In this week’s episode of Beyond Consulting we welcome Igor Smelyansky, a former BCG Principal and current CEO-Director General at Ukrposhta.
The Beyond Consulting Podcast is hosted by Ken Kanara.
Ken Kanara: Hello and welcome to Beyond Consulting, brought to you by ECA partners. For those of you joining us for the first time, we are the only podcast dedicated to helping our listeners navigate their career after consulting. I’m Ken Kanara, host of Beyond Consulting and CEO of ECA Partners, a specialized project staffing and executive search firm focused on former management consultants and private equity. Each week I host guests that have spent time in consulting and made some sort of pivot or career change. Today is a special episode. We have a very special guest with us in the studio—Igor Smelyansky, CEO of the Ukrainian Post. Igor, thank you so much for joining us today.
Igor Smelyansky: Hi everyone.
Ken Kanara: Igor, I was thinking that we could start off with hearing a little about your background and how you got here (laughs) and why it is that I said, “Hey, Igor, could you join the Beyond Consulting Podcast?”
Igor Smelyansky: Sure. I started my career in consulting. I began by joining KPMG as a tax accountant, and then I graduated in my MBA-JD program and my first big job was with Boston Consulting Group and I grew from consultant to director. After that…, in between, actually, I left consulting went to manage the banks, came back to consulting, left again, then I joined KPMG’s M&A practice in New York. That’s where, after that, I joined the Ukrainian Postal Service as the CEO and on July 1 it will be six years that I’ve been the CEO.
Ken Kanara: Wow…from consulting to CEO of probably the most important postal service role there is right now in the entire world. That’s incredible. Igor, I would love to dig in to what your role is now and how that has evolved from pre-invasion to war-time efforts. Do you want to start with what your responsibilities were prior to this and how things have shifted?
Igor Smelyansky: Prior to this—now it seems so easy, but it was difficult. When I joined it was one of the worst state-run companies in the country. We’ve lost all the market share. We had 11,000 branches and only 20% of them had computers. The rest were all run manually. The average age of the cars was about 18 years old. But again, now it seems that those problems were not that big. Nevertheless, it’s important because what we’ve done prior to the war has helped us during the war. There’s no way we would have done what we have during the first 100 days of the war if it was not for the preparation we’d done before. We’ve managed to change lots of IT systems. We now have, sometimes, over six million volts per second—(cyber)attacks, that we need to respond to. We have a new truck fleet…a new model that allows us to deliver pensions, for example. In every single village in Ukraine during the war. We do, basically an assessment at six in the morning, every morning, with the military’s State of Affairs to determine where there has been bombing, where it’s safe or not safe to go, because it’s basically people’s lives (at risk). We’ve made one mistake and we’ve lost two lives at the beginning of the war. Now, we have safety procedures. Basically, before the war, it was almost like a normal postal service. We’ve been striving to get the market share, we’ve been investing in IT, in new sorting centers, in new trucks, in new products, in catching up internationally. Actually, I’m proud that two years ago we got the prize for the best postal service in the world for international e-commerce. And again, that’s important now because we’ve taught thousands of people how to sell on Amazon, eBay and Etsy. Now, even during the war…it’s amazing. In between the bombings, people are still selling their products through us to Amazon, Etsy and eBay. All airports in Ukraine have been closed, shut down or destroyed, so we’ve now created a new logistical scheme where we take our stuff to Europe and fly it from Europe—charter flights, also other flights. During the war, obviously, we’re trying to deliver basic services plus delivering humanitarian aid, plus helping companies evacuate from East to West. Obviously, our regular things became more difficult because…for example, we need to deliver pensions, in cash, to 3,000,000 people around the country. Imagine the operations where we need to get the cash, we need to get through the military zones, sometimes we even have to negotiate with an enemy, and this is basically a daily activity that you do. Then, we now have new processes of restoring our operations after certain cities and villages have been freed up. The military comes, then we have demining, then we usually send our movable branch because usually there’s no electricity, power, water, or anything. We start working through a movable branch, delivering money and usually food. Then, after a two-to-three week period, we restore our branch and work as normal. For example in the Kyiv region, the capital of Ukraine, where our enemy was basically in Kyiv, now it’s been freed up…by now, in just two months, we’ve restored 95% of our branches. I just came from some of the cities that now I think everybody knows in the world, Bucha, Bodyanka, and Irpin, and I talked to our staff and I think we will restore the rest in the next month and a half. The construction is already underway. That’s basically how it has changed…from a normal postal service, but during war time.
