman who manages her family well is a good leader. My first leadership lessons came from when my sons were growing up. I found command and control - how I was raised- ineffective. Listening to them and reflecting what worked and what didn’t taught me a lot.
Women leaders should educate the world about female approaches – our sensitivity and our skills portfolio based on the multiple roles we play. Wherever these skills were developed (decision making, listening with understanding, contributing to someone else’s goals, empathy, selflessness, etc.) they are valuable for the corporate environment and wider society.
What are your top tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?
Terezia Koczka: Just lead. You’ll meet challenges but if you really want to lead you can. Take the first step and step by step find the smallest unit and work on it each day. Choose your direction and work towards it every day until you’re there. For example, if you’re learning a foreign language, aim to find 5 new words every day. Put them on post-it notes and study them in the loo each day. By the end of the year, you’ll know 1,825 words. So the focus is not on the 5 words but on doing it 365 times in a year. It’s the same if you want to be a leader. Work on it every day, step by step.