Tips on Managing Work-Life Balance while Building an Executive Career

Inspirational Executives Series – IBM Europe

This article discusses how Karolin’s career has grown over the past twenty two years, how she manages her work-life balance, and what advice she would give to others aspiring to an executive career at IBM.

Karolin Nakonz – An Inspirational Executive, Executive Partner – Government Leader, Cognitive Solutions Europe. London, United Kingdom.


Karolin Nakonz is an Executive Partner at IBM, with over 20 years experience of working with and for government clients. Her passion is to contribute to a safer and fairer society and to help create opportunities for all.

She leads the Public Sector in IBM’s Cognitive Solutions Team for Europe. The team’s mission is to help clients discover how cognitive systems (systems that are designed to understand, reason and learn) can transform the way in which public services are provided.

Karolin brings a deep understanding of delivering change in government, having worked on transformation programmes of large government bodies such as the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

Prior to joining IBM, Karolin worked as a strategy consultant and as a project manager at some of the world renowned multinational corporations.

Karolin holds a Master’s degree in Economics, and a postgraduate degree in Development Economics. She also holds the Oxford Diploma in Strategy and Innovation.


Can you describe your role at IBM?

I lead the Public Sector in the Cognitive Solutions Team for Europe. We develop and sell solutions that use our Watson capabilities, and that dramatically change the way in which Public Sector clients deliver their services. This area is still new and rapidly evolving, it’s full of opportunity and very exciting. For instance, we are helping police and intelligence organisations discover threats and investigate crime by ‘understanding’ unstructured text or video images; and we are helping hospitals to engage with patients by using avatars that can communicate in natural language.

 What skills have you developed over your 22-year career that led you to this position?

I have spent most of my career in consulting. As junior consultants, we were encouraged to develop a T-shaped profile, i.e. to develop deep expertise in one area, but also develop a good understanding across a range of topics. In my case, I had deep expertise in strategy consulting, and good skills in commercial deal structuring and program management.

It’s really important to become the ‘go-to’ person for a specific topic early on.

As my career progressed, soft skills became very important: leading teams, managing and nurturing people, negotiating with clients. The challenges get tougher, and choices harder, so you need tenacity and good judgment to succeed.

Outside of IBM, what are your hobbies, interests, and passions?

I like to be active, and typically prefer to be outdoors rather than indoors. I used to love extreme sports such as mountain climbing and parachuting, but have now shifted to sports that are more compatible with urban life and a young family. In London, I cycle, run and swim. I run a few half marathons and 10k events each year, and have recently completed my first mini triathlon. When not in town, I enjoy taking my kids to remote places to show them the wonders of the world.

How do you manage your work life balance?

I’m fortunate to have two fantastic teenage kids and a great partner, as well as a job that I love. There is never enough time to do all the things I’d want to do. A few rules have helped me over the years:

  • First and foremost, I don’t aspire to be perfect, and I’ve managed to resist the temptation of wanting to be a perfect mother. I constantly assess what really matters, and focus on getting that right.
  • The other rule is to keep my personal life as simple as possible. For instance, I have chosen outdoor activities that I can integrate into my daily routine, and I keep my social diary as uncluttered as possible.
  • Lastly, I take time out and head into nature from time to time. It helps me to stay grounded and keeps me energized.

Do you have any recommendations for employees aspiring to an executive career at IBM?

I’d recommend three things above all other.

  • First, take ownership. Whatever the situation you are in, don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do, and don’t ever say ‘it’s not my problem’ when something needs fixing.
  • Second, take yourself out of your comfort zone. This is particularly important for women, who in my experience are often worried about not being fully up to a new task. It’s ok not to know all the answers, what you need is good judgment on what you can do, and to ask for help where you need it.
  • And finally, don’t stand still, remain curious. Life is a fantastic journey, and IBM offers great opportunities for those who want to keep growing.

The Inspirational Executive series consists of interviews that profile executive IBM’ers across Europe to demonstrate how one may successfully build an executive career in this increasingly demanding market.

Juggling work, life, and family commitments is a daunting challenge, but this series reveals how, with careful time management, flexible leadership, and a willingness to embrace challenge, IBM can support successful executives throughout Europe to succeed in every aspect of their careers.

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