Balancing excellence: A Story of Leading Alongside a Nobel Laureate

04 March 2024


In an insightful interview – appeared at the Corvinus Executive MBA Linkedin page – with dr. Laszlo Vastag MD MBA, Managing Director of CMF – Center for Molecular Fingerprinting and Corvinus-MSM-SEED Executive MBA alumnus (class of 2023), takes us through his remarkable career journey, sharing the challenges and expectations he encountered working alongside visionary Nobel laureate physicist, Ferenc Krausz, CEO of CMF.

In this interview conducted by dr. Andrea Toarniczky (Program Director of the Corvinus-MSM-SEED Executive MBA Program), László shares how the EMBA was instrumental in shaping his leadership development path and how he juggled the sometimes conflicting expectations during the turbulent times of Covid. He also talks on the professional and personal challenges that come with his company being associated with the Nobel Prize.


Dr. Andrea Toarniczky: Before we dive into the fine details of your career, could you please introduce yourself?

Dr. László Vastag: With pleasure. My name is László Vastag, I graduated as a Medical Doctor, then started my career in the pharmaceutical industry focusing on research and development. I spent more than 10 years working in the industry for several different companies, starting as a Clinical Research Associate and progressing to the position of Clinical Research Manager and deputy Country Head. After this phase I worked for a governmental agency regulating pharmaceuticals and R&D for a few years. Currently, I am Managing Director at CMF – Center for Molecular Fingerprinting, a state-owned company engaged in a very interesting and hopefully ground-breaking R&D project.

Andrea Toarniczky: Thank you for the introduction! Now that we have an overview of your background, could you share more about what led you to join CMF?

LV: I had a mix of industry and public administration knowledge and experience, and CMF is actually in the intersection of these two. CMF is a state-owned company (with headquarters in both Hungary and Germany) so it has certain requirements stemming from public administration. You have to understand this logic and speak that language in a way. Thanks to my experience in both sectors, I understand the logic behind bureaucratic procedures, and I know how things go in public administration but my experience in industry drives me towards making these procedures as streamlined as possible and assuring that professional principles guide our everyday operations. A lucky coincidence that this aspiration of mine aligned with that of CMF’s so I got the position offered.

AT: How did your involvement in CMF’s mission begin? Ferenc was the acting CEO and he wanted you to be…

LV: In 2019 Ferenc established CMF in Hungary. He had already been conducting his research with his team in Germany (but on a rather smaller scale) and had a specific project in his mind that he wanted to realize in the coming years. Once he found financial support in Hungary, it was evident that establishing a company here is the way to go. One more reason for setting up a team in Hungary was that there is a great need to improve the health status of Hungarians by the screening method that is being tested: in Western countries people are more likely to attend regular medical check-ups, such as blood tests and less prone to get seriously sick and get diagnosed at a late stage whereas in our region this is rather the other way around hence the potential to improve the situation is significantly higher.

AT: So, he saw the opportunity, seized it and established the company in Hungary. How did you come into the story?

LV: Ferenc is a researcher, and he travels back and forth between Germany and Hungary. He realized that if he wanted to scale his project up, he would need someone with local knowledge and presence who would be responsible for managing operations in Hungary. He had a noble goal and mission in his mind but needed someone who would translate seamlessly these into everyday operations, letting him focus most of his efforts on research. I was dedicated to turning Ferenc’s vision into reality but at the same time I had a huge load of operational tasks, building the Hungarian operations from ground up.

In addition, the external circumstances were less than ideal; we began working together literally just a few days after the onset of the Covid pandemic, and we had only met in person once before. Under these conditions, I had to communicate the limitations of his vision and find solutions for challenges I thought were impossible to overcome. It was not always easy for me to challenge his views, but I truly value that he always expressed his appreciation of different opinions. Finding the balance was not an easy task.

AT: When did the EMBA come into the picture? Why did you decide to do the EMBA?

LV: When I was appointed to be Managing Director in 2020, I applied for the EMBA but sadly the programme did not start that year because of Covid. I realized that I needed to gain some extra knowledge because being a medical doctor and having run a micro-enterprise back in 2010 was not enough. Even though I had managed 10-15 people at a multinational company in the past, the expected leadership style and leadership challenges turned out to be different at CMF.

AT: You finally started the EMBA in 2021. What stands out from your EMBA experience?

