Duke - The Fuqua School of Business

Feature Story

Ernst and Young Top Executive Talks Leadership in Russia

Stuart Lawson leads a session in Fuqua's Global Executive MBA residency

July 02, 2013

Stuart Lawson knows a thing or two about business. He has 36 years of banking experience, 16 of them as CEO/Chairman of banks in Russia. During the past two years, he has established a strong position in consulting. Lawson is Ernst and Young's Executive Director for Russia and the CIS.

He recently led a session for Fuqua's Global Executive MBA students during their residency in Russia.  He discussed everything from management challenges to how Russia's business climate is different from other places.

Lawson elaborates on some of those topics in a Fuqua Q and A.

1. What do you want people to know about doing business in Russia?

Russia is full of contradictions. On the one hand, it is an ancient land, full of tradition, culture and history. On the other hand, it has been formed in its current iteration since the fall of communism over only 20 years. Inevitably this leads to a fascinating business landscape that provides tremendous possibilities but with concomitant risk. The trick is to equip yourself with sufficient local knowledge to be able to make the judgment calls on when to act and with whom in what sector.

2. Do you see changes on the horizon for how business may be done differently in Russia?

Hopefully, all business in Russia will need to adjust to a more transparent environment that will be brought about by a combination of the accession to the WTO combined with the recent commitment from the President to an improvement in the transparency index. This sea of change will take time and effort but has become a core need given the changing structure of the Russian economy. It is widely accepted that it can no longer rely simply on accessing its mineral wealth and must create a 'value added' economy. This will provide multiple opportunities for entrepreneurs and foreign companies as they assist in this process.

3. I've read that you say Russia is "never as good and never as bad as the headlines would have you believe." Why do you think that is the case?

Simply put, because the writers of those headlines have a guiding purpose that may be at odds with the realities that exist. Headlines sell papers and there is a deep well of cold war sensitivities that can be drawn on to ensure that a Russia story sells (think of the number of bad Russian guys in the action movies). Clearly, I am not denying that bad things happen in Russia. The question that can be asked is whether they are balanced by the good news stories demonstrating the progress of the society over the past 20 years.

4. What is the greatest challenge you face as a business leader in Russia today?

Twenty years is plenty of time to build skills from a talented workforce but there is a need to continue to focus on developing core competencies and to weld the best of western business practices with the specificities of the Russian environment. The government itself has established the goal of improving transparency, which implies a lack of transparency today. It is time to work together.

5. What advice would you give to a business school student who aspires to work in Russia?

Study the country and its needs. Ensure that you bring together as much relevant information as you can to inform yourself of the potential the country offers and then match it against your perceived skills. But this is not entirely an academic exercise. Russia demands a certain temperament. To succeed you will need a genuine interest in the country and a willingness to participate in what can be a very challenging business environment. The reward is tremendous however and I have far too little space here to give a comprehensive review. Let's just say that it has held my attention for 18 years and counting……