Sputnik: Let me quote you: “...one of the most important lessons that I have learnt is the importance of learning from failure”. So my question is – Do you have a unique algorithm on how to use defeat as a key to success?
Stuart Lawson: It’s interesting when you wake up after 35 years in business, and your topic is failure. I’ve just done an hour on failure and I don’t have anything as a unique algorithm, which sounds very complicated. I do, however, have some practical advice, which I try and pass on. I ran a bunch of banks in Russia, I’ve been in 11 countries over 25 years with Citibank, and I’ve been in Russia for 25 years. So, I have a body of experience, and I want to pass on some basic pieces of advice. First of all, welcome failure; take maximum advantage of it because it gives you an opportunity to learn. Success is a lousy teacher, it seduces smart people into thinking they can’t fail. Failure, on the other hand, if you deal with it properly, will give you an opportunity to analyse what happened, to develop a plan and to do it differently the next time around. So, this really gives you an opportunity to progress, which is not true with success. Specifically on failure, embrace it, understand what the cause of it was, come up with a different plan, make sure that you take the time to internalise it; but do not allow it to control what happens next. You live in the present and the future, not in the past. And one of the most important things that I had to go through was an understanding that what has happened has happened; you have to take lessons from it and to move on.
Sputnik: Could you share some examples from your own experience when failure served as a catalyst for success?
Stuart Lawson: In fact, my whole lecture is based on personal examples. [I‘ve spent] 25 years in Citibank, 14 years as a crisis manager in 4 countries. I developed a very abrupt, very directive leadership style with very low emotional intelligence. When I was given a job of running Citibank in Russia back in 1995 – I set up Citibank in 1995 – I knew about crisis management, I didn’t know how to lead; and as a result, after only 2 years I was moved out of that position. So, it gave me an opportunity, that process required me to rethink how I wanted to approach my leadership style; the fundamental message was that leadership is about influence, management is about control. So, if you’re going to lead, you need to know how to influence people.
Sputnik: Many businesses have been shifting from London to other European cities, citing Brexit uncertainty. In your view, what steps can be taken by companies to keep their place in the British market?
Stuart Lawson: I think what businesses are responding to is Brexit, but more importantly, perhaps, to uncertainty. And so, what you’re dealing with is how businesses plan for investment, how they plan for revenue growth in an environment where there is significant uncertainty. I had the opportunity of meeting with a senior businessman from the UK fairly recently, and his point was that the decisions that have been taken in the British economy now, have been taken under the shadow of this uncertainty; and those will have an impact. so, ordering decisions, investment decisions, all these things will have already occurred and that will mean that there’s a strong likelihood that we’ll see a significant dent from the UK market. In a competitive market, what companies should look at is that may well provide an opportunity to take market share. So, rather than saying “how do you deal with that uncertainty” – it’s like many other environments where you have uncertainty – it provides an opportunity if you’re prepared to take the risk, to invest and to take market share while other companies hold back. So, my recommendation would be if you know your business and you know your niche, look at this as an opportunity to invest.
Sputnik: Could this Brexit situation serve as the catalyst of success for some companies?
Stuart Lawson: I think, as I’ve just said, that in these environments, where you have significant uncertainty and volatility, you have the opportunity for some companies to make very significant progress. Obviously, some have a major downside, but others have a major opportunity for an upside. And I think that in certain environments, this could really provide significant upside. Where? That depends on individual companies; there’s no magic formula. It’s just that once you have volatility, it creates these market gaps, which, when you take advantage of them, put you ahead significantly from the competition. You are not talking about incrementalising. In any crisis – and I’ve spent 14 years of my life in crisis – you’re not talking about incrementalising decisions, you’re talking about fundamental repositioning. When you have fundamental repositioning, if you get it right, it’s big opportunity.
Sputnik: Will there be any changes in the work of British companies that operate both in Russia and Britain after Brexit?