Ken Kanara: Wow. It really depends, Igor which region it is, in terms of the strategy—well, current strategy. Obviously it changes day-to-day, it sounds like.
Igor Smelyansky: It is, and a lot… even before the war, but now even more than that, I spent a lot of time on psychological issues because we have the Western part of the country, which is almost—almost like peace time, except for occasional shelling that keeps people on their toes every time. Then we have the Eastern part of the country. I just came from the front lines, and it’s war. People are dying there every day. You don’t have water or electricity; People can get shot at any time. It’s important to keep the focus of the team—to remind them that it’s still war even though it may not seem like it, for example in Kyiv. Again, a lot of the things are managing different psychological state of affairs because what I notice is that people quickly go from thanking you for just being there because not that many companies stay, to demanding that you work as slaves, so they still now want that parcel next day. Imagine now there’s a curfew—we have a curfew which makes it very difficult, A) to deliver, B) for the employees to get to shifts—the night shifts—and get from night shifts. SO you have to redesign the shift periods so people can get there before curfew and leave after. Then we need to redesign the trucks so that the tracking time can also—that’s why for example, after 21 years, we relaunched delivery post by rail, because the railway is going by night, even during curfew times. I think it was the faster startup. We launched it in five days. No memorandums, no contracts…I just met with the COO, who is a friend of mine from a railway company, and we did it in five days. On Saturday we joked that on Saturday we had a beer in Lviv, and then in six days we would be launching the first railway car delivering mail.
Ken Kanara: That’s incredible. I actually want to dive into the railway in a second, but I want to back up to the leadership point that you brought up. I have seen a lot of photos.
Igor Smelyansky: Yes, I think it’s important to set an example. It’s important to be with your employees, especially during this time. I have been delivering post and pensions to, physically, the front lines. When they see that I am with them, A) it’s encouraging them, B) it’s important to believe in the world of media. They want to see the CEO next to them. They want to see that person, whoever that may be, not in the office because when that someone stays in the office, he or she loses credibility. When I travel…when they see me every day, even during the war—we have 24 regions…in Ukraine there are 24 regions. During wartime I’ve been, now, in 21 of them. I’ve been in warzones more often than in other ones and next week we’ll go to the last three that I will visit during the war because, again, it’s important for people to see me. They wait until night time just to see me—to talk, to tell us what they need. It’s important to me. It’s important to me what they feel. Every time I come from a trip, there’s something that I can change. There’s something that we can change as a company. Some products—I just came from the Kharkiv region. I was in the village and they said, “We need medicine. There are no pharmacies.” So during the week we’ll try to find a way to deliver medicine to them. Again, I believe in this world of media where people need to see leadership and decisive leadership. I’ve talked to a few of my friends who are big on corporate governance. I said, “There’s no democracy here…no board meetings or anything. It’s my decisions. Decisions need to be made fast, there’s really no time to…whatever it is. I make mistakes just like any other person. I’m a human being and sometimes when you work 20 hours a day you do make mistakes. But it has to be aggressive and it has to be fast. Oftentimes, it’s black and white—during the war, the gray zone disappears. Different gray zones appear, where…I negotiate with an enemy. Is it good or not? Some people say it’s good, sometimes some people say it’s not. For example, there is the Geneva Convention during the war that the enemy is responsible for the people behind enemy lines. There is a different viewpoint that, “Well, if you don’t care of your people, they will think you just forgot about them and they may take care of an enemy.” I’m rather a proponent of the latter and I said, “Okay, those are our people and whatever we can do to help them, even if it means negotiating”—obviously within Ukrainian law, “we have to do it.” What this means is that I have to be more careful in what I say because you have to understand that the emotions are high when you’re losing any of your people and when we see what they are doing to our people, but then I also know that they’re following my posts on Facebook, on Telegram…they’re reading what I say. They’re viewing what I say, so if I can sometimes be harsher, it can backfire and endanger the lives of my people. On the other hand, it’s a weapon. If I want to push them, I know what to say in the video that will make their life more difficult and make them negotiate with me. It’s about balancing. Again, like I said, it’s a war and a war of emotions. The CEO’s and the leaders need to help the positive emotions of their team, of their clients and their country, because the way I see it, our enemies are defending the past. We’re defending the future and you have to do it to bring up the morale. To be honest, it’s a hard balance. When I travel I cannot do things that I would need to do, like work with the documents, work with the processes, analyze some of the things. It’s a difficult balance. If I could do it I would travel five days a week, but I understand that there is other stuff that needs to be done. For the first part of the week I am usually in the office and for the second part of the week I’m usually on the road.
