Interview with Yury Panov, Logistics Manager at Unomedical, Minsk, Belarus.
The logistics manager had for many years found confidence in the system, but the system didn’t work. He took no responsibility, but figured that the system took responsibility for him. Many years of programming had to be replaced with new ways of thinking. It was a difficult process. Managers who avoid taking responsibility are the most difficult managers to execute strategies with.
It is a warm day of June in Belarus. Yury Panov is on his way to work at the plant outside Minsk. His world and background is far from the life of a Western businessman. Though, this morning is not so different from a family father’s morning in Minnesota or London. The 16-year-old twin boys can’t be convinced to run out in the good weather as they are preoccupied with computer games behind drawn curtains. And the father is just “incomprehensible, old and impossible”.
– I don’t understand it. At that age I was out climbing trees – or playing ice hockey during wintertime, says Yuri Panov.
The 44-year-old engineer fits the idea of a real Russian man. Tall, muscular, stocky and with an imperturbable and slightly skeptical attitude. He is formed by a Soviet social structure and way of thinking. For better or worse, according to himself. Beneath the surface, the image of Yury Panov is completely different. The cool calm and the fixed steel gray gaze conceals an inner confusion, a soft approach to life and a struggle to let go of himself. A state of mind close to an emotional chaos.
– Now, the situation and my thoughts are falling more into place, he says.
Yury Panov made a professional and personal somersault during the last year and a half. The radical change has happened in connection with his work as a logistics manager and deputy plant manager of Unomedical which is owned and operated by a Nordic private equity fund.
– We weren’t doing well enough and were therefore introduced to Lars Moeller’s Race concept. And in the course of a year my life was changed.
That is how Yury Panov’s short version sounds. Underneath the intrusive consultancy initiative at the plant in Minsk exits inferiority, envy and a competitive struggle with one of the plant’s other units, a new Slovak plant which was built in 2006.
– We had a new plant built in Minsk in 1998 and it made us sad that Unomedical’s plant in Slovakia got all the attention. It was their plant that people always visited and not us in Belarus. We felt a little neglected and somewhat offended. We were displeased and complained repeatedly to the management. Actually, it was a downright competition, a race, with the plant in Slovakia.
At one point, the group’s vice president, Sanne Hentze, came to Minsk and then things were put into motion. The department received a lot of attention.
– We were told that we managed our routine work well, but that there certainly was potential to move a step up. And then she sent for ResultPartner and Race®concept.
A waste of money
Unomedical in Minsk was exposed to a downright conversion of the work behavior.
– We needed to implement the Race®concept which resulted in many meetings in the beginning. Frankly, I saw the new initiative as a waste of time and money. Two Danish guys came over here to tell us how we should do business and how we should behave. Days went by without us getting our normal work done. We felt we were being tested. It was a difficult time and I found it difficult to see the point in it.
The decision came from the top and could not be rejected.
– That was also the only reason why I attended. I didn’t like the concept, but the company had paid money for it so I went along with it. At one point, the vice president, Sanne Hentze, asked me whether or not I thought it was a good idea. My answer was no.
Six months later, Yury Panov changed his mind.
– Suddenly, it made sense to be coached. Frankly, I didn’t like Lars Moeller at first, but he possessed some skills. He read my body language from the first day. It was a sensitive matter and someone like me doesn’t feel comfortable with that. It is probably difficult for most people. For me it was transcendent, but I had come to a point where I decided to take advantage of being coached.
In Yury Panov’s team, which counts 20 employees, they had been accustomed to postpone a deadline if other plans conflicted with a project. They had many good reasons and many different excuses to do so. Now, the team started going backwards from the deadline.
– The delivery date became the starting point and from there we had to clear out the obstacles. It was important to meet deadlines and to do so we were forced to make the way to the goal shorter and simpler.
Excuses and explanations were unimportant as they couldn’t be used for anything anyhow if the deadlines weren’t met.
– In my case it was obvious that I should set higher goals and I also became more ambitious. Previously, the goals of our team have been set too low. Quite frankly, it didn’t take much effort to reach them. Of course I work harder now, but it is in a good way. It is satisfying being able to spot the holes, the empty activities and then fill them out with something that leads to results. This also applies to the double activities. Lars Moeller was good at helping me spot and eliminate those.
Loss of power
Delegation of tasks and responsibility was one of the pioneering and very difficult exercises Yury Panov went through.
– It is not as simple as it sounds. At any rate, it doesn’t start with just one action, but with understanding your colleagues better.
Yury Panov became better at talking with the others in the department. The communication became a focal point as it was important for everyone to understand the ongoing process. The logistics manager had to work hard with himself especially to maintain the respect the employees had for him.
