Own Your Career by Taking Risks and Continued Learning

Inna Kuznetsova of ToolsGroup shares her journey to CEO through risk-taking and a commitment to lifelong learning.

The paths to a CEO posi­tion may vary, but it’s not often that one starts as a trained sci­en­tist. That’s the sto­ry of Inna Kuznetso­va, CEO at Tools­Group. She recent­ly appeared on The Brag­Wor­thy Cul­ture to share lessons learned along the way.

Grow­ing up in Com­mu­nist Rus­sia, Inna didn’t have child­hood dreams of being a CEO, because there was no such thing in her world – there were no busi­ness­es.” Her fam­i­ly, in par­tic­u­lar her physi­cist-grand­fa­ther, groomed her for a career in sci­ence. This includ­ed work­ing on dif­fer­en­tial equa­tions and prac­tic­ing chess in mid­dle school.


Inna was fin­ish­ing her Ph.D. in lin­ear dif­fer­en­tial equa­tions at Moscow State Uni­ver­si­ty, Per­e­stroi­ka, when Rus­sia was open­ing up to the West and the world. Jobs in acad­e­mia were being replaced by roles at large com­pa­nies. One of these com­pa­nies was IBM and Inna was for­tu­nate enough to receive won­der­ful train­ing and insights along with a salary much high­er than she might have expect­ed in her pre­vi­ous aca­d­e­m­ic trajectory.

That train­ing helped her real­ize how much of lead­er­ship and man­age­ment is an acquired skill, one that she aspired to improve. Inna con­tin­ued to learn and grow as she start­ed work­ing for IBM in Amer­i­ca. There, she helped scale up IBM life sci­ences, one of its most suc­cess­ful star­tups. She also picked up an MBA at Columbia.

After 20 years with Big Blue, Inna felt she want­ed to try some­thing dif­fer­ent. This is when a recruiter reached out with an offer of a posi­tion work­ing for a $9B com­pa­ny that was repeat­ed­ly miss­ing goals and bleed­ing tal­ent. The title on offer was Chief Com­mer­cial Offi­cer. Inna felt the job was a good fit as she knew how to cre­ate solu­tions and how to focus on prof­itabil­i­ty while cre­at­ing cus­tomer value.

Dur­ing the inter­view process, Inna found out that not only was she the only female can­di­date, but she was also one of the few with­out at least a decade of expe­ri­ence in logis­tics and sup­ply chain. Instead, Inna had expe­ri­ence in man­ag­ing glob­al accounts and using tech­nol­o­gy to struc­ture sales com­pen­sa­tion to get the most out of her teams. The CEO (right­ful­ly) guessed that if Inna could pull off a math Ph.D., she would have what it takes to learn sup­ply chain.

Inna dove into sup­ply chain and the learn­ing con­tin­ued. She char­ac­ter­izes this as, very real and very objec­tive because you can touch the box and see whether it’s on time or not.” Indeed, whole swaths of the pop­u­la­tion learned about sup­ply chain chal­lenges dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and while there was a lot of pain asso­ci­at­ed with that learn­ing, Inna was opti­mistic for the future.

For years the indus­try has been talk­ing about intel­li­gent sup­ply chain, i.e. using AI to opti­mize process­es. The pan­dem­ic pushed some of those con­ver­sa­tions from con­cept to real­i­ty and a path has now been forged for an improved sup­ply chain in the years to come.

While AI and the pos­si­bil­i­ties it promis­es are excit­ing, inno­va­tion doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have to be high-tech. In fact, Inna shared a sto­ry about an inno­v­a­tive project in a fac­to­ry that offered 100X sav­ings: a 200€ bar that could be placed across a dock­ing door to pre­vent 20,000€ in dam­ages should a truck crash into it. Inno­va­tion doesn’t just have to mean doing things faster, it can also mean doing them more cheap­ly and safely.

Dur­ing her time as a chief com­mer­cial offi­cer, Inna real­ized that she had the abil­i­ty — and the desire — to become a CEO. She knew she had even more to learn and was excit­ed to do so. This led to her next role at an acquired com­pa­ny, which she then led as CEO.

Mindsets for Leadership

Own Your Career

As Inna looked back to reflect on what had led her to this point, much is attrib­uted to her mind­set — she assumed total own­er­ship of her career from an ear­ly stage. Men­tors, spous­es and fam­i­ly mem­bers can offer help­ful advice, but only you can own your own career and all the tough choic­es that come with it. Some­times those tough choic­es lead to more downs than ups, but what mat­ters is get­ting up after each fall.

Take Risks

Inna insists that, Tak­ing risks is para­mount for a suc­cess­ful career.” Those risks won’t always pan out, but with­out them, there’s a reduced chance for true suc­cess. In Inna’s case, she has tak­en many risks: work­ing in male-dom­i­nat­ed fields, learn­ing sup­ply chain from scratch and mov­ing to a dif­fer­ent coun­try to name but a few. 

Always Be Learning

Don’t assume your title will open doors,” Inna says. Take the time to learn but also look for men­tors. They can give you guid­ance, par­tic­u­lar­ly in sit­u­a­tions in which you lack expe­ri­ence. One of the things she learned from one of her men­tors was how to cre­ate bet­ter paths of pro­mo­tion for women. She did this by look­ing at how they are dis­trib­uted with­in the com­pa­ny and then iden­ti­fy­ing major drop-offs. Those were opportunities.

Live Your Values

While it’s become trendy for com­pa­nies to dis­play their val­ues on their walls, Inna has found that employ­ees at these com­pa­nies often can’t relate those val­ues to their day-to-day work envi­ron­ment. A far more effec­tive prac­tice is to encour­age your team to live your val­ues. This way the val­ues have an inter­nal frame of reference.

If these ideas feel like they belong in a book some­where, you’re not wrong! Inna has already pub­lished a cou­ple of books in Russ­ian: she just hasn’t got­ten around to trans­lat­ing them into Eng­lish yet. But you don’t need to wait to put her lessons into prac­tice. When we asked her what she wants her lega­cy to be, she answered, If I made things eas­i­er for oth­ers or helped them make few­er mis­takes than I did, that’s enough for me.”

Check Out the Full Episode

Learn more about tak­ing risks and life­long learn­ing from Inna by lis­ten­ing to our full inter­view on Apple or Spo­ti­fy.

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