Ken Kanara: When you’re in occupied areas where you’re having to negotiate with the enemy for the greater good of getting the critical supplies to the people that need them, could you tell us a bit about what that’s like because I can’t imagine that, for anyone listening, that we’ve ever been in a situation like that in our entire life?
I had never been in that situation either. There is no book, How to Manage the Company, and maybe I’ll write one. No, I’m kidding. How to Manage the Company in a Time of War—there are things you just learn. I think it’s important to keep an eye on what you believe in. You need to have that compass of, “Okay, I believe in this.” Whatever it is that I have to make a decision, that’s what my guiding principle is. You cannot change it every time. Do you fire people? Or do you not fire people? What do you do with that? Let’s say…let me give you an example. You’ve probably read lots of refugees left Ukraine, right? Some of them are my employees. Do I wait for them or do I fire them and get new employees instead? There is no black and white. On one hand, do I continue to pay them salary? Do I continue to pay them a partial salary? What should I do? Again, there is no book because it’s never been done. I’ve seen some foreign companies that keep paying salaries, but they’ve probably been financed by their headquarters, otherwise where do you get the money during the war? I mean, our revenues fell 50% in the first month. 50% drop in revenue and our employee expenses are 70% of our expenses. So the first month we lost tons of money. But again, it was an important thing to me to pay people’s salaries, and to some people, pay more, especially in the danger zone because they have to be some—people are really big on fairness. They may not like the rules, but the rules have to be fair. It’s tough when you negotiate but you just have to convince yourself, first of all, that every retiree that today gets the money is one more happy person and one more person that actually can survive today. When I went to Severodonetsk, which is now one of the toughest fights, we went there to deliver pensions. There’s no mobile connection, no electricity…there’s nothing there. When I personally went, I said, “I will deliver myself.” When I paid a pension to one of the old ladies she gave me a piece of paper and said, “Can you please call my daughter to tell her that I am alive.” Because there was no way that she could connect. Then another one said, “Today is the first time in months that I can buy milk.” I think that those stories are important and I constantly communicate to my employees—have Telegram…I write them emails—that communication is key. They need to see it. So I tell them these stories. Why? Because they need to understand that they’re not just doing their job. What they’re doing is important to millions of people. Behind every delivered parcel is someone’s clothing that they forgot when they ran away. Behind every pension is a person that can survive, because we don’t know…like today we cannot deliver to Severodonetsk. But we know they have money now. They can survive for some time. Every delivered pension is someone who can live on it for some time. So I think the communication is the key. You have to communicate a lot. It’s important for people to see themselves, at well. Every time I travel, you’ve probably seen it from the trip, in my pictures are my employees. It’s important for them to see themselves. Again, it’s a media time, right? They want to see the selfie with the CEO. It’s a huge morale boost for them. They will share, I’ll sign something… In general, CEO visits are big, but, especially during the war…it’s a huge morale boost, especially in the military zones which are close the war zones.
Ken Kanara: Absolutely. When you’re in those situations, also when you’re negotiating with the enemy, do you ever get the sense that the enemy doesn’t want to be there?
Igor Smelyansky: It depends.
Ken Kanara: Okay.
Igor Smelyansky: I cannot say everything, but first of all consulting and actually, my legal skills help because I understand how they think. Also, when you share these different regions I also understand that they don’t communicate—they have a different version of working. Russians work through the Kremlin. They don’t communicate in parallel. They don’t communicate with each other, they do it through this. So it’s important when you negotiate and say, “Okay, do they know what I just negotiated with the agent next to them?” No, they don’t, because that’s how the information flows. I think, again, it’s important—all those negotiating classes and stuff, the good ones, obviously, it’s important. You need to think how they think. You need to understand what’s important to them, to understand the leverage you have. Then you can …not 100% successful, but then you can understand for example, if it’s an enemy who used to be a Ukrainian citizen they have one motivation. If it’s Russians from Russia, they have different motivations. They don’t give a shit about people there. If it’s someone local who became a traitor, it’s different, they still have pressure from local citizens. They feel it. Today, you have to be a psychologist—you have to have these negotiating skills. You have to understand the situation and then they can be the most successful.
