Jana Vohralíková

 

“Having a job as a REWARD”

 

Jana Vohralíková, Head of the Office of the Senate of the Czech Republic, Photo: Petr Zmek

She started with the revival of the YMCA in the Czech Republic, continued in state administration and a top IT company, supervised investments in the Czech University of Life Sciences, and is now modernising the Office of the Senate. When she reflects on her career, she talks of coincidences, and opportunities that couldn’t be resisted. She began her managerial career in top positions after post-Velvet Revolution maternity leave, in the non-profit sector. Not only did the reconstruction of the YMCA palace take place under her leadership; together with her team, she gradually built the Czech YMCA into an organisation whose scope of activities equalled sister organisations in countries where its operation was never interrupted by a communist regime. Another seven-year stint brought her into state administration. There she worked, among others, in the Office of the Government as the head of Prime Minister Jan Fischer’s team of advisers. And then came an offer from the owner of leading Czech IT company Anect, Mirek Řihák.

He came to her with a challenge – she should stop saving the world, and learn to do business. I got to know Jana at that time; we were brought together not only by the small number of women in top IT positions, but also that need to change the world. After she completed her tenure in Anect’s Board of Directors, she planned a break to think about her next direction. She had been on holidays for a week when a former colleague informed her about an announced selection procedure for the Quaestor of the Czech University of Life Sciences. And because there were more former subordinates there who wanted Jana as their boss, it was another offer she couldn’t refuse. What’s more, the academic environment was once again another opportunity to learn something new. At that time, the Czech University of Life Sciences realised large projects paid from European funds, so over 2 billion CZK of investment funds literally passed through Jana’s hands. She was selected for the function of Chancellor of the Senate by former President of the Senate Jaroslav Kubera. During two years, the Senate changed not only due to the unexpected and tragic departure of the former President, but also with regard to modified functioning because of the pandemic. In her position, Jana is proving that she never ceases in her efforts to build and modernise. We met for lunch in the Senate’s prestigious dining room. The royal blue, which returned to the premises after the reconstruction and for which the Senate received an award, underlined the dignity and history of this place. At the same time, however, the institution must be prepared for effective functioning in the 21st century. Enjoy our summer interview, which can be an inspiration on how to push through changes in a complex environment. We also discussed the legacies of important men, Albrecht von Wallenstein and Jaroslav Kubera. And you should certainly come and take a look at the cultural performances that are taking place in the Wallenstein Garden as part of the Senate for Culture event.

Jana, you’ve held the position of Chancellor of the Senate for almost two years. Your afore-mentioned professional career proves that this position is part coincidence, and also an opportunity that cannot be refused.

With regard to the selection procedure for Chancellor of the Senate, I was contacted by Jan Bubeník. At the time, the large projects in the Czech University of Life Sciences were completed, and I was once again thinking about the next challenge. I didn’t think I had a chance of succeeding in the position of Chancellor. But Jan convinced me that I should simply try entering the selection procedure. And I really longed to meet the then President of the Senate, Mr. Kubera, in person. The selection procedure became one of the nicest experiences of my life, thanks to the legendary charisma of President Kubera. At the time, President Kubera asked me why I’m interested in the position. And I asked him if I should tell the truth. My reasons were to meet him, to have the opportunity to take the tram to work, and my love of historical buildings. The President laughed out loud, and pointed out that I’ll have a driver; I insisted that I’ll be taking the tram. And we laughed like this the whole time. He told me stories from his time as Mayor of Teplice, while I spoke of my collaboration with Mayor Miroslav Brýdl in Litomyšl, with whom I realised YMCA projects. And Mr. Kubera continued: yes, Mr. Brýdl, it was he who invented the word “inbetweeners“, which I often use. After an hour, I came out of the room and saw another candidate, who looked like a seasoned manager, waiting in the corridor. I stopped hoping that I have a chance. The last round took place before the Senate’s organisation committee, as the supreme body that coordinates all activities. I went to try again. And the first question from the President was once again why I want to work there. And I want to hear the truth, he said. The other questions were professional. When they were saying goodbye to me, they thanked me and informed me that I would have to wait for some time for the result of the selection procedure. I hadn‘t even had time to walk to Lesser Town Square when my phone rang. “Welcome aboard,“ President Kubera told me. Two days later, I was in his office picking out jewellery as a gift for the President of the Slovak Republic, Zuzana Čaputová, In 48 hours, my world had turned upside down.

When you started, you told everyone that the position of Chancellor is a reward after years of hard work. Do you still think so?

I don’t say it quite so lightly anymore. Much has changed. Within half a year of me taking up the position, President Kubera passed away, and then the pandemic began, which changed absolutely everything. This set of coincidences was even commented on by one senator, who noted that nothing had happened in the Senate in 22 years. And after I joined, two fundamental events took place at once. Is it my bad luck, or do I simply bring changes with me?

Let’s stay for a while with the genius loci of historical buildings. I experienced it myself when I worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Palais Toscan, and then in Škoda Auto in the premises of the Na Karmeli monastery. The Chancellor’s office is located in what used to be Wallenstein’s bedroom. You’re surrounded by prestigious premises, to which the elegant royal blue has returned thanks to a sensitive reconstruction, and the President of the Senate is the second most important constitutional official in the Czech Republic. How to take care of the legacy, while at the same time modernising it? To let yourself feel obliged, but not bound?

