Elena believes that people should be empowered to be able to deal with challenges.
A third generation African, Elena Papadimitropoulos, FD at Imperial Health Sciences, was sheltered as a youngster. But as she grew up, she was determined to prove that she could do anything as well as her male counterparts could.
Raised in Johannesburg, Elena initially thought her career would be in the arts, but stumbled onto finance while studying accounting in high school and fell in love with the discipline. “What I love about numbers and accounting is that if you do it right, everything balances. It’s like an equal universe and makes logical sense,” she explains.
Finding a passion for finance
While conservative, her parents championed her ambition and talent. “I was always determined to be independent and it was important to prove I was capable. I started working at a young age, and used to work on weekends for extra pocket money for clothes and other things. Taking charge of my career and life was important.”
Elena only found out later that her grandfather had been a CA. “My father didn’t want to influence my decisions in that way, but it was a pleasant discovery.”
She started her career at KPMG and recalls that it was a wonderful and formative experience. “There were very few women in the organization at that stage. Only one lady was a partner, but it was refreshing to see the promotion of women.”
She fell in love with the growth mindset, mentoring and training she experienced there. Stints in Cyprus and various countries in Africa, and training courses in London and the Middle East sharpened her passion for learning and developing herself, but also reaching for and lifting those coming up behind her.
Elena has held several senior financial partner roles and has served as the Chief Financial Officer on the sub-Saharan Board of multinationals including Merck and Nestle Skin Health.
Leadership that enriches
Elana’s outlook on leadership is that it should be inclusive. “I believe in taking people along and that means building skills in the team and making sure there are resources to succeed. Individuals should be empowered to deal with challenges.”
She says approaching people as human beings, and learning more about their story and background, unlocks success in the long run. “Integrating all the aspects of a person’s life strengthens the team and exposes you to fresh ways of thinking and innovative solutions to problems.”
Not one for half measures, Elena says one of the things that has helped her succeed is seeing herself as a business partner, not just an employee. “By extension, I am drawn to organizations that want to develop and give me the platform to give back. For me that looks like being able to contribute to the commercial aspects of the business, not just the finance or transactional side of the business. Being able to drive the business forward is what is critical in any of the roles I take,” she explains.
Getting back up after a knock
Elena took up her position at Imperial at the beginning of 2020. Shortly after she came on board and just before the financial year-end, she was diagnosed with Covid-19.
“I experienced all the major Covid-19 symptoms including high fever, hallucinations, cough and wasn’t able to work as I normally would, but the team really pulled through.”
After about 10 days she started feeling better but says in an unprecedented situation like that, you have to be open to doing things differently. “As a leader I was aware that people’s lives looked very different from what we were used to when we all worked from the office and work and home life hadn’t melded as it has. So we all made the necessary adjustments to deliver under tough circumstances.”
Elena says falling ill at the onset of the pandemic was challenging but collaborating closely with her team allowed her to stay on top of her work and tend to her home life, which was under strain as her husband and daughter battled the virus too. Post-recovery, she says the experience reminded her of how resilient we can be when faced with challenges.
Paying it forward
Elena says being successful isn’t a one-woman endeavor, and as such considers herself very blessed to have worked and partnered with people who share her passion for development throughout her career.
Learning and development is so close to her heart that before lockdown, she used to volunteer by tutoring at an orphanage in Kensington, and help out organizations that need finance or accounting assistance. Elena looks forward to the opportunity to share and develop with the people around her, and loves to see people succeed. “It gives me a personal sense of satisfaction to contribute where my skills can make a difference.”