Ken Kanara: Wow, that’s incredible. Thanks for sharing the story about the elderly woman, too. That really kind of puts it in perspective.
Igor Smelyansky: Well, I’m in this. I want the people to relate—to imagine you live in some remote area of the US…in some small village in Montana. They don’t have connections, which means they cannot use their bank card, right? The only thing you can use is cash because even if you don’t have a connection or, you don’t have electricity—or let’s say you have electricity, but you don’t have a mobile connection. The terminal cannot work so you cannot accept payments through the card, it means the only thing that works is cash.
Ken Kanara: Obviously, there’s the on-the-ground logistics component and you’ve talked about that a lot Igor, but talk to us a bit about the work that you were doing prior to the war and during the war from a technology and IT perspective, because I think that’s a big component to your success, as well.
Igor Smelyansky: It is. It’s funny…some of the things we put away, but you have to go with the flow. You probably read that our stamp became a future international success…you know the Russian warship, “Go eff yourself…” stem. We had to launch an internet store in three days. When we launched the internet store it became a huge success and then Russian bots start cyber attacking us. They started huge cyberattacks that we could not hold. So, we did a second attempt they still killed us, then we did a third attempt and they killed us. Then we realized, “Okay, there is no way you can have one website that can dispense such huge attacks.” So we have four stores now—actually five. Now we’re most successful. We are selling…I think the last stamp we did online was $250,000. $250,000. We became the first postal service in the world that opened a store on eBay, and soon we are opening one on Amazon. The merchandise line is the stamp and everything. For all you do you need IT. You need IT that basically changes every day because the way that cyberattacks work is they try different ways…they try different scenarios, so you have to be adaptable. You have to build your system so it can work if part of the system does not work. It’s funny, we’ve done so much to digitalize the company, but sometimes it backfires because once people learn how to do it on the computer—even the same people that have done it on paper for 20 years, they cannot go back because after a year on the computer they forgot how it was working on the paper. That process doesn’t work anymore. But sometimes during the war, you need that process. We are investing heavily in IT. We will continue to invest. We did ERP implementation in record time, eight months. I don’t think anybody has done it before in in the record time. I just said that we have to do it, and we’ve done it. In two weeks I’ve relaunching all the IT projects frozen during the war. We will continue to invest in IT. We’ll continue to invest in efficiency because I understand that when we win—there’s no question—we will win this war, but there will be a toll on the economy. People will get poorer. There will be, at the same time, you will have a hard time hiring people and keeping them motivated. That’s why you need to efficiency. You need deficiency so you can keep the prices low. You can’t just do a populism thing and say, “Okay, I’ll keep the prices but my expenses went up. Oh let the government pay for it.” No, that’s not how it works. In general, my strategy in the company is that I want this company, even though it’s state-owned for now, to be as independent as it can because when you ask someone from the government, you know they want something in return. They want to have something in return. I believe the more independent you can get, the better.
Ken Kanara: I think that’s right. Those stories are pretty incredible. For those listeners who don’t know about the stamp, this is a pretty cool story.
Igor Smelyansky: Actually, it’s an even more complicated story. The guy actually sends Russian ship…the ship told our, essentially, Navy seals…they told our Navy seals to surrender. They, in return, said, “Go eff yourself.” We issued a stamp on April 12 with the Russian military ship and then it gets sunk on April 14…in one day. Now people think our stamps have a predictive moment so they want us to issue them quickly so that if we issue them today, he dies tomorrow. That’s also why the stamp became so famous. The first release of the stamp we sold 1,000,000 stamps in three days. We did the second version called “Russian Military Ship Down,” dedicated to the fact that it’s now a submarine, and we’ve sold now…almost 5,000,000 stamps. We’ll finish selling it soon. They are up on eBay if anybody wants to buy it.
Ken Kanara: That’s incredible. I was going to ask, are there plans, Igor, to release future stamps as a way to raise funds for wartime support?
