Bosses of all nationalities are only human… With their individual negatives and positives

You cannot say that a line manager of one nationality is better or worse than that of the other – in the end of the day they are all human with their individual positives and negatives.

 

Meet Ivanna, an HR Manager with almost 20 years of experience working for a large multi-national company. She joined them in Russia where she built an excellent career progressing from a Management Trainee to a number of top HR roles, she worked at a Regional level being based in Moscow, worked on a major HR project for Europe as a member of a virtual team flying to London for team meetings, and then took a risky decision to go on an assignment as Head of HR for Egypt and Northern Africa.

Ivanna, have you always been this internationally minded?

I grew up in an academic environment, my parents worked at Novosibirsk State University and we lived nearby. I would say this was the environment that emphasised the importance of constant learning, and this is what I embraced. So that when I was already at Novosibirsk University and international student scholarship programmes were becoming available to us, I jumped right at it. I received a scholarship to spend one university year in the US at a fairly small but interestingly international university in West Virginia. Most of the international student population were Japanese. Moving to a US university with a large proportion of Japanese students was as deep cross-cultural dive as one could only imagine, and I loved it. Then there was a scholarship to do my MA at the Central European University and international environment was something I was already longing for. My first year I spent at the University of Essex, and then moved to Budapest. So in a way when I graduated I wanted to look for a similarly diverse environment.

Is this how you chose to work for an international company?

In a way, yes.

At that time I understood that my Unique Selling Proposition is in my international education and in my fluent English, plus I really liked the international environment. I thought I should stay in Moscow, as this is where international companies congregated, and I applied to most known companies at that time. One of the major FMCGs offered me to join their Management Trainee programme and the following 18 years are already history.

During your time at the multi-national company you must have had quite a number of line managers from different countries. Which nationality was your favourite in the capacity of your line manager?

This is an interesting question. Now that I think about it I can say I had great Russian managers and awful Russian managers; I had great and awful international managers. I do not believe good line managers qualities are tied to nationalities – they are tied to people.

I was lucky with my very first foreign line manager in Russia. By the time he arrived he had worked in Uzbekistan, so in a way he already had had a steep learning curve about the culture of the former Soviet Union and he was very sensitive to our differences.

If I were to generalise from my experience of working with or observing managers of different nationalities I would say that British managers are very delicate, and you should not expect that they would be straightforward and direct with you.  Australians, Dutch and South Africans are much more direct and speak their mind more often. Managers from Middle East might be telling you one thing and thinking completely opposite. (and this by no means is the ultimate truth about management styles, it is rather my attempt to share the stereotypes that have been created in my head based on my personal experience – other people might have different stereotypes)

What has been your secret trick to get to know the new boss faster?

Fast is not the answer here. The trick is to take time to observe and understand.

Another important thing is to never assume, it is much better to ask for clarifications – this saves time, energy and good relationships.

I will share a small anecdote with you on this. I returned to work after a maternity leave and was assigned to a new line manager, who was an expat. One month into the role I went out with friends and had one too many drinks. I overslept the next morning, arrived to work two hours late and even though I was physically there I looked like I did not sleep the whole night. My boss suggested I take a day off and rest, which was very sensible of him. When I was leaving he also asked me to put a one-on-one meeting into his calendar sometime the following week, which I did. The whole time till that meeting I was thinking that it was going to be a disciplinary discussion, so when I walked into the room I started from apologies for what had happened the week before. My boss looked at me and said that indeed he accepts my apologies but he had already forgotten about last week and that the reason for the meeting was for me to share our observations about my first month in the job and for him to share his feedback to help me move forward. Had I not allowed my assumptions to take over but asked what was the purpose of the meeting I could have channelled the energy I wasted on worrying to more productive endeavours.

What advice would you give to young people entering the international companies?

I think the gist of my advice would be more relevant to young Russian people, but might also be helpful to others:

Our school education emphasises technical knowledge and we are very proud of it. In order to succeed in international companies (and I am speaking mostly for FMCG sector as I am more familiar with it) technical knowledge is not enough.

It is the way you apply the knowledge that counts. But most importantly it is about the soft skills – how well can you build relationships, how well can you present ideas, how well can you encourage others to follow you.

How can you develop these?

