05/12/2015 15:19 GMT | Updated 05/12/2016 05:12 GMT

Women in Business Q&A: Kristina Lengyel, VP Global Professional Services, Kronos

As vice president of global professional services, Kristina Lengyel is responsible for driving the strategy to deliver exceptional services to the growing Kronos customer base, while driving high customer satisfaction and loyalty world-wide. She has been a key driver of Kronos' accelerated time-to-value deployment supporting traditional on-premise workforce management customers through cloud transformation while managing a staff of 800+ professionals globally.

Lengyel has been with Kronos since August 2010, and during the first three years she was vice president of engineering responsible for more than 300 engineers across the world. She carried responsibility for Kronos' entire data collections business as well as HRMS and all aspects of iSeries, Stromberg, Efficient, Smart, and TimeLink engineering and product management.

Prior to joining Kronos, Lengyel was the senior vice president of global technical services at Open Solutions and managed more than 300 on-shore and off-shore technical and operations professionals focused on product quality in support of the organization's audacious growth plan. She held several key executive roles at Concerto (now Aspect) Software, the world's largest company solely focused on the contact center industry. Prior to Concerto, Lengyel served as a senior vice president of technical operations and chief technology officer at INSCI Corp.

Lengyel holds a master's degree in business administration from Northeastern University, and a bachelor's degree in computer engineering from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. She was born and raised in Hungary and now lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Geza, and daughter, Aspen.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

This is a difficult question for me to answer, as it's an experience I'd blocked out for years. I am a first generation immigrant - or, a 'successful runaway,' as I prefer to call myself. I left Hungary in 1986 after being rejected from my university of choice because I refused to join the communist party. I decided then that I would not allow others destroy my dream of becoming someone or something - I didn't consent to living the rest of my life feeling inconsequential.

I packed my bag and headed for the unknown. Since I left illegally, I entered a refugee camp in Traiskirchen, Austria - Bundesbetreuungsstelle für Asylwerber - which is still in operation today. Life was hard. Life was scary. Life was uncertain. I officially could not work in Austria, and I refused to become a prostitute like so many other female immigrants. With no discernable skills, I survived on odd jobs. I worked for farmers picking and planting. I cleaned houses and babysat. I stacked firewood, washed dishes, shoveled snow, and cleaned windshields of cars stopped at red lights.

After about a year, Canada granted me a landed immigrant status, so I once again packed my bag.

By 1987 I'd landed in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario without a single word of English knowledge. In the fall I enrolled at the local college on an academic scholarship, and immediately found myself in a computer engineering classroom full of men. I was the only woman and the only person who could barely express basic life needs in English. It was the start of a professional life dominated by male colleagues, and some very interesting early exchanges gave me even more courage to stay true to myself.

Shortly after graduation I got my first job in a steel mill in Regina, Saskatchewan. Yet again, I was the only woman, the only foreigner, and the youngest on the floor. The mill didn't even have a ladies' room. Still, I loved these people. They were the kindest, most honest, and genuine gentlemen I have ever worked with.

This early adulthood journey taught me a few lessons I live by in my personal and professional lives.

• We always have choices and the choices are our own. Life in the refugee camp was hard, as was life in my new home country. But it was my choice. I chose to leave my homeland and my loving parents. I chose my own path - this path. Even when you are the most desperate, you still have choices, and the easy path may not be the best path. As long as you take charge of your life, the mistakes and the glories are all yours.

• Never take opportunities out of convenience. I had many opportunities during my journey, but I was selectively opportunistic. I knew the path I wanted to take and where I wanted to end up. When an opportunity presented itself, I assessed it and took it only if it kept me on that path.

• Draw the best out of each day - today. Living with uncertainty in my camp days was the hardest. I didn't know what was going to happen next, where I'd end up, how long the deplorable living conditions would last, nor how long I'd be slaving under a miserable person just kind enough to give a day's work for a little money. To maintain my sanity, I forced myself to draw the best out of each day.

• Work is nothing to be ashamed of. I was a spoiled child. I grew up in a loving middleclass family - we didn't know any better than what surrounded us. Ignorance is indeed bliss. Once I decided to take charge of my future, I literally had to earn a living. But despite all the backbreaking and painstaking odd jobs at the refugee camp and during my college years, I was so proud to earn money on my own. Because I'm not ashamed to work hard, I know I can always make a living. I don't experience 'work fear' - the fear of losing my job or my position.