Igor Smelyansky: Yes, actually. I’m very proud to say that since the first stamp we raised more for charity than we collected for the stamp. Just today I came from a school in Borodyanka, one of the citizen key regions which was hit the hardest by Russians when they killed thousands of people there—they destroyed it. On my Facebook I’ve announced the auction to collect money to restore computer class because Russians took all the computers from the school…to restore computer class for kids and in one night I got the money to restore actually not one school, but two: one in Chernigov and one in Borodyanka. Today I brought computers to the Borodyanka school so kids can start learning again. We raised a lot of money for Ukrainian air forces. Last time I went to the frontlines I brought the medicine. Actually, through US volunteers…they gave me kits for the soldiers…So I brought the medical kits, some of the food supplies, etc. I’m really happy that we’ve been able to—actually through IT, by the way, we realized a charitable component on the stamp. When you buy the stamp, you can copay, and that money will go to whatever you believe in. We have five charitable causes: military, animals—because animals are also a big problem. Many people just left and they unfortunately left the animals behind. We’re helping a lot of animal shelters. It’s for humanitarian aid delivery, it’s for…animals, and for restoring our infrastructure. And then, sorry…because I believe that some things you need to look at strategically. For example, we’re now talking in June. Why I so strongly believe in schools, and I do my best to help the schools, is because if we don’t respond…if we don’t restore schools by August, it means all the refugees with kids will stay outside of the country. And if their kids will go to school in Poland, in Spain, in Italy, it means that we just lost that family at least for a year, and maybe forever. So some of the things…some of them are my employees, some of them are my clients, so I strongly believe that in some things you have to think above and outside of your company, and in war time, to see how certain factors will impact tomorrow, how you will work.
Ken Kanara: How do you think this thing plays out?
Igor Smelyansky: I wish I knew. I wish I knew. I do know that it’s not going to be fast. Just because I know how they think, I cannot say all the things. Again, as far as negotiations go, they can they have different view on things. They don’t care about people’s lives. For Putin, during the negotiations, one of the world leaders said, “You could kill one million of your people.” And Putin said, “Well, it’s only .15% of my population.” It’s bad—it’s horrible, but you have to understand how they think, because if you want to win, you need to understand how they think. It’s a war of the past. If you look at their symbols, there are no symbols of the future at all. If you look at the Russian propaganda, they are recalling the Second World War, they’re recalling Yuri Gagarin—the First Flight, they’re recalling the USSR hockey team…there’s not one symbol about the future. They’re defending the past, which they think is going…They’ve done a solid job on propaganda. Extremely solid. You just have to…you cannot underestimate your enemy. You have to study them. You have to see how they communicate, because if you want to win you need to understand it all. Yes, they’ve done…they’ve sold…it’s amazing. They’re young people like me and you, I mean, we are slightly older, but they sold 20-year-old kids that never lived in Soviet Union. The Soviet Union has been broken, what is now…20 years ago? They have an amazing view of the Soviet Union. They think it was the best country in the world. They don’t know it was long lines of people who don’t have toilet paper, who don’t have enough food. They sold that idea about the past and now they’re selling them the idea that you need to defend the glorious past. Again, it’s not good or bad it’s just… as you study your competitors…in consulting, we do SWOT analysis, we do competitor analysis. It’s the same thing during the war. You have to understand where they’re strong and where they’re weak, where there’s a propaganda, where they believe in things and who believes in it. Also, it’s important—it’s something personal because the stories are better when their personal—BCG, McKinsey, Accenture…everyone’s been working in Russia, right? People with Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown…degrees are working there, so you would think that smart people have been working there, right? But a lot of them do believe in this stuff now. When you talk—I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to interview someone or meet someone from Russia…it was something that was I would say was painful to me, painful to my wife, because she was also graduated from inside. When people from there don’t talk to you after the beginning of the war… the friends of ours that know where I am never wrote after the beginning of the war. They didn’t even ask how I’m doing. It’s between believing in that crap that the Russians sold them and being afraid. That’s how you lost a lot of people, but not people from mechanics, from the Far East…it’s the people with Harvard diplomas. I think after this war, and even during this war, there will be a lot of work for psychologists about how people—again, they’re not stupid—they’ve been able to get where they are. They have at least some logical abilities, and they support it (Russia), or at least, their neutral. There’s actually now a favorite phrase: “Well, not everything is black and white.” That’s how you convince yourself. What do you do if you decided to stay in Russia? If you’re at least, reasonably…you have some part of your brain where you cannot support it, but at the same time, if you stay in Russia you need to explain yourself why you’re staying in a country which is killing millions of people. They said, “Well I have to find some reason, and that’s ‘Well, not everything is black and white.,’ to try to find justification of why you would do something or why you would work somewhere, but those are the cases.