It is very difficult when you are young to be critical of yourself and to be self-observing. However, I would encourage everyone to perform a full skills-set scan. If you think you are good at relationship building – keep practicing it; if you think presenting your ideas in a compelling way is something you are not good at – work on it.

If you think that all of this is not for you – maybe fast moving international environment then is not for you. It is not good or bad – it is just different.

What made you want to go on an international assignment?

First of all, I wanted to gain new experience. In an international company you have access to best practices from the whole world, but it is most often presented in a knowledge bank without cultural context. I wanted to see how I personally could overcome the challenge of working in a new country.

So how did it work for you? What have you learned?

Fist of all I have to tell you that in my assignment I received not one, but two changes at the same time. And these changes were major.

I moved from Moscow to Cairo – huge culture shift!

Even though I stayed in the same job grade, I moved from a position within a HR Leadership team with an HR Director at the top to a position where I became the functional top and was reporting into the Head of Business.

My biggest learning was that in both shifts it is important to have a network of support.

Building two support networks at the same time was very difficult.

When I moved, I was in the “unconscious unawareness”, a euphoric feeling of embracing change, with time “conscious awareness” of the scope of change and lack of support network took over – now, when I look back, I can admit that it was a scary moment.

How did you manage your conscious awareness?

I made mistakes, but I picked them up, analysed, learned from them, and tried to do things differently the next time.

I was learning to adapt to the cultural ways of doing business in the new country.

Can you give me an example?

My leadership style is very collaborative and I respect my team’s freedom to manage their time and assignments progress assuming that if they are stuck they will come to me with questions. This is how I worked in Russia and how we worked in the international project in London. In Egypt I discovered the hard way that my team expected me to micromanage them. After a couple of first months when I scheduled progress meeting with my team members all I was discovering was that their projects stopped without having moved any inch forward. I was asking them why, and the explanation I was receiving was that they did not fully understand the task, or that they got stuck, did not know the answer and waited for me to check on them.

What did you do?

I started making sure I ask question when I give tasks probing whether they understood everything. I scheduled work in progress meetings much more often than I am used to.

This is not my preferred management style, so it took quite some effort on my behalf.

So how far are you prepared to bend your management style?

This is a very good question. And I do not know the answer to this, I did not have enough time to understand when this elasticity stops, my assignment came to an end. I know that definitely I would not have been able to work like this for all my life, but I was prepared for this experiment in those circumstances.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I am not sure anyone ever shares such insights with you before the assignment.

No, they don’t. But even if they did, I am not sure this would stop managers from wanting to go on international assignments. You always know it is not going to be easy, and you do it for your own development as well.

You had a chance to work on a project at London HQ as a part of a multi-national team. I know that during your project we often discussed this invisible glass door that many managers from Eastern Europe ignored to open in order to succeed in the London HQ culture. What have you learned from your own experience? What should they have done more of?

I think we underestimate the power of “pre-engagement”.

At the HQ level it is vitally important to make sure that you first socialise and pre-sell your ideas, gain buy-in and only then officially present them. Tabling a proposal (even the most genius one) without prior pre-selling will lead you nowhere. Pre-selling gives you time to understand who might have concerns with which part of the proposal and allows you time for explanation.

Another area that I think we are not good at is flexibility.

We continue to insist on our ways missing out on checking other options. I have seen a lot of brows raised while watching such behaviours in HQs. The fence is not always there to be climbed, I used to say to myself, there might be a gate or a gap somewhere nearby, and you have to be open-minded to know to look for it.

Blitz Questions: describe work culture in

Russia

  • Highly intellectual workforce
  • High motivation at work
  • People like to succeed, failure brings huge disappointment
  • Mistakes upset people both when they are responsible for them and when they spot others make mistakes.
  • The culture is fairly pragmatic

Egypt

  • Very emotional – two to three times more emotional than Russian managers I have worked with. Seemingly unfair decisions might cause emotional outbreaks.
  • Family is very important in their culture. If work – family balance is tilting towards work they might easily start ignoring work assignments to restore the balance.
  • The culture is very competitive, career growth is highly valued, and employees often compare themselves to others.

London HQ

  • Dominated by the British culture
  • Great need to consult/engage/pre-sell/include/influence
  • Slightly detached from market realities – very concentrated on processes
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