LV: The first thing that comes to mind is the Managing Cultural Diversity course. My leadership style and my lifestyle is “be perfect and hurry up”. However, my German colleagues were more fond of consensual decision-making and they would be much more careful about, for example, hiring someone. They would invite candidates for three rounds of interviews, talk it through among themselves and eventually with Ferenc – whose calendar is always full – and then come to a decision. My approach, on the other hand, would have been to move fast – rather make a wrong decision but a fast one and fix it later especially that there was a huge pressure to make progress under unfavourable circumstances.

Managing Cultural Diversity helped me understand and better accept their consensual approach. Another important learning was participating in the Accounting and Corporate Finance courses. For example, picking up the language and understanding the balance sheet were quite challenging but all the more relevant for me as Managing Director of a publicly owned company.

AT: So, you were gradually building up your team and the company and were also managing different expectations. What kept you moving during that one year of Covid?

LV: What kept me on track was that I could easily get aligned with the vision. I wanted to contribute to preventing diseases and this company, this research was all about prevention. I think this is a very noble and socially responsible vision. As we got to know each other better with Ferenc, we started to have a smoother and smoother relationship. His goal was also for me and for all employees to understand and connect to the vision. We were on the same page, and I could translate and simplify his views in a way that it is easy to understand and digest.

AT: Let’s jump back to your EMBA experience, but now from a leader’s perspective. There you were, doing your best to manage a growing and visionary company. How did the EMBA support you in your growth as a leader?

LV: Apart from the academic knowledge that I gained, I think one of the most valuable aspects was the Personal leadership development journey. It helped me understand my own leadership style which was something that I had never done before. As part of the leadership journey, we discussed what I was currently doing as a leader and what I actually wanted to do, then examined why there might have been a gap between these two.

I realized that I had to invest trust in my people and build a strong management team who I can fully trust, and whose decisions I can unquestionably accept. This would allow me to focus on the greater good, for example lobbying on the political level or concluding grant contracts to receive funds, instead of managing everyday operations. I think this was a giant leap forward which I do not think I could have done if it was not for the Personal leadership development journey.

AT: How do you see yourself now? Who are you as a leader?

LV: It has certainly changed very much. Previously, I was very risk aware, I kept avoiding conflicts and tried to negotiate as much as I could to find common ground. In the last one or two years I started to take a different approach: I took more risks in negotiations, became more confident in general and stronger in delegation. I realized that I had to let people do their job, believe in them, authorize them to make certain decisions, but at the same time be there for them when things become critical.

I also learned to let people go if it was necessary. Getting someone laid off is always a painful thing but if it is aligned with the purpose, then it is better not to drag “dysfunctional” people on. If someone is not fit for the company, it is better off for both the person and the company to part ways. This is actually a very important lesson that I learned in the EMBA: when you have someone dysfunctional in your organization, one might say it also spreads the “venom”. If someone who is not fit is laid off, it is a relief for the rest of the people in your organization even though you may be afraid that the company would collapse. Then, you realize that if you removed just the right people, the system is working on a higher level.
I have a very strong management team that is very well prepared and provides the valuable inputs for making these important decisions that eventually helps to keep the operations running.

AT: With all this growth, how did your relationship change with the CEO, Ferenc Krausz?

LV: It actually strengthened our relationship. During the course of the EMBA we were still having some differences but once the plan we had put together started to become reality and we started to deliver the results, he could trust us much better. This is when everything started to fall into place and the tension during conversations were fading away. We have created a mutual circle of trust slowly involving the middle managers which I believe was very important for efficiency.

AT: What are the challenges for you now that your CEO is a globally acclaimed Nobel laureate? What are the opportunities for personal and professional growth?

LV: I think now the momentum is there to push forward and realize our aspirations. Ferenc is doing an excellent job leveraging all the publicity, interest and excitement around the award in order to take the project to the next stage. We are certainly trying to capitalize on this momentum and improve our operations, establish a close connection with universities and build a strong research community around us. I think the challenge here is to navigate this in a way that we keep our autonomy and a clear vision but still build strong connections that will help the project further progress. On my level the challenge would be finding the fine balance between exploiting new cooperations in a way that they help us move forward but also giving something back to our partners and let them leverage Ferenc’s presence.

The article appeared as part of the Corvinus-MSM-SEED Executive MBA Alumni stories series by Corvinus University of Budapest and SEED Executive School, and was originally published here.

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