Stuart Lawson: Obviously, it will affect everybody. If Brexit goes through, it will cause a fundamental rethinking on some trading patterns. I think if you look at what’s happened to the UK-Russia relationship since 2014, obviously, it’s been under significant pressure, not only in terms of FDI but also in terms of trading. If in a process of the Brexit story one of the major trading partners of the UK has to be reassessed, I think it also provides, potentially, an opportunity for a reassessment of the relationship with Russia; and therefore I think it does provide a potential upside. We have to deal with a reality, which is that there is a continuing issue between Russia and the UK, everybody knows what it is. I think it has to be dealt with as a separate issue to the business that we want to do.
Sputnik: Why did you set up in Russia?
Stuart Lawson: To be blunt, I didn’t choose Russia, Citibank chose Russia. I was sent here to set up a franchise. However, the point that I’d make is that I was moved around by Citibank to 11 countries, but I only decided to come back to one. The one that I decided to come back to was Russia, where I’ve made my home; and it was a combination of a number of factors. Back in the mid-1990s and into the 2000s, as a foreigner, there was an opportunity for me to bring the skills that I had in other markets and actually create value-added in this market. Secondly, I was used to dealing with different nationalities, and to me, one of the barriers that sometimes foreigners have with Russians didn’t exist because I’d had plenty of experience of dealing with other cultures. And then, of course, your history, geography and culture are extraordinary, and as I mentioned to you I’ve spent 3.5 years documenting the Perm ballet, which required me to be there every six weeks. I’m a professor at Plekhanov University and I’m a lecturer at Graduate School of Management, and I was offered an opportunity of teaching at a local Perm University. So, I’d go there every six weeks, give my lectures, spend 14 hours backstage at the rehearsals of the Perm ballet, taking photographs. And that’s a whole another story.
Sputnik: Sberbank and then Interros helped you to publish your two books on the Perm ballet as part of a project lasting three years. I know that this is a very important project for you, could you tell us a bit more about it?
Stuart Lawson: Why ballet? Because for the lecture I’d given, the local university took me to the Perm ballet; I knew nothing about it. I was expecting a small regional ballet; I had no idea what I was about to see. And when I saw these dancers come out, I don’t know much about ballet, but I know enough to know that these were extraordinary dancers. And then, if you look at the history of Perm, it is the core of ballet, because in the 1940s, during the Nazi occupation, the Kirov ballet was brought to Perm and it’s left its mark in Perm. Basically what happened was that I saw it and said “Oh my God. I’ve been a photographer for 35 years; can I go backstage and take some photos?” I never expected them to allow me to go backstage and to allow me to go to the rehearsals. And when they said “Yes, please do” – and don’t forget, I didn’t show them a portfolio, I wasn’t an accredited photographer; I was some guy that was just giving a lecture – and for me, this is a very Russian story. And it’s a very Russian story on a personal basis, because for me, Russia’s come up with these opportunities that I’d never had in other countries; where suddenly, out of nowhere, I’m in a unique position as a foreigner backstage and in a rehearsal room watching these wonderful artists create their art, backstage during a performance watching that all come together; and then going to a ballet school and seeing where this talent is growing from, and that commitment, and energy, and the teamwork between all the elements of ballet, from teachers, through the stagehands, through the choreographers and the ballet dancers. When I watch a ballet in Perm, that’s the heart of Russia. And I want to be clear on one thing, the way I worked was that I’ve spent 3.5 years just taking photographs, so I probably got about ten thousand photographs. I didn’t show them to anybody; I didn’t do that as a project, I did it because I wanted to do it. There was no book, there was nothing. What happened was, after 3.5 years, finally I showed the pictures to the artistic director he said those were the best backstage photographs he’d ever seen in ballet, which I was surprised about. And because he then endorsed this, the theatre gave me the official exhibition; and because they gave me the official exhibition, Sberbank supported the exhibition. And because they supported the exhibition, then there was a book. And then Interros came along and had seen an original book and supported the second book. So, this was really my love affair with Russia, my interest in teaching, a recognition of unbridled talent, the effect Russian culture had on me and my openness to understand that, and the fact that I took out my camera and pushed a button. And all that came together, and I’m very proud of it. I mean, it’s 25 years next year; and I’m going to celebrate because I celebrated my 20th year, I’m going to celebrate my 25th. And what I am celebrating is the openness and the opportunity that Russia has given me and that particular project I love, because it sort of represents a lot of that.