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Transitioning to Global Leadership

Lessons from Russian top executives who have successfully built global careers in the largest international companies

Global companies have been operating in Russia for three decades — long enough to nourish a thriving talent pipeline feeding into the HQs of large international businesses. Yet a curious feature of the Russian executive landscape is how few executives — among successive clearly able cohorts — move on to build global careers. We are yet to see a Russian CEO of any multinational organisation, for example.

In Russia, as in other emerging markets, there is a clear discrepancy between the importance of those markets as a principal driver of global growth for many companies, and the insignificant degree to which nationals of these markets are represented among HQ-level positions.

With a view to explaining this apparent anomaly, Spencer Stuart conducted a series of discussions with a group of Russian executives working at the upper levels of multinationals. In a series of wide-ranging exchanges, they talked to us about what had helped their progress in building a global career, and what had hindered it.

We hope that sharing the insights of the group will interest and encourage other Russian executives seeking to develop their multinational careers internationally and show how they might step up to become credible leaders outside their own country and at a regional level.

These insights also offer valuable pointers to those multinational companies that are increasingly mindful of the importance of a diverse talent pool; one that can only be refreshed by engaging with talent from emerging markets.

We believe that incorporating our findings into the talent development curriculum and into onboarding/transition support programmes, for both internal and external talent, could boost the likelihood of emerging market talent enjoying successful international careers.

In an emerging market such as Russia, multinationals have long benefited from an intense focus on results and high educational attainment that in turn has helped local talent progress into country management positions – but rarely beyond. We have set out to understand how Russian international career growth can progress to a wider stage.

Our approach

Initial research focused on 155 of the largest international companies across a range of industries we know to be characterised by higher career mobility — namely, the retail, healthcare, consumer, and technology, media and telecom (TMT) sectors.

Drawing upon information in the public domain, our own database and professional network, and by directly contacting companies, we sought to identify top executives who had started their careers in Russia and had reached CEO-3 level and above.

We were aware that the number of such executives might not be large — their apparent scarcity was the impetus behind our research. In the event, we identified 12.

How to get there: first steps from a country-level to an international role

Diversity works. One of the strongest indicators of a company’s commitment to enabling career growth is the strength of its commitment to international diversity. Executives should seek out certain signals — for example, look at who works in the top positions: are they similar in terms of nationality, age, or professional background?

If the answer is yes, this could indicate a corporate mindset that is not especially inclusive or dynamic. In cases like this, several of our group had found that only by changing company were they able to kick-start their careers. Their advice — especially if you feel an outsider in your company, that you do not “fit” — is to move on quickly. Invest your talent in an organisation that manifestly understands the value of international diversity.

Seek out career sponsors. This is something that goes against the grain in Russia, where it can be considered pushy or even shameful to ask for support. But advice from our group is to find not just one, but two sponsors. Executives should aim to have at least two quality sponsors throughout their career, not least because such people change roles and companies often.

Sponsors should be on a level where you want to be, plus one. This was a lesson learned by all among our group, many of them having supposed for a long time that their boss was their career sponsor. This is understandable, but it is rarely the case – and time was lost when it might otherwise have been possible to make one or two steps up.

So, be proactive: map potential sponsors, identify their areas of expertise and interest — and be brave enough to contact them directly. You should be seeking sponsors who are both influential and interested in developing talent. It’s OK to be vocal about your career ambitions, but you should have the humility to be open about areas where you are weak. After establishing a sponsorship, be disciplined and structured about the form and the frequency that communication with sponsors takes.

Languages work. All our group of executives advise investing in acquiring fluent English and, ideally, another language, depending on your current or target company or geography. Language skills significantly facilitate integration into multinational organisations. For example, Nigyar Mahmudova, executive VP, growth and innovation at Danone, speaks Spanish, as does Leonid Sudakov, president of Kinship, launched in 2019 by Mars Petcare.

Reputation is all. Our participants learned to marry reputation and visibility: the quality of the first underpins that of the second. From their own experiences, several strategies are suggested, such as working on, or moving to, one of a company’s largest or high-growth markets, especially if one’s current role is insignificant in relation to the overall business market.

It is also important to demonstrate you have the confidence to be involved in global initiatives and strategy. Examples include taking on “mission impossible” projects and showing passion for building value above country level. Nearly all of the executives in our group said that taking part in specific, impactful projects was critical in showcasing their capabilities, their ability to work outside their current context, alongside clarity on, and understanding of, global business goals.

