Phenomenal Women of AltoPartners – Julia Zdrahal-Urbanek
Meet Dr Julia Zdrahal-Urbanek, the dynamic founder and managing partner of AltoPartners Austria and the AltoPartners 2020 Cross-Border Consultant of the Year. For the past twenty years, she has helped shape careers across Austria and Europe and is equally at home in the boardroom of a global conglomerate as she is advising edgy start-ups and family-owned businesses.
What was your childhood career dream?
I wanted to become an environmental activist. At age 10, my friends and I organised a charity pop-up store before child activists or pop-up shops were even a thing. The few Euros (then Schillings) we earned seemed massive to us, and we donated the money to the WWF. Although I ended up taking a different path, I remain a passionate supporter of fairness, equal opportunities, and sustainability.
How did you get into Executive Search - was it by accident or design?
Accident. I completed my Master’s in psychology in Vienna and then moved to London with my husband, with the idea of working in academia. I applied for several university research fellow positions, but the hiring process took forever. Then a friend introduced me to a recruitment firm. I liked the place and team immediately, and they hired me right away. My time in recruitment was an excellent foundation for when I started in high-level executive search a couple of years later back in Vienna.
Did you have a mentor? What was the best piece of advice they gave you?
My first boss in executive search was one of the Grande Dames of the industry. Now retired, she forged a place for herself in what was once a male-dominated environment. She taught me most of my executive search skills. I admire her bravery, and we speak often – she always provides an interesting perspective. It is a testimony to her that most of her mentees went on to become highly successful executive search players. She believed in letting us find our own way in executive search, on the proviso that we stayed true to ourselves, acted authentically, and adhered to a moral code of ethics. It’s advice I still follow every day. Today I have a great team and fantastic partners, and she certainly played a role in developing my leadership style. From a technical skills perspective, she taught me perseverance and accuracy, which is critical in our line of work, and how to find the one candidate – the needle in the haystack – who is a long-term fit in exactly this one situation, surrounding and company. High placement success rates and satisfied clients are the best business development activities for future assignments and long-term client relationships – which we have. I still preach the same principles to my own team.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Today numerous professional mentoring programmes match mentor-mentees and provide tailored support on the knowledge and skills you need to acquire to get to the next level. I would recommend every young manager consider one of these programmes. It introduces you to important insights and opportunities that would otherwise take decades of experience to achieve.
What’s your superpower?
According to my family, I can be at several locations simultaneously. At least my husband and my sons are convinced of that. On a serious note, my family is my superpower. I am a family person, and as my job involves many long hours, I enjoy spending as many evenings and weekends as possible with them – I draw strength from them.
Is there any search assignment that sticks out for you?
Every search assignment is unique, but there is one that I will always remember particularly fondly. I was doing a search for a non-executive director role for a family business portfolio group. I really enjoyed discussing the role and challenges, trends, and pain points in board rooms with the shareholders. I had almost completed my shortlist when I was offered the role myself. Reviewing my own criteria list, I happily accepted. It’s been a joy.
What do you do to relax and recharge?
As an Austrian, I love mountaineering, and we are spoilt for choice with the lakes in the summertime and skiing in the winter. As a Viennese, and due to my husband being the CFO of one of the Viennese theatre institutions, I enjoy cultural life, and the European in me loves to travel. Fortunately, these are activities I share with my family, so we do many things together.