Running a business like a war-time general - Bohdana Pavlychko's story - IMD Business School
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Running a business like a war-time general - Bohdana Pavlychko's story

How the IMD alumni-funded Ukraine Scholarship Support Fund gave one businesswoman the space and skills to reimagine her leadership.
August 2022

Bohdana Pavlychko is no stranger to a crisis. Since taking over the reins of her family’s publishing house in 2010, she has seen the business through the 2014 Maidan revolution, the war in the east of Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now a fully-fledged Russia invasion.

“When the times are so difficult and the challenges are so complex, you really want to be in the thick of things,” she said. “I became this kind of war-time general.”

A literary legacy

Pavlychko grew up in a fiercely patriotic and literary family. Her maternal grandfather, Dmtryo Pavlychko, is a poet who translated the works of Shakespeare and Dante into Ukrainian and was one of the founders of the People’s Movement of Ukraine, Rukh.

A year after Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, her mother, Solomiia Pavlychko, a literary critic, translator, and feminist, co-founded Osnowy Publishing with the goal of transforming society and fostering social growth through books.

In the early years, the publishing house translated world classics and acclaimed textbooks into Ukrainian, but sales stagnated as consumer tastes changed and shifted towards online content in the early 2000s, and it fell into difficulty.

In 2010, Pavlychko took over as Executive Director and became the sole owner. Under her leadership, the company shifted its focus onto English language books on photography, art, and culture, ranging from Balcony Chic, a photographic exploration of the architectural culture of Ukrainian balconies, to a series of visually engaging English language guidebooks about Ukraine.

Leading through war

At the start of 2022, with the turbulence from the COVID-19 pandemic finally starting to clear, Pavlychko and her team were thinking about expanding. Then the war came.

“Somehow you have to live through your own shock and your own tragedies. And then lead a group of people and convince them that everything is going to be okay,” she said. “Many people have relatives who are under occupation, working under air raid sirens. This means you must run the business while being sensitive to the fact that we’re all people trying to survive the war, and all the challenges that the war brings.”

Following Russia’s invasion, Osnovy’s books and printer fell under occupation for a while. But the company has since managed to publish one book and expects to complete six in total this year. Despite an 80% drop in revenues, Pavlychko is confident the publishing house will survive.

Outside-in inspiration

Constantly dealing with crises may have honed Pavlychko’s resilience, but within a few months into the war the mother of three realized she was physically exhausted and creatively depleted.

“I was at a point in my career where I had faced setback after setback. The market is tough in book publishing, and the margins are tiny. As a leader, I was exhausted and was looking for new inspiration.”

That inspiration came in June when she attended IMD’s Strategies for Leadership program thanks to the remarkable financial support from the IMD alumni-funded Ukraine Scholarship Support Fund. “It was exactly what I needed, to take a step back and look at myself as a leader. To ask, what am I doing right? How can I develop my soft skills?,” she said, praising the program for making her aware that some of her strengths might also be her weaknesses.

“One strength I have is that even war did not shake me. It’s horrible, but you get up and you keep on growing. And this is what all these crises have given me. Knowing that everything in life is fixable, that you can overcome anything. On the other hand, too many crises have killed my ability to dream, to come up with ideas, and to really inspire.”

Moving forward by stepping back

The program gave Pavlychko time to re-evaluate how she would define happiness and success in her career. Following the week-long course, she decided to step down from her role as Executive Director to give herself the space for the big picture, out-of-the-box thinking needed to prepare her business for the future.

“My goal is to be inspired enough to create ideas for the business, so that it becomes the success that I envision,” she explained.

She is also devoting time to passion projects, including a podcast called How We Win This, which shines the spotlight on the resilience of Ukrainians during the war with a rotating cast of thinkers from Ukrainian public and political life.

Pavlychko remains driven by doing things for society. She has a master’s in public policy from Kings College, London, and can picture herself going to work for the government at some point in the future.

“I never thought that I would go into publishing or even business,” she said. “But we’ve done some really important and revolutionary projects for Ukraine that have influenced the way adults and kids perceive books. That, to me, is so important. It creates value for society.”