Interview with Professor Ibolya Gothárdi

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Ibolya Gothárdi, former HR director of Vodafone, completed her Master's studies at IBS in 2014 and started to teach at the Department of Management Skills in September 2015.

Where and what did you study?

I studied Hungarian and Russian languages at ELTE and then business at the Budapest Business School followed by the Master's programme here at IBS a year ago. When I received my first diploma, majoring in Human Resource was not an option as it did not exist.

Interestingly I was lucky enough to work from very early on for big international companies like British American Tobacco, PepsiCo or the Big Four where HR played an important role and we had the opportunity to learn about the upcoming trends in people management. I always enjoyed gaining new experiences and knowledge by Western countries and US mainly. I have been in HR in my entire career and it was my desire to have an official education in HR as well. This was the reason to start my studies at IBS as it could luckily offer a one-year study programme besides work, which suited both my private and work schedule. I started to teach at IBS at the Department of Management Skills in September 2015.

Where did you work before IBS?

As I said, I have always been in HR, I spent 8 years at Vodafone Hungary as the HR director. I left Vodafone at the end of September 2015.

Why did you leave this apparently great job?

In HR we have an unwritten rule: you have to stay in a position minimum for three years in order to perform at your best, to really show what you can do. Ideally, you stay for 5 years but no longer than 7 in the same position. When you are sitting in a position for more than 7 years, there is a high probability that you get used to things too much. You might lose your drive and your fresh eyes approach.  In Vodafone we tried to identify different opportunities for myself.  These options were either not challenging enough for me from a professional point of view or the countries Vodafone offered me to work in did not have a high level of security. I also had to consider my family when thinking about moving out of my home country.

Did you have a favourite IBS professor? 

I definitely have fond memories of Katalin Tardos, I wrote my dissertation with her tutorship. When I was a student here, I did like the international and diverse spirit and the high level of professionalism and also the way of thinking how we approached Human Resources as a subject. Before coming to IBS I had some discussions with my HR peers and colleagues. Some of my friends had asked me why I wanted this diploma. ’You have so much experience and you cannot learn anything new’, they said. However, I did find it very useful. When you are in a workplace, you think as business dictates. Here, at school, you put it into a structure, a system. You structure your thinking here while in the workplace you simply do it. I really enjoyed raising my practical knowledge to a higher level, to read and learn about the different types of approaches and views.  There were a couple of very exciting articles and of course some others got me upset, e.g. one titled “Why do we hate HR?”. We, HR people can and should do a lot of things to change the perception of HR being just a cost line within the companies.

Why do you think people hate HR at all?

Firstly, I think they know very little about HR. Secondly, many people think that anybody can be smart enough to do it or to deal with people, and you do not need any special expertise. They cannot imagine how complex it is. Not anybody can be an HR professional, similarly to a good cooker or a nurse.

What was the topic of your master thesis?

The title of my dissertation was ’What would make HR truly strategic?’. The debate has been  going on for decades about the optimal balance of HR being strategic versus operational. So I was exploring which stakeholders and business factors influence HR to be a truly strategic partner to the business.

What was your answer?

Many people think that HR cannot be strategic within a company because it is just about people and not truly generating money or revenue. There are other views that claim the opposite. HR can indeed make an impact on the business which I proved with some research and case studies  e.g Vodafone. So my answer was that actually without the full support of the CEO you can do a lot but can hardly maximize the strategic input of HR.  You also need the top and middle management in order to implement the ideas that HR advises. So, practically the role of HR depends on many stakeholders, the CEO, the management and HR – I called them ’the triangle’ in my dissertation.  Of course, a lot depends on how much HR is willing to take the challenge, if it is capable to contribute to the business and how much HR itself dares to transform its operation and the traditional way of working. 

Is this what you teach IBS students?

My major goal in teaching is that I want to share my experience and more importantly, to create a 21st century mindset for my students about what HR should do and how it can contribute to sustainable business growth by having a high-performing organisation and an engaging working culture. So practically, I have a kind of promoting role to let students recognize the importance of HR, so one day when they will work for a company, they will know exactly what they can expect from HR and even if they do not have HR qualifications they will have a wide pool of tools and techniques to manage and motivate people with.

You mentioned your family earlier. Do you have kids? Do you have a favourite hobby?

I have twin daughters, they are 16 years old now.  I like cycling and every year I do the cycling tour around Lake Balaton with my family. It became a kind of family tradition.  We started doing it when the girls were 9. I was a little bit afraid that 220 kilometres would be too long for them, so first we cut it into parts and we spent two or three nights somewhere and then went on the following day. At the beginning, we covered the distance in four days.  Now we do it in two, which is a big challenge for me, but not for my daughters any longer or to my husband who used to be a professional cyclist.

MSc in Human Resource Management