NOTHING VENTURED

Luc Jones:

Why Russians don’t smile

We met with Luc Jones in the Moscow office of Antal Russia, where he has been working since 2002 as the company’s Commercial Director. He is responsible for establishing and maintaining strategic partnerships with key market players. Prior to his job in Russia, he headed up the IT & Telecommunications department of the company’s Warsaw office. Luc is a widely-known labour market and hiring expert; the recruitment experience he gained from working in different countries allows him to assess clients’ problems in a comprehensive way and come up with unconventional solutions.

During his time in Russia, Luc has written two books: “A Guide to Successful Hiring in Russia” and “Why Russians Don’t Smile”, both of which are guides for foreign businesspeople working in Russia and CIS countries. Luc is also the author of numerous articles and many regular guest appearances on TV and radio programs discussing career development. He is also an active member of several business associations in Russia, such as the Am Cham, AEB, CERBA and the RBCC.

We talked about how well Luc Jones knows Russian culture and understands the Russian mindset, how he travels within Russia and explores the way people live in big cities and small towns, how expats adapt and do business in Russia, how life for expats is different in Moscow compared to their home countries, and what kinds of myths about Russia exist abroad.

Luc, you wrote a book called “Why Russians Don’t Smile.” Who is this book for and what is it about?

This book has been written primarily as a guide for two main groups:

Expats who have recently relocated to Russia/CIS (or are considering doing so in the nearest future) or are based abroad but visit on a regular basis – these are usually senior managers of multinational corporations who typically spend 3-4 years on a particular assignment before moving on or back home, or perhaps having been assigned to this part of the world as a part of their overall territory.

People who perhaps don't visit Russia/CIS often (or ever at all) but cover the region as part of their remit – this group includes human resources and recruitment managers, finance directors and even some CEOs. Since most multinational organizations use their European office to spearhead development and growth in the CIS region, the book was written from the perspective of Western/Central European manager.

Additionally, it is entirely possible that Russians may be interested in how their country is perceived by foreigners, especially those working for multinational companies. If they report to a foreigner (based in Russia or abroad) or work with them on a regular basis, they can be more aware of potential pitfalls that they wouldn't normally consider thinking of.

You were born in Huntington and graduated from the University of Portsmouth. What did you major in?

We don’t have such narrow fields as you do in Russia. In England you get a university degree largely to prove that you have half a brain; for us it’s work experience which is more important. In Russia people brag about their education, like “I have a Red Diploma so I’m worth more money now”. When people invite me to talk to graduates at universities about finding work, I tell them not to focus purely on what they learned. A degree is simply a certificate that proves you know how to study, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are able to work.

When you were studying in England, were you already planning to come to Russia?

Strangely, yes -I seemed to know in advance, in the late ‘80s, that I would move here. At first it was partially curiosity; why is this big, cold, hostile country so closed? I was born in Great Britain and we have some sort of colonial instinct: to go somewhere, and seek our fortune. My father emigrated to Canada in the 1960s; in fact he had initially wanted to go to the US, but then there was a war in Vietnam and he didn’t want anymore one-way ticket to Saigon. So he went to Canada, met my mum, they got married, worked, and then (for some unknown reason) moved back to England.

But I didn’t come to Russia solely out of curiosity, it was largely for the opportunities here. For example, in Western countries nearly everything has already been done already. It doesn’t matter what you can do, there are probably already 10,000 people doing the same thing; differentiating yourself is difficult. Russia is a new territory, and competition isn’t as anywhere near as tough in most areas.

A lot of expats who have started their business in Russia say that it’s easier here than back home.

Of course, there is almost no competition here. And I hate to say it but many Russians are a bit lazy, or at least this is how it appears. I came to Russia with virtually no knowledge of the language or the Russian mindset, little understanding of the market and no support from wealthy or influential relatives. My only advantage was growing up in a capitalist country. From an early age, we know that it doesn’t matter what sphere you study or work in, everything we do is related to money. In Russia, after decades of Soviet rule, people are used to getting a paycheck simply for showing up to work.

Did you immediately pick Moscow as the place to settle permanently?

Moscow is a megacity, and most capital in Russia is located within MKAD (the Moscow ring road). There are great opportunities for career growth, for opening your own business. I heard a recently statistic that around 80% of foreigners who come to Russia only ever visit Moscow and/or St. Petersburg, and I can believe this. I know expats who have been living and working in Russia for many years, but haven’t been anywhere aside from the two capitals plus maybe Vladimir, Suzdal, and Sochi. I’ve travelled extensively throughout Russia, visiting places from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka, Makhachkala to Magadan to Murmnsk and Vladivostok to Vladikavkaz. I can fairly safely say that I have been to more places in Russia than 99%  of Russians. I enjoy travelling across your country and discovering new places; recently I ran the Baikal half marathon which is held in the winter and you run on the frozen lake!

