Speaking in Russia -- a lesson in reaching across divides

The CEO of the Russian branch of a major world bank asked me to speak to 40 of his top leaders on the mindset of a self leader. Back in 2016, with my book just released in Russian, I had worked with this same group on the topic of motivation. Perhaps it was a feeling of acceptance and familiarity that lured me into a blunt -- and potentially risky -- conversation about personal responsibility and values.

From my soap box, I preached on the importance of moral leadership from the top, but also emphasized the importance of moral responsibility by individual self leaders. For some reason, Enron popped into my head. I described a scene from the documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," where energy brokers obviously motivated by money were recorded as they gleefully discussed the fires raging in California with their now-famous line: "Burn, baby, burn." In the face of death and destruction, they were celebrating rising energy costs that would yield big bonuses for them. I recounted how I literally cried listening to people who had become so externally motivated that they abandoned compassion.

Despite what I thought was an articulate explanation of the downside of suboptimal motivation, I noticed a row of stone-faced men. I asked, "Did I say something offensive?" A man across the room spoke out: "Yes." He explained: "These guys are brokers. They make money when there’s a war in Afghanistan. That’s a fact."

One of the brokers agreed. "War is good for profits. We don’t create the war. We might not be cheering the war on, but when there’s a war, we make our goals."

My mind raced. How do I shift from being an ideological, theoretical and hopeful catalyst for good in the face of my immediate reality? These guys weren’t unlike pharma drug representatives who are rewarded for pushing opioid sales or any of us who profit from other people’s losses.

Maybe a banking example would be more relevant and appropriate. I asked them to consider what happened at Wells Fargo. Reacting to the demands of managers driving for results, sales reps opened thousands of fraudulent bank accounts. I shared the essence of what I wrote at the time:

… it isn’t just managers who perpetrated fraud. It is a sad statement that individuals were so morally bankrupt they didn’t stand up and say, “I won’t do this.” Given the lack of ethics or espoused values that were left unsupported or unfulfilled by systems, processes, and procedures, people were left to their own moral compass—and regretfully their compasses failed to point True North. Individuals obviously weren’t encouraged by their managers to explore how their values or noble work-related purpose linked to their goals—but, nothing was stopping them from doing it for themselves. Alas, they caved into greed and fear.

I challenged the group: What values are you willing to give up through your work? What values are you willing to stand up for? What if you acknowledged that you make money when there’s a war raging, but decided that the reason you work isn’t for the money, but to demonstrate your values for service or excellence or creativity or learning? Studies show that you are more likely to innovate and discover responsible ways of generating profits and margins through higher-quality values.

I’m not suggesting you don’t want to make money. Money is a powerful motivator. But, when money is the motivator, motivation science proves that we default to traditional ways of working. When values are our motivators, we are more innovative and bring more positive energy to our work.

The greatest way to limit results is to focus on results. Ironically, when we take our focus away from outcomes and focus on the values and purpose behind our motivation we achieve greater results.

As often happens, pithy conversations occur at the end of a presentation when time is tight. Concerned I might have alienated my audience, I closed my presentation and avoided eye contact with the CEO -- a challenge since he was sitting in the front row directly in front of me. He stood. What he said next fascinated me:

"I’m always surprised at how Susan manages to make her comments so timely and relevant to what’s happening in our industry and organization. But, then, I have always thought, Russians and Americans are highly compatible." He then gave me a traditional Russian bear hug.

Given what’s going on in the world right now, people asked me: Why would you accept work in Russia? My response: Given what’s going on in the world, how could I not accept work in Russia? I relish learning about the values we have in common and those we don’t. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn how to communicate across cultural divides. And, now more than ever, I need to be reminded of our human connection. And get a bear hug.

 

Susan Fowler is the co-author of the newly revised "Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager" with Ken Blanchard and Laurence Hawkins, and lead developer of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Self Leadership product line. She is also the author of the bestseller "Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work… and What Does." Fowler is a senior consulting partner at The Ken Blanchard Cos. and a professor in the Master of Science in Executive Leadership Program at the University of San Diego.

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