Be seen. With that last in mind, executives should use visits by their global counterparts and above to increase personal visibility by seeking to spend quality time with them beyond business performance presentations. Build your external brand too — industry forums, for example, present high-quality networking opportunities. Be external-facing.

Be heard. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Communication and public-speaking skills are key; invest in some special training. Concentrate on developing your skills: stand up and contribute at, say, corporate meetings and presentations. Your presence will be noted — Russians are often diffident.

You’ve got an above-country-level position… now what?

Adapt — and don’t take anything for granted. One of the biggest mistakes that newly promoted executives make after securing their first above-country-level post is to relax — they believe they are safely on their way. Not true: members of our executive group have seen careers stall because a new executive has been unaware of, or not paying attention to, the need to work on the enabling factors that govern further success.

We asked our group what it takes to thrive on the global scene. They pointed to a sensibility for cultural adaptation; the ability to adapt, to be nimble and responsive to change. This is critical when moving countries and cultures.

Undergoing multicultural training in advance is recommended, as is working with a coach on the specific culture of the region you are moving to. One current direct report of a global CEO told us that when learned about his promotion he enrolled on INSEAD’s Leading Across Borders and Culture course.

Make your family adaptation a priority, especially for non-central HQ locations. Concentrating on this builds the foundations that enable an executive to work efficiently later, when expectations will inevitably grow. One of our executive respondents said that he was able to concentrate fully on his work only after solving problems around how his family was adapting to life in the US.

Connect, connect, connect. It is also important not to neglect communication adaptation — not only in terms of specific vocabulary, but also in terms of tone of voice and other nuances. A top manager at a large British retailer told us that she underwent an emotionally draining period before she understood that communication nuances meant that her best intentions were misinterpreted. As soon as she recognised the source of her difficulties she worked on fine-tuning every detail and nuance of her language use and overcame the initial obstacles she encountered.

When arriving in a new territory it’s also important to focus on relationships, not on immediate performance results. For example, technology such as the SMART stakeholder mapping engagement platform can identify those who give input to top leadership. Building relationships with these key people helps to convert them into supporters — if not, then at least not enemies.

A sensitivity and flair for “reading” the culture of an organisation is essential – an inherent ability to recognise the shared values, informal norms, structures and traditions that underpin an organisation. One of those taking part in our discussion said he now understood that a sophisticated understanding of organisational culture feeds directly into corporate success.

Looking further ahead

As you move up the international career ladder, you must maintain deep levels of self-awareness. If not, it will be difficult to find a balance between adapting and keeping your authenticity. It is possible to over-adapt, and then you risk losing your competitive differentiator: your uniqueness. For example, if a part of your nature is to question the status quo, rather than trying to smother this impetus it is best to opt for roles and cultures where this quality is beneficial and welcomed.

Functional expertise is becoming less important on that level but strategic acumen, people leadership, and collaboration and influencing skills are increasingly sought after. Demonstrating that one is a high performer is also an essential driver of success: one head of analytics we talked to told us that absolute trust in his expertise and drive for results had been key in all his promotions. It’s important to recognise that in order to grow as a global executive presence, outperforming “corporate natives” will not be a one-off, but one’s defining mantra.

Don’t lose sight of having a minimum two career sponsors, as we discussed earlier. Having a board-level sponsor is a great support: all those we talked to who reached CEO-2 level did so. Peer-level supporters are also important and this is often a level that people are less capable of managing (versus vertical relationships). Invest in supporting your peers and become recognised as “one of them”.

Finally, the higher one advances, the more important it is to connect with different people. Build a reputation of being a “nice person to work with”: time and again our respondents said that promotion decisions were ultimately based on that very quality. So here is some closing advice from them:

  • Show empathy — develop your listening skills. This is not the strongest capability of results-oriented Russians. But trying to be of value to others, versus thinking only of your own benefit, opens doors.
  • Give praise where it is due. When you appreciate others, they remember.
  • Show your human side — kids, hobby — but in a sincere, authentic way.
  • Build credibility. Our group stressed how importance it was to invest into making themselves understood clearly by others.
  • Be humble. At each new stage of a global career, you will need to succeed all over again.
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