Illustration by Enrique Cropper
“Understanding a colleague’s motivations is key to working effectively together,” I was explaining, as the aroma of our morning coffee wafted over our conversation about career development in the European Regulatory Authority.
My colleagues, Phil and André, both gave me blank looks. I spouted on. “So I try, as gently as I can, to let any new intern in our unit know that it’s best, if they want to be the Director General by the age of 40, to tell me sooner rather than later, because then we all know where we stand, and we can all get on with our work.”
What I did not tell them was how I had come to learn the value of asking, up front, such a personal question. Her name was Karolína and she came to work with us, fresh from Prague and her Masters degree in political science, in the spring of 2004.
Karolína was, at first meeting, what my mother would have described as ‘A lovely girl’. Slim, tall, with bright, radiant blue eyes and well-groomed, long, blonde hair. Trim black trouser suit, black patent leather shoes, high heels.
From the day she arrived, she began asking pertinent questions about our policies in the ERA and wanting to know “What makes zis machine tick”, as she put it, in her delightful Czech accent.
Karolína and her boyfriend, Matyáš, had both started their internships as part of the same intake. He was a translator, a quiet young man, thoughtful. She was in finance policy with us. She fitted in quickly, “Every now and again, along comes a Natural”, my Director said more than once.
Karolína always came for lunch in the canteen with someone from the department. She never spent much time with her fellow interns at work. Early on, I introduced her to my wife, who had also been at the Univerzita Karlova in Prague during her Erasmus year. Karolína never said no if there was any chance of making new contacts. She and Matyáš seemed so well suited to the ‘Brussels scene’: smooth relations at work; drinks and social life on weekday evenings; visits to nearby European cities at the weekends. I was impressed.
The voices of my colleagues shifted on to the subject of motivation at work. They were gossiping about colleagues who say they find it hard to get out of bed in the morning. I was still thinking of Karolína and the friendly custom we had in our group of keeping in touch with our former interns.
I found it hard to say I wasn’t too surprised that Karolína was one of only two people that year who received a short-term contract to stay on after her internship, she was that good. She went to work on a dossier, which, at the time, was taking most of our Director General’s attention – an across-the-board cut in staff of 10% in the department.
It was around the time Karolína was starting her contract that we heard Matyáš was staying at home to study, preparing for the exams to enter the ERA as a translator. We seldom saw him at work, while Karolína seemed to get more and more involved with her dossier. In the corridor, she had quickly established a habit of only pausing long enough to say “Hi”, then adding “I must go, I have an appointment”. She was frequently seen with the Director General, striding up the hill to the Management Board meetings.
My colleagues were now larking around and joking on about one of our former colleagues, whose girlfriend had cajoled him into having a dog.
“In the summer he’s up at 5.30 to take the dog for a walk, no trouble getting out of bed anymore,” mocked André, while I was still mulling over Karolína’s story.
Some months passed before we found out that Matyáš had entered the ERA. He had succeeded first time, a rare achievement. Then, a year or so later, though there had never been any talk of a wedding, we were all pleasantly surprised, when Karolína let it be known that she would be interrupting her contract to have a baby. And we were even more delighted a few weeks later when we heard she was expecting twin boys.
It was only when Karolína came back, soon after the birth, saying she would be saving her maternity leave to use it later when the boys are older, and that, since Matyáš had passed his probation period, he could now take unpaid leave to look after the little ones, that it all made sense: Karolína had got a fixed contract as assistant to the Director General for Industrial Affairs, with immediate effect.
I must have had some sort of frown on my face because André seemed to be making a deliberate effort to bring me back into the conversation.
“We all need to take it easy, it’s a free world, and people are people, and we’re not all high flyers, you know” he said.
What he did not know was that I had been the last one to realise that one particular bird had already flown.
From the time she moved on to Industrial Affairs Karolína came up less and less often in conversation. Then one day, the news broke that Karolína and Matyáš had split up. He had left Brussels and had managed to get a transfer to a geo-satellite agency not three kilometres from his parents’ home in Prague. The breaking point seemed to have been reached when Karolína got offered a top job in the Cabinet and had decided to take it. What was hard for me to work out was that she had insisted on keeping the twins.
The more I thought about it, the more I felt I should have seen it coming: Karolína the “Natural”; Karolína with the meteoric rise to assistant to a DG; Karolina the woman who could be both the professional and the perfect mother, all in one.
The news of Karolína was the first thing I told my wife when we met for our usual quick lunch. She made a comment I will never forget.
“George, you know she’s only being a woman of her times. It was quite clear to me from the beginning, her career always came before her partner”, she said.
“And it sounds to me like Karolína said goodbye to you lot and her partner a long time ago, without ever leaving the ERA. It happens far more often than we like to think”.
I dismissed Karolína from my mind, the dregs of coffee in the bottom of my cup reminding me it was time to return to work. My colleagues were both looking at me blankly again.
“Come on, guys, you’re looking so serious” I chirped “You’ve had your reward for today in a coffee cup! Let’s get back to the fun and games that make Europe!” I added, as we stacked the dirty crockery at the collection point and made our way to the lift.