Ken Kanara: Yes, and your point is actually well taken and Igor, I would love to turn the conversation to exactly that…what could the rest of the world, and specifically the US, be doing more of from a from an individual perspective, from a business perspective, and a government perspective?
Igor Smelyansky: The simple answer is that we need more arms. This war will not be won by people—a human force. Obviously, we are proud of our heroes, but this war will be won with rockets. I was just in the Kharkiv region and our armed forces moved Russians back to the Russian border, but the Russian border is about 10 kilometers or 20 kilometers from Ukrainian cities. They have rockets that can reach 60 to 70 kilometers, so doesn’t really matter if we kick them out of Ukraine, they can still shoot the targets. Now, imagine, if they can shoot the targets, can you imagine U.S. business investing in Kharkiv if anything they invest in can be destroyed in one minute? No, they won’t. No one in their sound mind will be wasting anything…the Russians will be waiting until you build the plant for $50 million and then one day it will be gone. From the government perspective, we need to create a sense of security. And that means a sense of security for investments as well, that comes from having modern arms. Russians need to know that if they send a rocket that either, that rocket will be shot down, or that Ukraine has rockets that can shoot Russia. There’s a famous bridge that’s been built to Crimea. That bridge is used by Russians to supply…basically, to support their troops. If we had a rocket that could hit that bridge, we could just destroy the bridge and cut off the supplies. It means less people are dying, the war comes to a faster…people understand…I’m pretty sure that the US army has really qualified people, but I think they understand what Ukraine needs to get to win this war. They’re trying a difficult dance of not upsetting Russia.
Ken Kanara: That makes sense. What about US businesses?
Igor Smelyansky: I don’t think they can do pro bono work just because they have risk managers that will not allow people to fly in and really do consulting work. You need to feel it, you need to understand. That’s actually what I demand from my managers, I said, “Okay, if you want to work with me, you have to travel. I understand it’s not 100% safe, I understand the western companies will not allow it, but I don’t see any other way.” I think the best the US can do is actually to design that Marshall Plan that everyone’s talking about. That would be…Russia’s worst fear is a successful Ukraine. They could live with everything but a nearby country which is successful. Again, let’s go back to the Cold War. It was won by the US, not in an arms race. It was won because in the US, you had the house, the microwave, food, Coca Cola and jeans and McDonald’s, right? That’s how you win the war. The reality is that that’s how you win the war. That’s how you win the whole of Eastern Europe. Unless that Marshall Plan…this defense is designed…you’re not going to tell Ford, “Go build a plant in Ukraine” if it can be destroyed by Russia on Monday. So you need to design the system where you can tell your businesses that, “Look…A) yes, it’s good to invest in Ukraine, we will give you whatever tax credits, B) we will insure your investments and c) we’ll put, just to make sure that insurance works, we’ll put our armed forces or defense mechanism in place to make sure that Russia doesn’t bomb your businesses in the first place.
Ken Kanara: Okay, I like that. I love how forward-looking that is as well, because funny enough, even before the war effort, even we were thinking about opening a small office in Ukraine. Obviously, things have changed, but in the future, your point is that you need to secure that investment so that the US and rest of the world can feel good about investments in Ukraine in the future.
