Michael Byrne is one Moscow’s iconic expats. Like the rest of us, he has weathered a few storms here. Through sheer determination and talent, he has made it through to the other side. His current position as managing director of Schouten Global Russia is perhaps his greatest achievement so far. In this interview, Michael tells us about how he came to Russia, some of his experiences living in Russia and what he is doing now. Editor
Interview by John Harrison
Michael, how and why did you come to Russia?
Life has a wonderful way of surprising you, so I suppose mine could be described as ‘I saw that going differently in my mind.’ I had been to Russia during the 90’s, to deliver training but I did not return again until 2007, ten years after my first mind blowing Russian cultural experience and things had changed… a lot. Through a series of highly unlikely events and chance meetings I decided to stay. What happened? Well first I met my ten-year old Russian brother, then I met and lost my heart to the most beautiful, talented amazing woman who would change my life and career path forever and finally I was offered a job. What else did I need? It was Russia for me.
Very briefly, how has your career panned out here?
I had no planned career path when I first came here and by chance was offered a job with a Project Management company developing an ISO Quality Manual for them, but as I had a strong sales and training background this evolved into me heading up their sales team. Having no Russian language, in a market I didn’t understand and without the support of a large international organisation behind me made this one of the most exciting and challenging times of my life. As my business network was non-existent and I knew no one I had to quickly change this by attending every business networking and social event I could possibly go to and meet people and connect. Three years later and after the 2008 crisis a new opportunity presented itself and with my then girlfriend, who was a very experienced and talented Director in the call centre world, we started our own outsourced call-centre operation.
What are you doing now?
Currently I am the General Director of Schouten Global Russia. I started working with Schouten last year and was taken on to further develop the Schouten brand and business presence here. The last 18 months have been very exciting and challenging as we have gone through a massive transformational change, strengthen the Schouten brand position, re-evaluate our service offerings, introduce new procedures and put a bright, fresh new team together. One that was creative, inspirational and passionate. Looking back to my first few months in St. Petersburg and what we, as a team, have created makes me very proud of everyone. The ship is ‘only as strong as its crew’ as they say. There is still a long race ahead of us and the Russian market still presents many challenges but they are challenges we are ready to meet.
What makes Schouten in Russia different?
In today’s VUCA world, powerful leadership and optimal teamwork are crucial. Strong leaders are able to manoeuvre their organisations, avoiding threats and leveraging opportunities. They are capable of forming the best teams (multicultural), managing them with maximum inspiration and motivation. They make essential choices, can deal with pressure and are focused on achieving the goal they defined. Successful teams are capable of achieving better results than teams that are not as well-developed and balanced as a group. Our difference then is our ability to develop leaders and teams by influencing behavioural change and building learning journeys. Such journeys are based on the individual’s own personality. Personal skills are developed and managers are developed so that they become hybrid managers; able to operate in changing circumstances and environments. Relating to team development, Schouten offers the right tools to make teams more effective and efficient. Schouten develops leaders and teams that are larger than life. No mountain is too high, no ocean too deep for them.
Are you saying that traditional training methods don’t work in Russia?
No, but ask anyone who has attended a soft skills training program and they will probably tell you that while they may have left the program inspired and excited about what they learned, they came out fundamentally ‘unchanged.’ Despite their best intentions, they simply could not successfully integrate the theories and practices they learned and soon forgot them all together. Context is king and the first spend should be to ensure that the program is relevant to the learner and reflects the company’s strategy and values. To think that a program built in 2001 or back in the 1990’s magically fits (and needs no customisation) in 2016 is farcical – and yet it happens. Discovery, focus groups, tailoring and a passion to ‘get it right’ must be part of any training budget in order to make the learning stick. Training designs should emphasize engagement, discovery and creative use of visuals. People learn when they are fully engaged – and will remember what they say, not what you say.
Does being a member of a team, like crew in a yacht race come naturally to Russians?
For me working internationally has over the years allowed me to experience different cultures and working in an international environment enables you to see how different people interact. If you ask me and my Russian team they would say that being a part of any team, like a yacht team if you will, doesn’t come very naturally to Russians, although that is changing. Russian mentality has historically been of a closed type implying everybody fights for themselves in common situations. However, the Russian people are genetically predisposed to turn into the most united and the most collaborative team when they have to. As the Great Russian poet Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev wrote, ‘Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone, No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness: She stands alone, unique – In Russia, one can only believe.’
Does living in Russia make it difficult to live anywhere else?
It is an interesting question to ask John and I would have liked to have heard my answers after my first and fifth years here. For me, Russia is a place where I feel both completely at home and completely alien. What would make leaving Russia hard are all the things I would miss. I would miss the beautiful Soviet metro stations — the stained glass, the marble, the statues and I will definitely miss that you rarely have to wait more than a minute or two for a train. I would miss the parks. Both in the summer when they are alive till the late hours and the winter when they are transformed in to glittering ice-skating rinks. I would miss the European feel of Saint Petersburg and the street musicians that creep out from every corner. I would miss the fact that you can get antibiotics and just about anything else over the counter. I would miss the constant changes that have and are still taking place. I would also miss the Russian people and the strong friendships I have made.