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Interview with Helena Eklund, Commercial Director Northern Europe, Odeon Cinemas Group

We are excited to be joined by Helena Eklund, Commercial Director Northern Europe, Odeon Cinemas Group, for this month’s interview! Helena is an inspiring executive who knows how to lead with compassion. She is also a great supporter of mentoring, having had mentors along her career journey and being a mentor in the third edition of the UNIC Women’s Cinema Leadership Programme. Helena shared with us her path to leadership and her learnings along the way.

UNIC: Tell us about your daily habits that keep you inspired and motivated.

Helena: I try to get a walk or some time outdoors every day. I find it very inspirational to see the seasons change and to let my thoughts wander while walking. I find myself more relaxed and with a new perspective on both small issues and larger challenges after my time outside. I also connect with my team and get a lot of inspiration and motivation from hearing about their day and where they are in their current projects.

Another major source of inspiration is to visit our cinemas and meet the guests and see how happy people are and what we do in this business is all about.

Humour and laughter are  also a part of everyday that keep the stress levels down and motivation and inspiration high.

Last but not least I have always read a lot – mostly fiction but also non-fiction and that is always both inspiring and motivating for me.

UNIC: Looking back at your career journey, what are you the most proud of?

Helena: Right now, I must answer that we made it through the pandemic with all the changes and amount of flexibility, focus and empathy that took me and the team through this. I truly think that we will keep analszing these last couple of years and the consequences for quite some time still.

Something more general that I am proud of is that I have had the courage to take leaps into unknown territory and trust that I would learn as I go and that people would help me along the way. That I have said yes so much more often than no.

I am also very proud of the people I work with now – both the leadership team, where we have managed to build a strong team based on trust and respect for each other’s roles as well as my own team that are amazing people that have shown such resilience and have grown into new roles during the most challenging of times.

UNIC: What were the biggest challenges you encountered throughout your leadership journey?

Helena: In my opinion it is all about the people and how you manage to build the right team so I have had to look hard at myself and see what I bring as well as others in the process of supporting and developing teams and people around me. But there is tremendous value and satisfaction when you succeed!

Another challenge for me has been to come to terms with how different people respond to change. How I could strengthen their ability to recognize when it is time to let go - of people, of ways of working or a pet project. Change management really.

UNIC: In retrospect, would you do anything differently?

Helena: I do believe it is the journey itself with all its bumps and U-turns that helps you develop and grow so I am not sure I would do so much differently. The only thing I can think of is that I could have asked for help more often instead of trying to manage everything myself in challenging times or in difficult situations. I realized rather late that people do not think less of you if you do, and that it is actually satisfying for others to be able to help out and support.

UNIC:  What are the key insights you know now that you wished you knew at the beginning of your career?

Helena: I think I answered that in the above question :)

But if I would add something: it is to not have unnecessary respect for people that you see as “experts” and to speak up and be more certain that your perspective and opinion are valid and needed if you are part of a discussion and have a seat at the table.

UNIC: Having a demanding role, how do you balance your work and personal life?

Helena: A constant battle…no but on a more serious note, I think that the hardest is during the years that you have small children. At least, I had many years where I felt that I was needed somewhere else, wherever I was. And that left me trying to compensate all over and the only one really suffering in the end was me. But I did learn to carve out time for myself and do yoga, take walks, meet friends and relax. Something else that I think I learned during those years that still sticks, is that I can switch on and off pretty quickly if there is an e-mail that I need to answer or a meeting on the weekend or in the evening. I usually bounce back pretty quick into the place or mood I was when I was interrupted. I also decided very early on to always answer calls from my closest family if they called in any meeting or during my work-day. That way I knew they would always get in touch if I was needed and I could relax more and focus at work.

Another very important key for me has been my closest friends. To have friends that you have known for a long time and also outside of your professional role has been invaluable for my balance in life.

UNIC: Did you have any mentors in your career?  Who has been a mentor to you?

Helena: I have had several mentors. One of my first and most important to me was the Marketing Manager of one of the major film studios who hired me right after university. She believed in me and encouraged me to take on challenges that I was not even remotely ready for, if you looked at my experience only. I have also been lucky to have had senior colleagues that have shared insights and guided me and connected me to people that they thought I should meet.

UNIC: You were a mentor in the third edition of the UNIC Women's Cinema Leadership Programme. How was that experience for you?

Helena: I think it is such important and needed work what UNIC does with the Women’s Cinema Leadership Programme and I really appreciated being part of the third edition. I had an amazing mentee in Anna Grunert. She is such a talented, ambitious and structured person that it was a pleasure to be mentoring. She always came prepared and had so many insights as well as questions that we always ended having very meaningful meetings and conversations and I learned so much myself from our sessions. I would encourage anyone to be mentor or mentee in the programme.

UNIC: What advice do you have for current mentors and mentees?

Helena: To keep an open mind and give enough time to each session. To the mentees I would say that it gives much more back to them if they come prepared and have an idea on what they want to achieve or to reflect on during the session or throughout the mentorship programme. For the mentors I would say listen and ask questions. Usually you do not need to have the answers as a mentor – in my experience most of the time the mentees have the answers themselves and just need a bit of help along the way to find them.

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