Leadership 101: Expertise can't replace empathy

Avast CEO Ondrej Vlcek says he drove colleagues away by focusing on technical issues at the expense of people.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 16 Oct 2019

Ondrej Vlcek has held nearly every job title imaginable during his 23 years at FTSE 250 antivirus firm Avast. Developer, head of development, CTO, COO, GM of Avast’s consumer division, president and finally as of June 2019, CEO. 

Having gone from working as part of a small team of programmers, Vlcek is now in charge of 1,800 employees in 27 offices around the globe. It would be easy to be fazed by his new responsibility, but Vlcek says elevating from GM to top-seat was nothing compared to making the leap from peer to manager. 


"The toughest thing was to change from being a team member to becoming a leader. I didn’t want to lose my human face or become arrogant or someone people didn't respect. 

"It’s actually harder than it sounds because you can take baggage from those days, where you were one of them and a direct peer. Earning that respect as a leader and leading in a way that helps the team is a challenge. I struggled with that, it took me years to develop the skill. 

"One skill that it took me a long time to develop was empathy. I thought for many years that I could just build on my technical skills. In the tech and engineering space where my background was, typically the people who are good engineers get promoted to team leaders and then to manager. I thought that was my career path. 

"But once you get to a certain level you almost have to forget those expert skills. You don’t want to come across as the smartest guy in the room. I had to develop empathy to put myself in the shoes of other people, and really try to see the world and sort a problem from their perspective. That wasn’t something that was native to me.

"As a result, I lost a few people. I really lost one colleague, he abruptly quit without warning saying he 'couldn’t bear it anymore' and there was a lot of pressure from his family life and other things that at the time I didn’t care about. That was a real punch in the face for me. That’s when I looked back and actually realised he was sending me quite a few signals, and I just didn’t react.

"When people enjoy their work, or work too much, as a boss you’re supposed to see that they might be overheating and detect it before they do. It took me years to develop that - it’s not really something you can master."

Image credit: Courtesy of Avast

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