A Manager in Ukraine

by Christos Tsolkas


Published @ HBR.org June 3rd 2015


Most of the world views the turmoil in Ukraine as a geopolitical and humanitarian catastrophe. In my former position as Managing Director of Philip Morris Ukraine where I was based in Kiev from January 2012 until February 2015, I was forced to see it as a business crisis that threatened our people, operations, and bottom line. When peaceful protests turned into violent clashes between demonstrators and police, and fighting engulfed the nation, every rule of normal business collapsed. Our supply and distribution lines were impeded; we lost territory to war and annexation; we had to manage the impact of military mobilization of our workers and we needed to relocate or redeploy almost a hundred employees and their families.


In that confusion, I had two clear priorities: to secure the safety of our employees at all costs; and to maintain our operations to whatever degree possible. I had already experienced a crisis like this before as managing director of Philip Morris in Greece in 2009. When riots and national strikes caused our revenues to plummet by 80%, I learned that it was not productive for me to feel responsible for events beyond my control, but it was my job to manage the situation as best as possible. In Greek, after all, krisis has two meanings: it’s a time of chaos and confusion, but it’s also a moment to apply judgment and discernment.


I tried to give my team in Ukraine this perspective. It is easy to feel anxiety, responsibility, and even shame when things go wrong in a business. But you can only make good, prompt decisions that move the organization forward, if you have enough detachment to view the confusion in a clear-eyed and objective way. Indeed, Ukraine’s troubles offered an opportunity to build the leadership capacity of my management team.


Shift from “Fog Fear” to “Tent Time.” A crisis breeds pervasive fear. I call this the “fog fear” and I’ve seen it paralyze organizations. The antidote is to help your people feel safe, secure, and supported.


Our behavior as the management team mattered a lot. The eleven of us aimed to be calm, decisive, and hands-on captains to the 200 people in our office, the 450 others spread around the country and the 750 in the factory. We kept our own feelings under control as we tried to be emotionally “present” so that people could discuss their fears and worries with us. We assured them through our actions that our most important priority was to keep them and their families safe and, to that end, instituted nightly head counts and safety reports during the worst of the crisis. Throughout it all, we provided constant communications with status updates, decisions, changes, and guidelines for how to act and react appropriately to the level of crisis at hand.


Just as critically, we supported each other by spending lots of time together, sharing thoughts, and laughs. We called this bonding “tent time.” The expression came from an arctic adventurer who had told us that his team grew closer through the long hours they spent together in their tent at the end of every day. The more tent time we had in Ukraine, the closer and calmer we became as a team.


Become a “What If” Machine. A crisis throws predictability out the window and forces everyone to adopt new ways to run the business. To effectively manage that chaos, it’s necessary to develop the habit of continuously processing new information, playing out “what if” scenarios, calculating risk factors, and running through checklists. With each new development, we learned to assess what it meant by asking “What is in front of us and what are the consequences?” Through that discipline, it became almost automatic to imagine options, craft emergency plans, and identify trigger points to propel us into action. We knew what we would do if our factory was shut down, our phones stopped working, or the fighting intensified and evacuation was necessary. It was critical to make decisions quickly and avoid becoming stuck.


Avoid Secrecy. During a crisis, it’s easy for a senior team to huddle up in the war room while making important decisions. But while leaders need time to absorb new information, assess priorities, and have candid conversations it is just as important to be out with the troops and “leading from the front.” I helped my team understand that increased communication is a must during a crisis. By nature, people are less confused and prone to panic when they understand what is going on. Tone and body language are also important because everyone is hypersensitive to nonverbal clues. Some leaders sugarcoat reality or take the corporate line. We found that it helped to consistently downplay expectations and confront brutal facts so people knew they were always getting straight talk.


Rely on Others as Much as Possible. To manage a crisis, the leadership team must function at its highest capacity. Each person on my team had different skill sets and personalities. Depending on the circumstances, different people came to the front to lead. Our Director of Information Systems became a technological tactician who worked out a plan in record time to allow us work remotely in the event that fighting encroached on our offices. Our Director of Operations led our special situations management team to respond to threats and constant changes. Others offered psychological support to employees experiencing breakdowns, developed contingency plans, or found temporary shelter for those whose homes were threatened. I never appreciated the diversity of a team more, and our tent time helped us benefit from our collective talents. Disagreements and debate was encouraged because we needed a variety of perspectives to surface problems and good ideas. The cohesion of our team made it safer to discuss difficult issues, innovate solutions, and take risks.
Many foreign companies decided to write off Ukraine. Our company achieved exceptional results – maintaining market share, reaching sales targets and accomplishing the majority of our business objectives – while serving as a beacon of stability to our customers and the people of Ukraine especially during the most difficult eight months of the crisis until September 2014 when the Minsk Protocol temporarily ended hostilities. We live in a world where crises are likely and leaders must prepare to face the unexpected. It is important to take advantage of every opportunity, even catastrophe, to learn and grow.


Christos Tsolkas June 2015

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