I have great humility in relation to the work of our ancestors, whether it concerns ordinary village cottages or large palace. I think I have a great sensitivity for what it took to create, build and maintain the specific work. From the very start, I’ve been walking, or often rather running on my tiptoes here. I perceive our ancestors‘ incredible legacy, and the fact that I have the honour and opportunity to care for it for a while. I like walking through the garden in the morning when it’s open, and I realise how long the palace and garden have been standing here, and how I can move this value further while at the same time transforming it into a new era. The functioning cannot stay the same. Wallenstein’s legacy carries singlemindedness, a desire for success and his legendary great ego… When you look at this incredible complex of buildings, which spreads out below Prague Castle, it’s clear that this all represented a truly great challenge for the then monarch. Wallenstein’s large portrait also hangs in my study, directly opposite my desk. By the way, at the moment it’s loaned to the National Gallery, so I don’t get to enjoy my view of Wallenstein in the morning. A portrait of Wallenstein’s wife hangs immediately beside it. It seems to me that her gaze is slightly reproachful, while he appears very confident. A part of my daily ritual was sitting at the writing table, looking at Wallenstein and remarking, with a smile, that a woman’s hand rules here now. And by the way, I’m glad that you noticed the sensitively realised reconstruction, for which the Czech Republic rightfully received the UNESCO award.

Let’s move on from the reconstruction to other changes. You already mentioned the premature departure of former President Kubera, and then the outbreak of the pandemic. I still remember that President Kubera’s departure affected us all.

It was an unexpected and extremely painful change. Small places of reverence, with an ashtray, an unfinished cigarette, a burning candle and a rose appeared in the palace. Outside there was a large place of reverence; now there‘s a bench dedicated to Mr. Kubera, together with an honourable decoration he received in Taiwan, in the courtyard.

People really liked the President. I think he was one of the last politicians who used common sense. He liked people. He was often among them. People still remember how the door would suddenly open, and the President would come in and ask them how they’re doing, even though he didn’t need anything. He looked for ways, not obstacles. The times that he received foreign delegations were an incredible experience for me. In the Protocol Department, they always prepared a speech for him for the ceremonial plaques. He would read the first three sentences, and then close the plaques and start talking to people. And he managed to find out a lot that way. Statesmen rarely talk to one another. They usually stick to prescribed formulas. The President liked people and wanted to find out as much as possible about them; this approach opened doors for him everywhere. I miss this in politics today. It’s a duel or a fight rather than a topic and understanding.

Speaking of accessibility, from the position of the public I perceive positively the effort to leave the Senate and its premises open and accessible to the public as much as possible, obviously while taking into consideration the current epidemiological regulations. The Cultural Summer is currently taking place in the Senate, and Charles University is using the Wallenstein Garden for the traditional meeting of its alumni.

The Cultural Summer in the Senate has a long tradition; I merely inherited this project. Every senator has the opportunity to present a leading ensemble from their region, which then gets the chance to try performing in the Wallenstein Garden. It’s a specific form of national networking. This year we have the Senate for Culture programme, whose creation I participated in promoting. This project arose in response to the pandemic. Culture belonged among the sectors most affected by Covid. It was clear to us that Covid wouldn’t disappear, and at the same time that there would be a great demand for summer theatre. And so we decided to offer the sala terrena to eminent ensembles so that they could perform there. In addition to Prague theatre companies, artists from Olomouc and Jihlava will also appear there, thereby supplementing senators‘ regional programmes. The Wallenstein Garden is truly beautiful, and there is great interest in this performance. At the same time, we’re showing how state property can be used for the benefit of regions in need.

You came to the Senate with the aim of reforming its office, so that it would support the activity of lawmakers who could then do their best for the people.

Before my arrival, the functioning of the office had been almost the same for 22 years. The senators spent a few days a month there, and the rest in the various regions, which was fine. With Covid, meetings were held much more frequently, if not every week then every second week. Strict hygienic measures were adhered to, and there was no participation by the public, but there was the option of using a remote connection. Overnight, the restructuring of not only IT but also organisational support began. I came across the ceiling faced by many employees who had been working here for many years, and all of a sudden were expected to walk quickly. I often use this parallel, because one of the employees told me that when I run fast in the Senate, there’s a draft behind me. First I thought it was a joke, but they were serious. People who were of retirement age couldn’t manage the pace of change. Other employees left because they weren’t interested in changing approach. It’s difficult to recruit people for state administration from the outside. From my perspective, state administration has two major shortcomings. The first is remuneration according to tables and classes, and the second is the large number of state officials. If ministries and other state institutions were able to function not on the basis of remuneration according to tables, but according to actual performance and on the basis of managerial direction, everyone would be better off.

The absence of the public at meetings raised the need for active communication. A certain section of the public still isn’t convinced of the benefit of the Senate. On the other hand, trust in the Senate was strengthened by the pandemic. The Senate was seen to correct laws coming from the Chamber of Deputies. And at the same time, with the current composition, it’s able to reach a consensus and agree on a necessary change. The Chamber of Deputies thus passed many laws in the version proposed by the Senate. There were even cases where the Chamber of Deputies itself asked the Senate to correct laws.

And we’re back to my first experience in the non-profit sector. I managed to put together an excellent team here, which sees meaning in the work we do. I manage to motivate people, because I myself am convinced of my goal and its meaning.

Linda Štucbartová

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