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HomeCAREERSMaria Prashkova: Shaping HR through Gestalt Therapy

Maria Prashkova: Shaping HR through Gestalt Therapy

Maria Prashkova – Head of People, Culture & Organization at Avon for Romania, Central Europe, and South Europe markets, including Germany & Greece—is also a trained Gestalt therapist under the supervision of the Bulgarian Institute of Gestalt Therapy. Over the last 10 years, psychology has been an integral part of her life, initially through her education in psychology, then as part of her personal therapy, and subsequently during her 4 years of training, personal therapy, and practice in the Gestalt method.

In addition to her work and education in psychotherapy, she has accrued over 8 years of experience in HR across various regional and strategic roles, entirely related to organizational development. She possesses deep experience in areas such as potential development, organizational design, career counseling, engagement, and organizational culture, and maintains a strong interest in Diversity & Inclusion.

C&B: Could you tell us in a few words who you are from both a professional and personal point of view?
Maria Prashkova: I tend to believe that who I am impacts both aspects of my life, and it’s challenging to completely separate the two. I consider myself a lifelong learner, always seeking to expand my skills and capabilities professionally, while also being open to learning from all situations life presents.

In terms of my current role, I am the Head of People, Culture & Organization for Romania, Central Europe, and South Europe markets, including Germany & Greece.

C&B: Maria, can you elaborate on how your background in Gestalt therapy influences your approach to HR and organizational development?
Maria Prashkova: In Gestalt psychotherapy, dialogue and relationships are foundational elements. This approach emphasizes the quality of interactions between people and the significance of their relationships within their environment. This perspective profoundly influences my approach to the people function and organizational development, as I believe fostering healthy dialogue and relationships is essential for creating thriving workplaces.

I am truly happy to be in an organization where these principles are part of the culture and ways of working. We are actively working to cultivate a culture that encourages collaboration, accountability, and authenticity within our organization. Our aim is to foster open communication where everyone feels empowered to express their thoughts and feelings authentically.

C&B: What drew you into the field of psychology, and how has this journey impacted your personal and professional life?
Maria Prashkova: The journey through psychology & psychotherapy has been the most meaningful aspect of my personal and professional development. The most significant realization for me has been exploring my own patterns of behavior. I’ve dedicated myself to unlearning those patterns that were hindering my well-being and learning new ones that support my growth and fulfillment.

The pivotal moment in this journey was learning to quiet the voice of my inner critic. Accepting myself fully, with all my strengths and weaknesses, allowed me to take ownership of how I show up in my relationships, both personally and professionally. This shift in mindset has been transformative, boosting my self-confidence and enabling me to engage authentically with life.

As a result, I’ve discovered a profound sense of purpose in my work. Knowing and embracing who I am has led me to pursue endeavors that align with my values and passions.

C&B: With your extensive experience in organizational design, what strategies have you found most effective in creating fluid and dynamic work environments?
Maria Prashkova: If I need to pick the top three elements that enable a healthy environment and what works for us at Avon, I would say:

  1. Transparent communication – Avon has undergone a lot of transformations in the past year, and as we all know, change can sometimes be confusing, tiring, and energy-draining. However, what has proven to work for us is to be as transparent as possible with our teams about our strategy, plans, challenges, and success stories. We try to be open about the mistakes we make and the learnings we gain from them. We engage our people from the perspective of adult-to-adult communication. Our organization is very lean, and our key belief is that every single person at all organizational levels should have a voice—whether it’s a challenge, a good idea, or a different perspective, and this is the beauty of direct and transparent communication.
  2. Psychological safety – In order to have open communication where everyone is encouraged to share their opinions, challenges, and come with proposals and ideas, it is critical to create an environment where people feel safe to be their authentic selves. For more than 2 years, we have been consciously working on introducing the concept of a psychologically safe environment in our teams. Psychological safety can be defined in multiple ways, but the one we adhere to involves creating an environment of rewarded vulnerability. In the world we live in, vulnerability in the workplace is sometimes considered a weakness, and this is why it is so difficult for us to learn that in reality, it is a huge strength that can be a source of true relationships, creativity, and innovation.
  3. Encourage collaboration – When talking about true authentic relationships, it naturally leads to mentioning collaboration as key to functional and high-performing teams. As mentioned already, psychological safety promotes an inclusive environment where people can engage in a learning process, contribute, and challenge, but not in silo. Our ways of working promote collaboration between all organizational layers. However, to be able to co-create, we first focus on building foundational trust and accountability. Trust that no one is intentionally trying to harm, rather than trying to achieve our common goal. Accountability means that if I promise something, I will make sure that I accomplish it.

And last but not least, is the leadership style promoted in the organization. At Avon, we talk and role model humble leadership in which the leaders are authentic human beings who don’t need to have the answers all the time but will always listen to their teams, encourage taking risks, and learn from the outcomes, always being by your side.

