The Cold-War stereotype of the Russian was a man in a gray suit and brown shoes who simply said “no.” One of my first lessons in doing business in Russia was learning that image is both true and false. In the stark and crowded 21st floor room in what was to be our office for a few years I, an American nice guy with no telecom credentials, discussed some business plans with a few potential employees. It was an atmosphere of awe and wonder. “What is the crazy American talking about?” they were thinking. “Doesn’t he know this is Russia?”
It was Russia indeed, 1992 in fact, only a few months after The Hammer and Sickle came quietly down over Red Square and the whole of what was then The Soviet Union. But these were not gray suited men or babushkas shoveling snow. These were sharp and eager young graduates, men and women, from the top technical school in Moscow. But, their initial reaction still reflected the centuries of Russian resistance to taking initiative and personal responsibility. But I quickly learned how to get around that cultural block and get something done.
At first I presented the new business idea to the young Russians as I would do at home. But, often I would get a silence, maybe a head shaking, in any case a definite “no, it can’t be done.” They might have reasons to put forth, but those were seldom pertinent. Then the thought came to me to get on their side of the table and say, “I know it would be difficult, but if we had to do it, how would we do it.” Then, the lights would come on, the discussion would catch on fire, and solutions would come forth.
I quickly learned that the Russian, especially during Soviet times, was often blocked from doing what he wanted, but under the new environment and if approached pro-actively, he expressed a resourcefulness like nothing I had experienced in my decades of international business management. From that start we built a major telecom company in the new Russia with a team that grew to over sixty and delivered state-of-the-art telecommunications to the rapidly expanding expatiate business community and to some top Russian clients, too.
I also learned quickly that you have to be part of a dedicated team. With good leadership, they then will get excited with the potential of successful creativity and work hard to achieve the goal. It’s all about relationships.