Phenomenal Women of AltoPartners – Verena Acerbi
Ten years ago, partner Verena Acerbi took the bold step to join a small start-up founded by a former colleague, Julia Zdrahal-Urbanek. Today AltoPartners Austria is one of central Europe’s premier boutique search firms. The ultimate wing-woman, Verena has an enviable ability to keep dozens of balls in the air while never losing sight of the end goal. She combines a laser focus and a memory for detail with effortless charm and good humour. Well-travelled with extensive experience in international and cross-border assignments, the multi-lingual Verena has come full circle, having recently swopped the delights of Vienna and Northern Italy/ Udine for her hometown in the ancient kingdom of Carinthia, where she lives with her Italian husband and their family.
What was your childhood career dream?
Initially, I wanted to be a medical doctor, but as I got older, I went through a few career dreams – including wanting to be an international product manager! Ultimately, I wanted to find something I loved that would allow me to be financially independent. Fortunately, I found it!
Did you study after you left school?
After school, I left my small hometown of Villach in Austria to study international business economics in Vienna. At that time, I loved the idea of freedom and independence in the big city. Additionally, I spent one exchange semester at the University of Texas at Austin and completed an internship in Montreal, Canada.
What was your first job?
My very first job while still at school was at my grandmother’s village grocery store, where I would help her out on Saturdays. After graduating, my very first corporate job was at Flextronics as an assistant financial controller at the EMEA head office in Vienna: I had my first-ever job interview, got an offer and accepted it immediately. It was an excellent introduction to the world of multinational corporates, and I was lucky enough to work with international managers from very different backgrounds. It was the perfect primer for my career in executive search.
Speaking of which, how did you get into Executive Search?
Completely by accident. I had already realised that the financial sector was not really for me, and HR – my second major at university – appealed to me more. I was mulling over whether or not to accept an opportunity from Flextronics to go abroad to San Jose in California in a corporate finance role when I got talking to a headhunter who happened to be a friend of my then-boss. The whole concept sounded fascinating, and I immediately began applying to various search firms in Vienna. I was fortunate enough to land a role at one of the pioneering executive search boutiques in Vienna, where I could learn the business under the guidance of one of the doyennes of the industry.
Word in the office is that you are incredibly tenacious and never, ever give up. What motivates you to do what you do?
[Laughs] I love to do something positive. And few things beat the rush of finding the right candidates for our clients, bringing together two complementary components to make a perfect match. And it’s true, I am a bit relentless. I do not give up until I am satisfied that we have found the right candidate. It’s an intrinsic compulsion, but without it, I don’t believe it is possible to complete successful searches. I can’t settle for ‘approximately right’ appointments, but it’s worth it, as the perfect candidate is always out there.
Did you have a mentor?
My grandmother was a tremendous inspiration and a font of wisdom and solid advice. Together with my grandfather, she built a small successful family business at a time when women were expected to be homemakers only. She was a very strong woman with a big heart, who never gave up in life. She was tremendously practical and resilient and didn’t believe in complaining. Her advice rings in my ears still: never give up, or – as she would have said it - “Aufgeben tut man nur einen Brief.”
What advice would you give your younger self?
Travel more, get to know other cultures, and countries, and do not be afraid to leave home. You only learn and grow by leaving your comfort zone.
Do you have a superpower?
I find it easy to structure, organise and manage many moving parts simultaneously and still maintain a big-picture overview. And I think it’s because even though I love the big picture, I know that the magic is in the detail, which makes it easy for me to recall things – whether it’s to do with previous searches, or where the spare keys are kept. I guess you could call it a superpower.
How do you relax and unwind?
I’m very sporty, and we live in an area of outstanding natural beauty, so I spend a lot of time outdoors with friends and family. During the week, I relax by reading bedtime stories to my kids. Searching and sorting out small Lego parts can also be curiously therapeutic after a long day…