• Don't wait, make the decision. During my early life I had to make some life-defining decisions. Daily work-related decisions often pale in comparison and very few are irreversible - unless, of course, you're a doctor. Don't waste time evaluating the easier decisions. Quickly assess the consequences and the cost of remediation in case the decision is a mistake. Elevate only the most critical and high risk decisions. If the reward outweighs the cost of correction - don't wait, make the decision.

• Colleagues matter. Since I was the only woman at the steel mill and knew very little English, my life would have been miserable if not for my male colleagues. They showed compassion, caring, and concern not only for me, but the work that we were doing together. It proved that a person's level of education or standing in a company has zero bearing on how they treat co-workers. I'm fortunate to work at a company today that embodies these same core beliefs about how employees treat one another.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Kronos?

My experience working at the steel mill taught me the art of not wasting time. My coworkers were true gentleman, yet direct and extremely hard-working. Therefore, because everything we did was in real time, decisions had to be made quickly, and the guiding principles were always the person's integrity and pride in their work.

All my subsequent jobs provided the necessary experiences to succeed even further at Kronos. Like my belief in drawing the best out of every day, there should be a work take away from each day. These takeaways can be positive and negative. I call them 'my firsts.' At the beginning of my career and to this day I reflect on these firsts before going to bed. My firsts are becoming less profound and more common sense reminders, which helps bring proven best-practices to the forefront of my daily work life.

Fortunately, Kronos is a very nurturing and employee-focused organization. Employee engagement is of utmost importance, and it's a safe environment to take risks because we believe in innovation. So when I reflect at the end of each day, I know I can make changes tomorrow if a risk I took today didn't pay dividends. Kronites know that the right risks bring rewards.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Kronos?

Kronos is a fantastic place to work. It's both welcoming and accepting. People are also recognized for their skills, dedication, loyalty, and excellence - not due to a popularity contest. So of course a major highlight was being recognized as a leader at Kronos. But it's not my top highlight. I am most proud of building and nurturing multiple high-performing teams - both from my time heading up global engineering and with the professional services team today. I am very blessed to be able to work with many talented, experienced, smart, capable, and witty people.

My daily personal challenge is proving my self-worth. It is silly when reflecting on my accomplishments, but my own insecurities create a restless desire to accomplish something meaningful and tangible each day. This is not what the organization expects from me, but this is what I expect of myself.

One of my biggest professional challenges is around our organization's cloud technology transformation. As Kronos and our customers aggressively and successfully embrace cloud technology, we must remain loyal to our on-premise [software] customers. The professional services organization I lead continues to undergo our own transition - culturally, operationally, and financially. Reducing the time to value for customers is more relevant than ever, and continuing to drive an enhanced customer loyalty-focus requires a fine balance of emphasis, commitment, and experience to maintain high utilization. In this time of industry transformation, we can never, not even for a second, take our eyes off the ball. It is challenging but exhilarating at the same time.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

Know your stuff! It doesn't matter if you are a woman or a man: you must know your industry and you must know what is expected of you. Knowledge is the foundation of your success. My family always jokes about me being a perpetual student. Well, especially in today's world, you have to be one. You need to be able to keep up with technology advancements, professional services industry evolutions, and our customers' vertical industry shifts and trends as they take place. Find a balance and the right sources of information to make yourself relevant not only today but well into the future. And don't be afraid to demonstrate what you know.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?

I live my career with one simple rule: Don't try to read people's minds. Don't do the things you think others want you to do or say You cannot read minds. Employees, especially women, have a tendency to try to please others, and we're often hyper-focused on pleasing our boss or our boss' boss. Stop wasting your time. Do what you think is the right thing to do. Say what you think is the right thing to say! Do your homework, research, prepare, work hard, and focus on solving the business or technical challenges you or the organization is facing. Your own results will bring glory and recognition, not the number of people you please. People will grant you your reward only after you deliver the desired results - not when you temporarily appease their worries.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I have two rigid rules for work/life balance that have slightly evolved over time thanks to technology: Have a firm separation between work and life, as well as unbendable time for family activities.

I keep my family in the dark about work. I very, very seldom discuss work at home. I want to be known as Geza's wife and Aspen's mother, or a kind-hearted neighbor, or the volunteer teacher. Kronos is a huge part of me but doesn't describe or define who I am. I have very many wonderful work acquaintances, but only a handful are friends. For those few, work is a taboo subject outside of the office - especially if my husband is present, as I lovingly joke that he can't keep up. Unfortunately you have to work a little harder today at separating your work and personal personas, since so many people try to define you by what pops up on Google or LinkedIn.