Do you plan on working and living in Moscow for a long time? Do you want to go back home?

So far I plan to continue to live and work in Moscow. Russians are more concerned with the motherland as a concept, with their roots. They have more ties to their families than we do. I have a brother who lives in London and my sister lives in Chicago; my parents divide their time between the UK & North America. I have witnessed many of my classmates emigrate to Australia and New Zealand just because they wanted to. They were bored, fancied a change so they decided to try something different. So we don’t even give it a second thought. If we get sent to work in another country for a year, it’s not a problem; in fact most people would relish the challenge.

Antal Russia was one of the first companies to enter the recruiting market in Moscow. How has this market changed since the ‘90s?

As I have mentioned, the main difference with the Russian market is the low level competition. Most of the big, international players still don’t have a serious presence here, if at all. It’s also a new market for Russia, since this type of business (recruiting didn’t exist here until the ‘90s. In fact it was forbidden – everyone was guaranteed a job by the Communist Party. As a result, people didn’t understand the point of this kind of service and how it functions. If you compare Russian people to foreigners, the difference is that we automatically trust each other, but in Russia it’s the opposite. That’s why most hiring decisions in Russian organisations are based on personal recommendations, people you know. Everything is about personal connections.

In our agency, around 80% of our clients are foreign companies, so we don’t have to explain to them why using a recruiting agency makes sense. Many Russian companies still think that using recruitment agencies is a waste of money. Russians think that if you have relatives or people you already know, you’re better off hiring them than paying money for a recruiting agency to find people. Slowly but surely, this is changing but only amongst Russian companies who have a more international mindset.

How did your company deal with the economic crisis and how are things going now?

In our line of work, we typically do well when the economy does well and we struggle when things are tough for everyone else – it’s feast & famine. Nevertheless, we still have work during economic downturns, there is natural attrition even if there are few new hires in company;, some people leave, others move to new cities or leave the country, and the number of pregnancies always seems to increase during uncertain times!.

I like to joke that recruiting is the only line of work where the product can say “no.” If you’re selling tables, the table won’t tell you it doesn’t want to be in a certain room. An applicant, on the other hand, can turn down an offer for whatever reason.

For the foreseeable future there are considerably fewer recruitment agencies in Moscow compared to London, for example. In Western markets, there are government contracts whereas in Russia it will be long time before local public utilities administrators start using external agencies to find staff. It is also worth noting that temporary work is more common in the West, such as someone needing a receptionist for a day, or a week, or a month; in fact half of the people we recruit in our London office are temp hires. This doesn’t really happen here, and is unlikely to change significantly anytime soon

“But we have an HR specialist in our company who is in charge of recruiting. Why should we use an outside agency”?

Why go to a restaurant when you can cook everything at home? Why do you need a housekeeper when you can clean up yourself? A reputable recruiting agency can typically get the job done more efficiently.

Are agencies more effective if they specialize in a specific field?

Essentially, yes. This is important, because there are an estimated 15,000 agencies in Britain and most of them focus on a certain industry sector or discipline. There are agencies that specialize in truck drivers or housekeepers. In Russia this is a new market, so recruitment is less specialised: accountants, lawyers, IT specialists. In our agency, there are 12 teams that specialize in particular fields. Small agencies don’t have this luxury.

Are the requirements set by foreign clients different from Russian clients? What are the main requirements foreigners and Russians give you?

Foreigners typically have a clearer idea about what they want from a candidate. Their mindset is more logical and pragmatic, everything is more structured. Russians can be quite emotional, and sometimes indecisive. Even after deciding on a candidate, a Russian manager may change their mind, although if a Russian client trusts you, you can expect more projects together.

In Russia, a lot of things are done for show. I was a guest on a radio show recently, and asked the host if their listeners are mostly drivers. The host was offended, but I just meant it as people who drive, since back home that’s not really a profession. There are taxi, bus and train drivers, maybe the Queen has a personal driver but that’s about it. For example, the founder of our company is a multi-millionaire who bikes to work. The previous mayor of London also liked to ride his bicycle to work, and the mayor of New York sometimes takes the metro. We don’t really understand doing things purely to show off. I’ve seen a Russian make good money and immediately purchase an expensive car, but continue living in a flat they rent outside of Moscow. But he will come to meetings in a fancy car, perhaps being driven by his personal driver.

This behavior is understandable s everyone likes nice things, and the majority of what is currently on sale simply wasn’t available before the break-up of the Soviet Union.  When people finally got a chance to buy them, it became a thing to show off.

