I am sitting in a little cafe looking out onto the main square in St.Petersburg, Russia. The snow is pilled up outside and the clear skies allude to a warmth that simply isn’t there. Not to this African at least!
I am sitting in a little cafe looking out onto the main square in St.Petersburg, Russia. The snow is pilled up outside and the clear skies allude to a warmth that simply isn’t there. Not to this African at least! This city, founded by Peter the Great has been described in my travel guide as, ‚weaving a strange magic around those who open themselves to it‌it is a dust-devil of influences and styles, a bewitching vortex of life’s extremes‛. Founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and birthed through a war lasting 21 years with Sweden, St.Petersburg has had an identity crisis of sorts. Having been renamed Petrograd in August 1914 in a wave of anti-German sentiment, it was subsequently renamed Leningrad by the city’s Communist Part leader, Grigory Zinoviev following the death of Lenin in 1924. A slick bit of political PR on the part of Comrade Grigory’s no doubt. A public referendum in June of 1991 restored the city to its original name. It is certainly a city that has left echoes in history.
The city is regarded as the artistic and cultural centre of Russia. It is associated with literary figures of the magnitude of Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Lermontov. It is the birthplace of the ballerina Anna Pavlova and musicians such as Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky have their roots in St.Petersburg. The Hermitage Museum, housed in the magnificent Winter Palace � home to the Czars of the past, contains some of the world’s greatest masterpieces, including Rembrandt’s final painting, The Prodigal Son. It was a work completed in poverty and obscurity when Rembrandt remained an outcast, alienated from both family and friends alike. Yet today is paid homage to by people from throughout the world and was the main reason for my visit to this city. To pause here is to do the amazing St.Petersburg an injustice as there is so much more to be said concerning this city of contrasts. But pause we must, for this is not intended as a travel piece!
And so we need to ask just what has this history lesson got to do with us as we endeavour to lead and manage in the complexity of a world as unpredictable as it is paradoxical? A world not much unlike the city of St. Petersburg.
Well I believe that there are lessons a plenty if only we would pause long enough to see them. Perhaps that is where to start. How often it is that those in leadership fail to pause long enough not merely to see, but to really see what it is that surrounds them. The gift of perspective to a leader is like a fur coat (imitation if you like) in a Russian winter. Without it one simply cannot survive the long haul. The pace of daily life within a vibrant business usually militates against pausing, and to do so it could be argued, will leave one face down in the mud trodden over by the stampeding hoard who gratefully accept your prostrate form as a bridge to speed them on their way.
But pause we must. Each will need to find his or her own way to do it within the constraints and opportunities of their context. I have recently had the privilege to meet two business leaders for whom this is a regular part of their routines � and it shows in what you encounter in their business. Richardo Semler’s much celebrated Semco story is laced with a leadership style and practice devoted to this principle. Again the results speak for themselves. Walking around St. Petersburg it would be easy to mistake some of the landmarks as simply, ‚another old building‛ without pausing to really see and learn from the landmark which speaks volumes to those who take the time to pause and ponder. As I sat for several hours in front of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, I couldn’t help notice the many individuals and groups to stop and gaze at the masterpiece. For some it was just another painting amidst thousands, just another pause in a dull school outing. Yet for others it seemed to hold them captive and whether or not they were artists steeped in an appreciation for the history of art or mere art novices such as myself, I did not know, nor did it matter. Each to his own, but it is important to find that masterpiece which will cause you to pause and see things that would have remained hidden to the hurried eye.
Things change. We know that yet somehow we often fail to understand the change process in such a way that allows us to capture the treasures of the past, yet be open to discover the wonders of the new. So often we guard the wrong things � things like structures, culture, products, and management practices, and so we could continue to list those things that are part of our everyday mix. All these things have to change if we are to keep pace with a changing world. Every business, whether deliberately or not, creates its own ‘Hermitage’, testimony to the truism that you can’t drive forwards without from time-to-time looking the rear-view mirror. Our ‘story’ or the way in which we make sense of our past is important both to the individual and the life of the business as a whole. It was with great pride that one of the leaders referred to earlier took a colleague and I through a massive photograph album that told the story of where they had come from and offered an explanation of how they had arrived at where they find themselves today. To recognise those treasures � ideas, discoveries, breakthroughs, failures that lead to alternative discoveries and initiatives, decisions, better ways and no small amount of serendipity, all form part of what could constitute the masterpieces in your ‘Hermitage’.
It becomes knowing which pillars to kick away because they are relics of a past order and which ones to preserve because they provide an important context for today and perhaps tomorrow. Kicking down pillars evokes questions of replacing them, and that will usually lead to some degree of uncertainty. Such is the reality of the world in which we live and do business, as demonstrated by the fresh out the oven velvet coup that took place in Georgia.
Every nation’s character is full of contradictory and mutually exclusive traits but Russia in general, and St.Petersburg in particular, takes a lot of beating. It has been said that Russians hope for the best but prepare for the worst. One will find ample evidence of consumer orientated businesses yet without the necessary service attitudes and practices to make the most of what is on offer. There is a killing to be made for those businesses that really understand and grasp the magic of real service. Those who move away from the ‘make and sell’ mindset of industrial age thinking to an authentic, ‘invite and participate’ mindset which is more in tune with the emerging relational or emotion economy. While this ‘gap’ may be more evident in Russia, the reality is that what masquerades as ‘good customer service’ elsewhere is often nothing more than thinly constituted PR exercises. One I might add is seldom understood by those hapless beings tasked with implementing it at the busy and often hazardous intersection of employee reality and customer experience. It is an intersection littered with bright slogans advertising undertakings and making promises but which fail to translate into anything meaningful for the customer.
Russia’s future rests in the hands of its youth. Chatting to a young and eager consultant in Moscow, I was told that whoever ‘wins Moscow, wins the war’ It is the youth who are more influenced by the twin forces of globalisation and technology than any previous generation here in the vast country with 11 time zones. (In fact the size of Russia is daunting. It takes longer to fly from Moscow to Vladivostok than it does to fly from SA to Moscow!). Russian youth are energetic, uninhibited, confident and smart. Pretty much like youth anywhere I guess. The older Russian ways of doing business, where men and ‘favours’ dominate daily practices, will not be able to resist the irrepressible tide of all that its youth represent. It is a lesson we all best pay attention to as often we fail to create the kinds of environments that appeal and retain those bright young people who are our tomorrow. We don’t have to agree with them but we best understand them if current leaders are to harness the energy and opportunity represented by tomorrow’s employees and consumers. Doing so will most likely mean that some more pillars need to be kicked down!
Two tips as I end my Russian sojourn. I leave with some more ancient treasures (and poorer as a result!) and have learnt that it is best not to hide them from wary and somewhat intimidating customs officials. Undeniable images of menacing KGB guards lurk somewhere in the recesses of my mind. Unfortunately, the appearance and manner of the customs officials do little to dispel such images. So it is with leadership. Masking and hiding things only lead to trouble, trouble that often we can ill afford and that when exposed, only brings even greater trouble.
A second tip is when you visit Russia in winter dress warmly and have good shoes. I heard of a fellow South African who arrived here in mid-winter wearing sandals and a T-shirt. That is plain idiotic. Understanding ones context is vital for today’s leaders. It also allows you the best opportunity to prepare in whatever way you can to not merely survive but to thrive in that context. I always keep an eye on the business literature that can be found wherever it is that I am and here in St. Petersburg, I couldn’t help but notice the, ‘Idiots guide to‌’ series. Some things just refuse to change and it would seem translate no matter where you are!
And now into the day that looks more like night and weather fit for polar bears with thermal underwear.

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