Articles & Insights

Lessons in Leadership Series: A Conversation with Adrian Cojocaru

“Most importantly, I determined that I had to be decisive. The best answers to anything were ‘yes’, ‘no’ and words that implied action.”

Lessons in Leadership Series: A Conversation with Adrian Cojocaru

Adrian Cojocaru, former Managing Director of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, talked to C.O.I.’s Rowena McAllister about how his childhood in communist Romania inspired a passion for embracing change, while holding on to uncompromising principles. Adrian shared what inspired and shaped a global career that led him from North America to the Middle East, to Africa and back to Europe.

Mr. Cojocaru’s career took off with Coca Cola and this led him to global corporations where he held positions of ever greater responsibility in human resources, personnel development and recruitment. Adrian Cojocaru holds a Mechanical Engineering degree from University Polytehnica of Bucharest and did his post graduate executive studies in Organisational Development at Ashridge Business School in the U.K.

Mr. Cojocaru, having spent the majority of your career in global recruitment and HR roles, what would you say are the keys to recruiting and building teams across multiple cultures?

I would say the most important thing is to enter into the recruitment or team building process with a mindset that understands differences and will make accommodations for the varying ways people behave. Another aspect is to be respectful of the local ways of doing things. For example, respectful behavior in one culture can mean something different elsewhere, and even in different parts of the same country there can be nuances that you should at least be aware of and appreciate so you can gain trust.

In recruiting, it is important to make the candidate feel at ease; that is how you can really start to make a connection and see the authenticity of the individual during the recruitment process.If a corporation’s aim is to be global, then embed these principles of respect and sensibility of local culture & communication.

There have been many highly successful business entrepreneurs who have had the admiration of outsiders but still did not have the respect of their team. When developing a team, decide what are you going to represent and stand for, what will be your team’s ‘brand’. Ask yourselves, what do you want to be known for amongst your internal as well as external stakeholders – and deliver that, consistently.

In order to develop strong, effective and successful teams globally, the top executives should ‘walk the talk’ and be prepared to invest in the team and develop individuals. In my life I had some people who were prepared to offer me opportunities – that is what great leaders do, it is not just about money but providing chances for people to grow.


In your experience, what makes an individual stand out during the interview and assessment process, and why?

When I am interviewing, what I look for is, above all, authenticity. For the most senior roles, I will meet with the interviewee in a less formal setting, over coffee or dinner and really get to know them. The best advice I can give is for candidates to be themselves. If the role is not for you, then do not talk your way into it, you will regret that and you won’t be happy in a position that doesn’t suit you. Also, be fact-based. For my part, I appreciate that the interview, like a doctor’s visit, can be stressful, this is something that could change the trajectory of someone’s career so I will take the time to set the scene and relax the person so I can get the best from them. In any interview, be prepared to give lots of examples and back up what you say with results. I enjoy seeing someone’s sense of humor and being self-deprecating is extremely winning and engaging, but also be concise and to the point.


If you had to identify a single event in your career or life that contributed the most toward your emergence as a leader, what would it be?

I believe that my time at Mars was extremely important in my own emergence as a leader. I was assigned a position in Central Europe at a time when these countries were emerging from communist rule and into independence. It was a period of great turmoil and extreme challenges. I volunteered to take on an additional position leading management development and training for the region. I learned so much. Most importantly, I determined that I had to be decisive. The best answers to anything were ‘yes’, ‘no’ and words that implied action. People just despised anything that smacked of ‘wait and see’ – it pushed me to be decisive and create real change. I had to deliver initiatives that were not always popular and had to hold people, including myself, accountable. This period in my life taught me how to serve as well as lead, while delivering change and being compliant.


What advice would you give to your 21-year-old self about how best to influence and guide others and what pitfalls to avoid, hard lessons to avoid?

 I would advise my younger self starting out, to be genuine all the time. Speak up when necessary and know your worth to obtain the right deal because if you aim too low, people do not respect you. Be articulate and polite but do not be intimidated. The younger generation entering the workforce has grown up never knowing a world before 9/11 and there is less stability in many ways. Their world is much more instant and ‘real time’, so I would say be respectful of what and who came before you, while maintaining your own views and be positive, show interest and things will become interesting – dare to be impressed!

I would also say, take time for the most important things in life. Growing up my parents worked 6 days a week, but Sunday lunch together as a family – well that was sacred. As a teenager, I did not appreciate it, would much rather be hanging out with my pals, but now am so thankful for that time together, to connect, to build real memories.


What would you say are the most important characteristics or reactions an individual could adopt in order to handle and adapt to change best?

Change is inevitable and is one of the certainties in life. My advice would be first and foremost, do not panic. Muster your strength and make yourself fit for the change – adapt and plan how to embrace it because change can never be stopped. Like a domino falling, once the chain reaction commences, it will not be held back. Do not be in denial and accept it.

If I think about driving, which I enjoy doing, if you are on a curve, adapt your driving and go with it. I have a pond in my garden here in southern England. I watch the algae reach an equilibrium and everything in the pond looks perfect – but guess what? Nothing stays perfect, and without oxygen my pond will die. Like an ecosystem we need change to survive – change in seasons, change in temperature and for us in our personal and professional lives change is inevitable. Cry for the past certainly, but then embrace the future and your place in that.


Can you share an amusing moment or experience in your career that brought levity to an otherwise serious situation?

Two very amusing moments spring to mind. One was an interview we had set up for an Executive Assistant to the Board. We had assembled a panel and the interviewee took her seat. We had started the questioning when a colleague of mine, who I was not expecting to see as part of the panel joined us. When his turn came to ask some questions, he started ‘So what was the biggest procurement project you ever managed?’ The candidate was floored and had to admit, she had never worked on such a project. We were all confused, but my colleague ventured on, “well tell me about any procurement project” at which point it became obvious that someone was in the wrong interview room, and it was not our candidate!! Fortunately, everyone saw the funny side and the candidate laughed as much as we did!

Another time, as CHRO I was interviewing for a Managing Director role for a substantial size business division. I went against my better instincts and accepted a late application by email and invited the candidate to interview the next day. When a gentleman arrived in flip flops, Bermuda shorts, Hawaiian shirt, I was astounded. The interviewee explained that he was on the way to the Maldives with his family. While it was an amusing moment, looking back it was also a lesson in preparation. The candidate was ill-prepared as well as way under dressed, the interview was, in essence, a huge waste of time, but I hope a great lesson for the candidate. Now, whenever I see an Hawaiian shirt I am whisked back in time to that interview!

By Rowena McAllister