In Britain or Canada, being successful doesn’t necessarily mean you drive an expensive car because even a construction worker can take out a bank loan and buy a top-of-the-range car is he really wants. But people will think this is odd, because what is he trying to prove? It’s seen as best to prove your worth through your achievements.

You do a lot of consulting for foreign businessmen. What about Russia scares them and what are they most impressed by when they first get here?

There are a lot of myths about Russia. When you read or watch Western news about Russia, it’s nearly always negative. I’ve asked many journalists why they portray Russia in such a bad light, and here is what they say: nobody wants to read about good things, everybody wants to hear something different, crazy facts about the Russian mafia, about people in a village in Siberia going blind from drinking moonshine. The fact that the metro in Moscow is beautiful, cheap and runs efficiently? Not really. No journalist ever became famous by writing about positive articles.

It’s convenient for people to believe what they read and that where they live is safer than everywhere else. That’s why I wrote the book “Why Russians Don’t Smile,” to dispel some of the myths and stereotypes about your wonderful country.

I recently did a presentation to a group of Central Europeans who came to Moscow to do business. For many of them, this was their first visit to Russia. Their relatives told them to be careful and avoid leaving the hotel, because people in the West really think that you need to wear a bulletproof vest to avoid being shot by the Russian mafia. That’s how the media writes about Russia because this sells newspapers.

My sister lives in the USA where around 30,000 people die every year from guns. Yet nobody thinks that travelling to the US is dangerous because it happens in small ghettos or enclaves where ordinary people don’t ever venture.

Luc, what is the most common misconception about Russia?

Probably the biggest and most common mistake foreigners make is assuming that since Russians look like we do, they automatically think like we do. They don't. The cost of failure can be high, so you do need to do your homework before setting out. Russia is not a country where you can just show up and make a fast buck – you need to be here for the long term. Some have tried and failed, but many more have done extremely well in Russia.

What advice would you give to expats coming to Moscow to work?

Ignore virtually everything you’ve read about Russia in the international media. You have to come here with an unbiased view. Take the time to learn about some of Russia’s history and culture before you arrive as Russians are typically disappointed at how little foreigners know about the country’s history, geography and culture.

Summed up: come to Russia and see for yourself as so many foreigners who come here are genuinely surprised, and then amazed by your country. A lot of them really like it here and most stay longer than they had initially expected as they find it very welcoming and stable compared to their initial expectations.

You speak really good Russian! How did you learn?

I don’t read much, but I do listen a lot and I am blessed with a good memory. I have a good ear, I played piano for 10 years when I was young. To compare, English is relatively simple to begin with but gets harder as you progress, so it’s easy to get to an intermediate level. Russian on the flip side is fiendishly difficult at first so most give up despite setting out with the best intentions. . A little piece of advice for all foreigners: make the effort to learn Russian as it will pay you back many times over. You can’t learn it all at once, it’s a long process, but do take it a step at a time. When a foreigner comes here on a contract for several years, they spend the first year confused about where they ended up, the second year changing whatever their predecessor did, and the third year thinking about where they might be sent next. Or he meets a Russian woman and needs to persuade his regional boss that should stay on in Russia.

There are a lot of marriages between foreign men and Russian women…

This makes sense as it’s hard to meet decent women in Western countries. In Russia it’s simpler because older women remember when there was a shortage of men after WWII and girls are still brought up expecting to get married. Even if a guy is a drunk who cheats, he still has a options as no girl wants to remain single. Where I’m from, it’s rare to hear a woman just say she wants to get married, and there is little pressure from families to get hitched for the sake of it. Our women are raised to believe that there are millions of men out there and he should be happy you are even speaking to him. Western women are the ones who do the choosing and it’s on their terms which explains why foreign men marry Russian women when they come here; they’re like a kid in a candy store!

As someone who has lived in Moscow for a long time, what kinds of places do you go to? What do you like most?

I don’t go to theatres, although I did visit the Bolshoi and others when I first arrived in the early ‘90s. There are a lot of events related to the various Chambers of Commerce and different Embassy functions. There are business and social events, but it’s all very open and easy to break in to if you’re a newcomer. My friends and I like to go to Sanduny banya, but mainly to bars & restaurants.

There is much less of a hierarchy amongst Expats than with Russians; even tour ambassadors attend many of these events

Russians are used to everything being more formal, official speeches where everybody stands around in suits and listens. We might have a BBQ, drinks some beers and throw a frisbee, something I couldn’t imagine a senior level Russian be seen doing.

What is life like in Moscow?

