Katalin Walter Takes the Helm as New Chief Operating Officer

CEU’s new Chief Operating Officer, Dr Katalin Walter started her work at the university by visiting every unit personally. “The campus is quite a labyrinth, but these visits mean that I am already able to find everything now, and that makes a difference!” she says laughing. Having joined the university at the beginning of September, her two top priorities are managing staff transition to Vienna and an ongoing major IT development project.

The new COO is a key member of the President and Rector’s executive team, overseeing all aspects of CEU’s operations and responsible for the leadership and effective delivery of professional services across the University.

Dr Walter is also leading an administrative review to support the delivery of the University’s recently confirmed strategic plan, to create the environment in which the University’s research excellence and outstanding learning and student experience is best delivered.

Dr Walter arrived at CEU after a long career in the business and finance world. However, she says that the change for her is not as huge as it first appears. “Anyone who has seen my CV knows that there is an alignment between my values and CEU’s values.” For her joining CEU offered a rare opportunity, one where she can leverage her knowhow and experience for an organization whose purpose she fully supports and where she can also learn new things. 

It’s clear that CEU can make ample use of Dr Walter’s experience in management. “Strong focus on the core product, which for CEU are academic life, teaching and research is a must and often given, however, very often ‘support’ areas are not in focus - nobody really cares about them until there is an issue.” She agrees that good processes can develop organically, but the ambiguity and change that the move to Vienna has engendered is bringing all issues to the surface now. “And this is good, positive stuff,” as Walter argues: “There is a need for review because we must have excellence in support areas too, if we want to be a truly excellent university.”

Katalin Walter agrees that Vienna is a great opportunity, saying that it is also a priority to safeguard the specific elements that make CEU special. “I think that the Vienna Project Office has done an amazing job [with the transition]” she says, adding that the full institutional move of the teaching activities is coming as of next September, so there is still a lot of work ahead. “The challenge will be to keep a meaningful presence in our spiritual home, Budapest, with Vienna as be the focal point of the masters’ programs and teaching. Also, this is a very emotional time in the university’s life.”

“I think this is an incredible place, an international and intellectually inspiring and challenging environment in the middle of Budapest. For most this is so much more than a workplace and that makes a huge difference” she says. 

Dr Walter was previously a board member and, for a year, president of UNICEF Hungary. Work and family life does not leave her much free time for volunteer work at the moment, but giving back to the community is still very important to her. Her family supports Világszép Alapítvány, a Hungarian foundation helping children in state care. “In such a country like this it is hard to see how you can achieve change, thus sometimes it makes sense to focus on things you can change in your immediate environment.”

On balancing family and work as a female executive, she agrees with Sheryl Sandberg: do not hold yourself back, especially at the beginning of your career! When asked about what advice she would give to a young female graduate, she said: “reach for the stars and do whatever you are passionate about, and do it fully invested. Study whatever you want, work wherever you want and if it requires travel, then travel!” When contemplating career paths, she advises not hold back while thinking about what career moves might work better for a family later. “Once you move up the career ladder, flexibility actually increases.”

Having spent fifteen years at McKinsey & Co., including eight as Partner, prior to joining CEU Dr Walter was Regional CBO for Allianz SE. Other senior roles include Head of Strategic Management for Erste Bank Hungary, and Chief of Staff for Gordon Bajnai, former Prime Minister of Hungary (2009-2010), founder and leader of the social-liberal movement Együtt.

Hungarian by birth, Dr Walter has worked extensively in Germany, across different countries in CEE as well as in New York and London.

Dr Walter received her doctorate from the European Business School in Germany in 2001.