Ana-Marija Garcevic, 45, is a Croatian living in Switzerland for the last 15 years.
She started rowing during the 1990s in Zagreb, at the same time as the war in Croatia was starting. She didn’t know it then, but rowing became a welcome distraction from the gloom of early 90s Croatia, and was a ‘cheap’ way to travel and learn about other cultures.
She reached the national team level and competed at the World Championships U23 (Milan, Italy) in double sculls where she and her partner came in 4th.
After working at the International Canoe Federation from 2005, she started work at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2008. She is the Head of Activities – Olympic Games Engagement since 2020.
It looks like you’ve gone from being an athlete to wearing a few hats at the IOC, can you tell us a bit about how this came to be?
It’s been a journey for sure! I was a rower in Zagreb (Croatia) during the 90s (yes, during the war), and as my sport career was clearly coming to an end towards 2000, I started to work part-time at the Zagreb Rowing Association, which led me to a job at the Croatian Rowing Federation, and two years later the Croatian Canoe-Kayak Federation, where I worked on a number of events.
In 2005, I was offered a position at the International Canoe Federation, which was based in Madrid at the time, on the condition that I move to Switzerland in 2006. After moving to Lausanne, and answering a job ad in 2008, I started working at the IOC, and since then it’s been an incredible Olympic ride. Since 2008 I mostly worked in the Olympic Games Knowledge Transfer and a multitude of its practical programmes, and then a couple of years ago I switched to Olympic Games Engagement areas.
Today I am responsible for the IOC Young Leaders programme, which is part of IOC’s broader vision to strengthen the role of sport in society as an important enabler for the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
What are the goals of the IOC Young Leaders programme and from where did the push for this originate?
The programme was launched in 2016, with the key objective to empower young talents to leverage the power of sport in making a positive difference in their communities.
With the support of seed funding from the IOC and a network of mentors, these inspiring young people have delivered over 100 initiatives, reaching over 30,000 individual participants.
As agents of Olympism they have also spoken at many international events, spreading the message of sport for good. Eighteen IOC Young Leaders are currently serving as IOC Commission Members, which reflects the IOC’s commitment to include young voices in its decision-making process.
What’s been the biggest change that you’ve seen for women in this industry since you started?
Things have certainly changed. Mainly, I changed. Fifteen years ago, my younger self was much less confident and much less aware of the gender-related issues that women face in the business environment.
This is also what I think changed the most in the sports industry: the level of awareness that gender equality and equity is something we need to proactively work on, individually and collectively.
The subject is no longer an unknown topic or a taboo. It’s openly discussed and actively addressed. As a result of these efforts, and since I started at the IOC, the results are pretty obvious. Female participation at the Games is up, the number of women in the IOC Commissions is up, the ratio between male and female senior managers within the IOC has improved. All these numbers are progressively increasing and driving us towards gender balance.
And conversely, what are the challenges/frustrations that still need to be addressed?
Obviously, there will be different challenges in different environments. In Switzerland, but also in Croatia, where I’m from, the policy and the law have arrived, but now the culture needs to shift. The way we speak about women, the way we judge them, the way we pay them.
Unconscious bias is one of the challenges we all face, because we are all biased, whether we are aware of it or not. Our biases are influenced by our upbringing, education and exposure to various groups of people.
I’ll let you in on a secret: after years of considering myself a feminist, I am still slightly (unconsciously) biased when comparing women/men and career/family. I know this because I took a test: Select a Test (harvard.edu), and my responses suggest “a slight automatic association for Male with Career and Female with Family”. This is very likely influenced by the environment in which I grew up, my education and exposure to society, which is culturally quite “masculine” (according to Hofstede, 2001). But now that I know this, I can act on it and be extra careful when making decisions that could be influenced by my bias.
Another one of my personal pet peeves: also, in the future I would love to see women not being judged on the basis of being “feminine” or “not feminine enough”, whether it’s in the workplace or other areas of life. Even today, I still face comments such as “she is pushy/opinionated” when a man would be characterized as “assertive / confident” for the exact same actions. It would be fairly beneficial if all of us would ask ourselves why we as a society continue to rely on these double standards and particularly for women who are taking on and excelling in leadership positions?
What does a typical day/week/event look like for you?
Working from home changed my working dynamic, as it did for most people. Typically, I get up early and do emails (in my pajamas) for the first hour and a half. Then I take the dog for a walk and often take a couple of operational calls during this time. Luckily, I work in an industry that promotes movement, and the people I work with are used to a bit of street noise, although I am aware that this can be annoying.
COVID has certainly influenced the way we work, and the biggest impact on me is missing my colleagues. I miss the laughs and coffee break chats. I feel COVID has done a number on collegial relations and, in some ways, it’s probably slowed down getting things done. You used to be able to solve a smaller issue with a 5-minute conversation, now everything needs scheduling. I especially feel bad for the newcomers who’ve joined us in the last two years, as they are still to build their social capital within the company.
What’s your favourite part of your job or the best thing you’ve done, and why?
My favorite part is when I get to interact with the IOC Young Leaders. Talking to them, hearing about their successes and challenges, gives me a special boost and inspires me to continue doing what I’m doing. It reminds me that there is a very tangible impact of these efforts. Hearing how proud they are to take part in this programme makes me proud to be a part of it too.
What advice would you give your younger self, that you wish you’d known when starting out?
You know, that’s so interesting, I think about it a lot, because I have a younger sister to whom I try to give advice (which is not always solicited). There are things I would’ve done differently, and also things that have been very hard, but which I don’t regret.
I would tell a younger me: “Integrity and honesty count, but most of all – it’s about the kindness and how people feel when you leave the room. So, be kinder to yourself and be kinder to others.”
I was very hard on myself throughout my life, and I think part of it morphed into putting high expectations on others, which was not always fair. The other thing I would tell myself: stop losing sleep over something that won’t matter in a year or even a week. I still stress over details too much.
Who has been influential in your career, a guiding light, if you will?
Many people. Probably my mom, who passed away when I was 15. She was the “pushy, opinionated” type and I think I got this from her. She was in politics and she spoke her mind. However, these days I actually look up to people around me and especially friends who are 10 years or more younger than me. It seems to me they figured it out. The way they handle life and themselves inspires me. I feel they are less hung up on the old ways and more forward-looking than my generation. For example, a couple of younger friends decided to do an MBA, so this inspired me to go back to study and do a master’s degree programme, once I saw them doing it in parallel with full-time jobs.
Others inspire me with how they don’t really care about what people think and how they don’t put all their eggs in one basket. It’s an attitude where failure is not a tragedy, but a part of life.
What are the key skills (hard or soft) required to work in your role/industry?
Besides the usual capabilities of managing projects, programmes and people, it is probably a lot about personality traits and relational abilities, which include emotional intelligence, maturity, tolerance of ambiguity, flexibility and respect, and connecting the dots in complex relational and cultural situations.
What do you do to stay motivated and inspired?
Dog, walking, fresh air, coffee breaks in local coffee shops, occasional weekend away. And watching reruns of The Office.
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