Life is cheaper in Moscow than it is in Europe, and the big bonus is that the rate of income tax is low; a flat 13%. Some things are very affordable, in particular the metro, public transportation and utilities although renting a decent place can be pricey.  Back home you will give almost half of your salary away in tax, and half of what’s left will go on rent. Commuting to work can cost a small fortune, especially in the UK (my ‘commute’ in Moscow is a 10 minute walk) and God help you if you’re a heavy smoker!

If someone comes here not on a contract, but just because they decided to move to Moscow from Europe, what advice would you give them?

Whilst there are certainly a lot of opportunities here, you need to carefully analyze your skillset before coming. Think about what you can offer that a local can’t, and be realistic. In Russia, the business language is Russian and don’t just assume you can rock up & walk into any job speaking English. There is a Russian movie from Soviet times titled “Moscow doesn’t believe in tears” which sums up the situation nicely, rather like people landing in London and expecting the streets to be paved with gold.

Has living in Russia changed your personality?

Of course. I’ve become a little more emotional in how I act, and my mother says that I’ve become bolder. In England, the more polite you are to someone, the higher the chances that they’ll go out of their way to help you. That’s not the case in Russia where it would be assumed that you don’t really need anything.

In Western countries people are like robots, particularly in the workplace. They live their lives according to a specific plan, think about pensions and insurance from an early age, carefully calculate what to spend every monthly paycheck on: rent, insurance, food, a sum to be put away for the summer holidays. Russians are more spontaneous, they wake up in the morning and think about what they want without worrying about the future. Why? Because experience shows that planning ahead is often pointless.

I think there needs to be a middle ground, because I don’t want to live my whole life in the future. On the other hand, when I speak to my colleagues here about their New Year plans in November, they tell me they can’t plan that far ahead and put everything off until the last minute. Then they are surprised that flights have shot up in price and some end up staying at home.

I guess that I’ve become more spontaneous, I follow my heart more in life in the things I do. In my country, when we do things for others it’s because they did something for us in the past or we hope they’ll do something for us in the future. Here it comes from the heart or else they won’t do it.

Do you like Moscow?

Yes, it’s great city to live in; safe and fun. In Europe, in the West in general there’s a saying that everything works but nothing happens anymore. Here it’s the opposite! There’s always something going on – Moscow never sleeps. It’s a European city that’s convenient to live in; only people who have never been here think otherwise. The only thing is I always tell foreigners is not to schedule early morning meetings unless they are with other foreigners. Russians don’t do early morning!

Thanks for the interview Luc, for learning about and liking Russia, for giving the right kind of advice to foreigners who want to come live in the capital.

 

7 most common myths & stereotypes about Russia

1. It's always cold.

Yes, it does get cold (if you're concerned about global warming, come to Russia in the winter). But summer can be scorchingly hot, with spring and autumn seeming to last only a few weeks.

2. You have to drink heavily to do business.

Sure, a lot of vodka gets drunk, although beer has in fact overtaken the clear stuff as Russians' choice of tipple and wine and cocktails are increasing in popularity amongst the middle classes.

3. Russia is dangerous.

Stories about the fabled Russian mafia might make great headlines for lazy journalists but the days of shootouts in broad daylight and kiosks being blown up are long gone, and were in fact highly exaggerated in the first place. Moscow has its fair share of petty crime like any other big city, but the majority of crime against foreigners occurs due to drunken misunderstanding with the police or taxi drivers (and / or with recently-met local women when under the influence).

4. I can't understand the funny writing - how will I get around?!

Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, as do nearby Belarus, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Moldova and parts of the former Yugoslavia. It's much less daunting than it first appears (some of the letters are the same, or similar to their Latin equivalents) and English language signage is on the increase, particularly in Moscow, St.Petersburg and other places where foreigners may venture.

5. The country is far too corrupt to be able to do business transparently.

Many of the world's largest & best known multinational organizations are present in Russia, and run successful, profitable operations. Most have been here since the 1990s, they are audited and scrutinized both locally and internally, and simply wouldn't tolerate an environment where they couldn't run a clean business.

6. International sanctions prevent our country from doing business with Russia.

Mostly, the sanctions prohibit the sale, supply, transfer or export of goods and technologies in certain sectors, although the number of companies who have actually been affected remains small. Sadly, some companies have chosen to "self sanction," incorrectly assuming that they cannot do business in Russia and arguably it has been this assumption which has hurt the Russian economy more than the sanctions themselves.

7. Nobody ever smiles.

If you travel on the metro in the morning, you'll certainly see many glum faces and yes, it is rare for Russian to smile for no reason. Why? Some blame a combination of the poor weather, at least in the winter, a turbulent history, especially in the past century coupled with a general mistrust of outsiders (it didn't pay to be inquisitive during communist times) and difficult living conditions for most, even today.

From the book Luc Jones "Why Russians Don't Smile"

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