C&B: In your career counseling efforts, how do you incorporate your psychotherapy insights to guide individuals in their career paths?
Maria Prashkova: Just as in psychotherapy, in career coaching I strongly believe that each person has the potential to achieve the goals they set. My main objective when mentoring or engaging in career conversations is to help the person gain awareness of their strengths, opportunities, and above all, their blockers to achieving their goals. From my experience, people tend to struggle with achieving career goals not because they lack skills or capabilities. Very often, we are blocked by internal self-critical conversations which stop us from having bold dreams of where we want to go professionally. And similar to psychotherapy, when talking about careers, I always encourage people to be flexible and open to the experiences that work-life brings us. It is nice to have a clear plan and destination, but then we forget to enjoy the ride and the side views, which could be truly inspiring. Sometimes a project that we engage in can be more career-opening than many job titles we can get.

C&B: Diversity and inclusion are areas of strong interest for you. Can you share a success story where you significantly impacted an organization’s D&I strategy?
Maria Prashkova: Absolutely, I think that when we feel accepted for who we are, miracles happen in the way we show up to others, the way we contribute, the way we engage with others, and this has a strong connection also with how we perform.

  • In Avon International, we have Associate Resource Groups, which are voluntary, employee-led groups designed to support and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace by providing a space for employees to connect, share their experiences, and support one another. We have 4 groups:
  1. Beauty in Color – We celebrate diversity and see the beauty in valuing our differences. Whether you’re white, black, brown, or any hue in between, the ‘Beauty in Color’ group would love to have you.
  2. Avon Pride – The Avon Pride community is a supportive space for the LGBTQ+ community and allies. Currently in its 3rd year of existence, the Pride ARG has successfully hosted 3 Avon Worldwide Pride events, worked with Stonewall on Avon’s Diversity Champions Program, and backed the Equity & Inclusion position launched by Avon in 2022.
  3. PossAbility – The PossAbility group strives to bring together Associates from all physical and cognitive ability groups to open a dialogue about our working practices and products to make Avon accessible to all.
  4. Avon Women’s Network – If you are one of the millions of human beings who believe that everyone is born free and equal, who will take action against gender bias, discrimination, and violence to bring the benefits of equality to us all, please join our movement.

On top of the globally led groups, this June we are planning to explore what it means for us as human beings to be accepted, what power it gives us, and how we can give this superpower to others by accepting them.

I feel the biggest gap to accepting diverse people/cultures/ways of living is by not understanding them, fearing them. This is why with the resource groups, together with inner exploration of our own biases, we really hope to continue strengthening a nonjudgmental environment where „It is beautiful to be you”.

C&B: Building a culture driven by inclusion, psychological safety, and well-being is your mantra. How do you see this evolving in the future of work?
Maria Prashkova: When technology is developing every second and AI is able to cover for us more and more activities, I believe the human element is more necessary than ever. Technology can surely replace human beings in many activities but certainly cannot replace when it comes to making somebody feel heard, motivate, encourage, be present when it is difficult for the other, give feedback to support the other’s growth.

I want to believe that creating a safe environment where people feel free to show their vulnerable side, an environment which encourages people to rest, to take care of themselves, will be the workplace of choice for all generations, and a business with such a culture would simply bloom.

C&B: As the leader of the People Team for AVON Romania, Central & South Europe, what leadership qualities do you believe are crucial in today’s HR landscape?
Maria Prashkova:When it comes to leadership, especially in the HR area, I would say that the qualities are generally human ones:

  • Active listening – To be a true partner to the business, we need to first understand the other side. We need to be able to hear what others are saying in order to come up with the “right” solution. I have always seen the HR function as an enabler of the business strategy, so listening and understanding where the business aims to grow is crucial for the enablers we are going to support with.
  • Being humble – Letting go of control and accepting that as a leader, we might make mistakes and not know the answer, sends an empowering message to the whole organization. To be able to accept that you might not necessarily have the best ideas in the room, but you can make the best out of the other ideas in the room 😊
  • Social awareness – I think that the whole world is constantly moving and so do companies. It is well-known that change takes a lot of energy both for the leadership teams to lead that and the associates at all levels. I see the role of the HR leader as being very aware of the dynamics and processes in the leadership team and in the organization overall during times of constant change. This is foundational for me in order to be able to facilitate the process of change, promote the right culture, and be by the side of the leaders and the people.

C&B: What advice would you give to aspiring HR professionals who wish to make a significant impact in organizational development and employee well-being?
Maria Prashkova: I am conscious that each business has different challenges and promotes a culture, so probably there is no single recipe that will fit all.

My advice, or at least what has worked for me, is to be very aware of the business in which I am—the struggles, the strategy, the tactical steps—in order to be able to offer solutions that are tuned with it.

Building strong relationships based with each business leader that HR professional is working with for me is the key to success. And by strong relationships, I mean collaboration based on trust, respect, and mutual contracting that some conversations might be difficult but we have the same goal, so we are not afraid to have them.

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