Igor Smelyansky: Personally, because I lived in the US, and I love the country, I do believe the US model, even though it becomes more socialistic that I would love it, but the US model is more suitable for Ukraine to quickly recover and grow than the European ones. I always give the example of when Russia says the reason for this war is Ukraine and European inspiration. Ukraine wants to become part of the EU and Russia doesn’t want that. I often speak in front of the students and ask, “Are we going to the EU?” And they say, “yeah, sure we’re going to the EU.” Then I say, “Great…name the top ten European companies that became famous over the past ten years.” And there is a silence. “Name the top 10 U.S. companies that became famous over the past ten years.” They’re not a problem to name: Amazon, Google, Uber, Facebook, anything. “Name the Asian companies that became famous.” Ali Baba, …” So, you see, there is an issue. In the US, the rising statistic is that three out of four businesses close in the first two years. For the one that survives, the whole environment is made to make sure that the company can become a star. You don’t have that many trade unions, you have a great legal system because it’s built on the president, you have venture capital, you have the market, etc. In Europe, it’s reversed. They’re doing everything they can…they even send the name to you so you can do your business…for your business to grow. Once it becomes slightly larger, they do everything to kill it: 80% tax, trade unions, you cannot fire anybody for 36 months, etc. That’s why the US-built rules that are most suitable for today’s world. A simple example, and one of my educations, I’m a US-educated attorney, so I said look in 19th century. Things were not changing as fast. You could get 200 reasonably smart people in the parliament to adopt some good laws, and that’s what’s happened after World War Two. Now, the world changes daily. Imagine 200 people in the parliament that know about biotech, high tech…how do you even get them to understand it? I’m not talking about poor countries or even all developed ones, but in the US, it’s enough to have a really cool judge in California that all he or she does is biotech cases, or a judge in Delaware that knows corporate law, etc. The system is adaptable. It can quickly adapt and not wait for 200 people to understand what the heck biotech is. In business, uncertainties kill your plans. Even bad certainty is better than uncertainty. Again, I wish that Ukraine would take more of the US model that helped the US to be what it became and made the US more active. You should just be honest—if things don’t work the way Europe works, then you don’t adopt the model that does not work.
Ken Kanara: Igor, this has been a true lesson in leadership for me, personally, to have you on and listen to you talk about what you think about leaving the company and how you think about communicating with your team and negotiating with the enemy. That’s obviously something that I’ve never had to do, but it’s incredible what you’re doing. I cannot thank you enough for joining us. Do you have any other kind last minute advice? I know this podcast isn’t normally dedicated to, call it “life beyond consulting,” but you have such a unique story—no one else has this story after consulting, so anything else you’d like to share with our listeners?
Igor Smelyansky: First of all, my life in consulting had prepared me for what I’m doing today: analytical skills, negotiating skills, most probably the ability to work with huge amounts of material with uncertainty, with leading teams…it all came from my work in consulting. I’m extremely thankful for my team, for my managers or partners for the experience that I’ve gotten in consulting. I don’t think I will discover anything new, but if the result is extremely important to you, then you do need to leave consulting at some point and go to an executive position because, at the end of the day when my son asks me what have I done today, and we now make sure to talk daily, they ask me, they’re following the news and we’re discussing it. I can tell them what exactly I’ve done today. For me, at some point, the result became very important. I wanted to tell my kids what I’ve done, not what I advised to do, but what I had actually done. For people in consulting, if you want a challenge, if you want to be challenged intellectually, you should stay in consulting. I don’t think there’s anything that compares to it. If you really want to get the results, you have to go to the industry, in the right job. For example, I don’t think strategy director is the right job if you want to change…it’s probably a good first step, but it’s not the same as an executive role. I love what I do a lot, but I don’t think you can work 20 hours a day if you don’t like what you do. It’s tough, oftentimes it’s very tough, but again, the stories I’ve told you…when you have those stories, it helps you to recharge. It helps you to get up and running and do what you do every day. The key is to love what you do and finding—I think it was Steve Jobs that said, “Find the job that you love and you don’t have to work a day in your life.” Those are general things, and people just need to enjoy what they do. If they enjoy consulting, they should be consulting. My dream now is, at some point, when I retire or leave this job, I will have one week without the phone. If you’ve been consulting, you can finish the project and hang up the phone and go for vacation. In the industry, you can’t do that. You’re on the phone, whether it’s a war or not, you have…like in my company we have 65,000 people, just by probability there’s something happening all the time, but you can influence billions of people’s lives. I think it’s the coolest thing you could have. It’s something that I will remember when I retire. My wife is waiting for that fact to happen at some point so she doesn’t have to check Telegram in the morning…but that’s what it is. I wish for everyone to pick what they love to do.
Ken Kanara: Igor, a truly inspiring story. Like I said before, I feel like this has been a lesson in leadership in terms of how you’re approaching this from a much bigger mission and we’re excited to share your story with everyone that we can. We will also provide all the relevant links in the podcast description so that if folks want to either donate or help out, they will have that information. I look forward to speaking with everyone next week. If you’re looking for more information on Beyond Consulting it’s beyondconsulting.info and you can check out all of our episodes on Spotify and Apple. If you want to contact me personally, you can do so at eca-partners.com. Igor, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your story. Thank you very much.
Igor Smelyansky: Thank you very much for having me.