I also allocate unbendable time for family activities. For example, when my daughter was young, I worked an obscene amount of hours - sometimes as many as 18-20 hours a day at the Canadian steel mill. However nothing else existed except my family between 6:00 and 8:30 p.m. No calls, no work, no running over the day's event. We played board games, we had bath time, we read, we fought over silly things, we walked, we studied, we ate. When I began managing a global organization serving global customers, conference calls could resume at 8:30 p.m., but not before. This was our time.

We also allocated either a long weekend or a week each year for a mother/daughter trip, a father/daughter trip, a husband/wife trip, and a family trip. Since my daughter is now an adult, we have a different timeslot for our activities, but the rules stay the same. Giving and gaining the undivided attention to and from our loved ones makes a huge difference. Although we spend more physical time with our work family, the quality of time with your real family is what matters. Remember: We are in control of making time for living. Make time for what's important to you and give up those things that offer little value.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

The biggest problem for women in the workplace is trying desperately to fit in while maintaining their true identity. There's so much talk about equality in the work place that women have a tendency to go above and beyond to become just another employee - or, more frankly, just one of the guys.

We try to talk like men, act like men, and even, as the saying goes, be the man. I was guilty of this in my steel mill days. I dressed like a man. I spoke and swore like a man. I had a buzz cut and even shaved my head few times. Sounds silly, right? It was all in an effort to be perceived as an equal member of the team.

I've learned being equal does not mean being the same. Be yourself and be proud to be a woman. You can achieve equal treatment by producing equal or better results while maintaining your unique identity.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

I admire many strong women, but the four that always make my list include:

Margaret Thatcher - Her transformation into a public figure without jeopardizing her values and beliefs are truly commendable. Her ability to make decisions even when she was introducing unpopular policies around welfare, trade unions, and industry privatization is amazing. I loved watching her on TV when I was a young girl. While I have no idea if the Hungarian translations were accurate, her strong presence and elegance mesmerized me at an early age.

Maria Tecla Artemesia Montessori - Her intuition into scientific pedagogy was and still is refreshing. My own daughter is a Montessori kid, starting at two-and-a-half until age 10. I don't just admire her educational methods, but her desire to spread social responsibility. She was the public advocate for education, which included incorporating disabled children into our society. Leveraging all her learnings - from special education to mainstream classroom teachings - to create a responsible and independent society is something I will carry with me for a lifetime.

Eleanor Roosevelt - I absolutely gravitate to her profound intelligence. Who wouldn't? She was an amazingly astute and funny woman. She was also extremely self-aware and had the ability to draw people to herself despite her lack of what some deem modern beauty. You cannot be a leader unless you can entice followers, can you? And of course I love reading her quotes - she had a clever and perceptive phrase for every situation. Some of my favorites are:

• No one can make you feel inferior without your consent (this one's my favorite!).

• A woman is like a tea bag: you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.

• The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.

• People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.

Madeleine Albright - I've always admired her wit and ability to maintain her unique identity. Even when I disagree with her politics, her arguments are both entertaining and insightful. In her public appearances she remained mysterious but transparent at the same time - her pins spoke on her behalf. One of my favorite coffee table books is her 'Read My Pins.'

What do you want Kronos to accomplish in the next year?

In the world of workforce management, Kronos is leading the industry migration to the cloud. Cloud technology allows our customers to achieve faster value realization, instant availability of the latest and greatest features and functions, while reducing the burden on their internal IT staff because the solution is managed, scaled, and upgraded by Kronos. Yet while the benefits of cloud and software-as-a-service (SaaS) are clear, shifting the industry mindset about workforce management and how we deliver professional services will be a major focus for the next year and beyond.

Historically, enterprise software was all about the product. But you'll notice there's no 'P' in SaaS. From the customers' perspective, they no longer buy product - they subscribe to a service. The product will remain important, of course, but today's customer is expecting a solution. I want to drive the industry to approach this new SaaS world differently while we take our customers through their cloud journey and deliver the experience they expect and more. We'll teach our customers a new way of thinking and even a new way of speaking (e.g. instead of using NPI for New Product Introduction, we will instead focus on NSI for New Services Introduction; the person who used to be known as a Product Manager will now be the Solution Manager, etc.). We'll also maintain strong relationships with our on-premise customers by providing freedom of choice.

It won't be unlike my early days as a successful runaway: living in a new and unfamiliar world surrounded by a foreign language, but the long term return on investment proved by far that it was the right choice. And for Kronos, it means we can further strengthen our wonderful lifetime partnerships with our superb and loyal customer base.