– It wasn’t easy at first as the thought of losing power naturally came to me over and over again. And after all, I did lose power for a period of time. Previously, I had just given orders. And they had been followed. Now people had to take responsibility and I would often say: “I don’t know”. They thought I was crazy. It was strange for the employees too. For a while they thought that I didn’t know how to be a leader anymore.
After four or five months, Yury Panov’s department had adapted to the new times and the work had become much more efficient.
– I had also regained their respect which I had come close to losing. Now, I also feel comfortable with letting others take responsibility, but I admit that I was scared at first. I had no idea that it would turn out so well. In fact, I mostly thought that this would end in disaster.
The Soviet system
Yury Panov struggled with ResultPartner’s Race®concept, with himself and not least with a systems-based mindset which forms the foundation of most of what he has done in his life.
– This very personal way to approach people in a work-related situation is significantly different from the Soviet system I grew up with. A manager gives orders which are followed. That was the system I knew. I have now realized that it is neither good for the individual or for that matter for our country. People will then just sit around waiting for orders to be given. From time to time, important tasks are not carried out because no one has received an order. A lacking order or just a half order has always been a good excuse not to do anything.
The excuses piled up in Yury Panov’s team before the radical Race change. These have stopped and now people look for solutions instead of excuses.
– In return, the new times entail that I can’t always reprimand people as before. It works both ways when people have to take responsibility and aren’t allowed to make excuses. Neither excuses nor scolding can do much good when you are focused on the final result.
– Earlier, you would punish an employee for one thing or the other. The manager was right and the other was guilty. It was a bad way to do things. No one performs efficiently under pressure. It isn’t like that anymore. Being a manager, I wasn’t trained adequately to explain the consequences to an employee whose task wasn’t done in a certain way and at a certain time. I’m now. I also try really hard to make sure that people understand what I want. Previously, that was unthinkable.
– Now, it is a completely different system than the one I knew of before. Now, the focus is in the individual.
Yury Panov pauses for a long time and thinks carefully. Race®concept has literally turned his life upside down and constantly gives rise to both practical and philosophical considerations.
– My own personal views have also changed during this process. Today, I behave differently both professionally and privately. Perhaps it was a bit acquired to begin with, but now I would say that I have truly gotten better at showing an interest in the lives of others. Previously, it was unthinkable that I would stand and listen to the employees’ private discussions – for example about their children – and also participate in the conversation. Today, I’m doing it and the result is happier employees. I’m also capable of giving a compliment. I think that I have simply become nicer to socialize with. A few years ago, I would have laughed loudly and called it romantic nonsense. It is obvious that Yury Panov has been challenged and has been forced to constantly defy his own self during the Race process. He has changed significantly even in his relations to his family and friends.
– You get pleasant feedback when you act friendly, he declares with a dry observation.
The logistics manager at Unomedical doesn’t need time to consider it when he recommends the method.
Yury Panov: – Previously, it was unthinkable that I would listen to the employees’ private discussions. Today, I do. I think that I have simply become nicer to socialize with.
– Normally, I connect initiatives of change with courses, processes and team building and that isn’t something for me. But I could use Race®concept and I wish for others that they will also benefit from it. Here at the plant, we have had teambuilding and coaching exercises before. It just doesn’t amount to anything as the whole exercise is over in three days. The teachers have left and after a short period of time we have forgotten what it was all about it.
The Race people continuously follow up on the things they do. It is a long process and they see us through even if it takes a year as in this case. When they follow up and take responsibility in the way they do it is also easier for us to follow up and take responsibility. We actually have to.
Some employees are still somewhat reticent toward the new times at the plant.
– Of course there are still some who awaits my order, but not many. They will come over too. I’m sure of it. To undergo this process requires more courage than you dare think of. I know this myself. For me, courage has been one of the most important parts of the concept. I had to let go of all my previous perceptions of how to do business. Under the old Soviet system it wasn’t good practice to lay off people even if that was what it took. We haven’t had much need to do that during this stage, but one has to be willing to do it.
According to Yury Panov, the world market has made it impossible to return to the old times.
– A few decades ago, we produced the same things over and over again and then the consumers just had to buy those things. Employees just had to keep a production running so back then it was okay to wait for an order and then carry it out. Today, the world market is completely different and employees everywhere have to be able to think independently and take responsibility.
– Do you miss the old days?
Very long pause….
– The Soviet Union provided many good things. For example, we were more thoughtful and read a lot of books. It is no longer like that, but for many of us it was an easier and more orderly time. Now that time is gone and it is necessary to act quite differently. For me, it is over. I have been designed with bureaucracy. I felt it when the Americans became a part of the company following the Danes. Then I thought: “Oh no, I have been here before”. But it is working out fine. In recent years I have learned to deal with many challenges. I don’t think that I will ever be working in a state-owned company again.
– What does the future bring, Yury Panov?
– Sometimes I think the country has become too small for me. I feel ready for something else. And Unomedical ConvaTec is probably not the last step in my career.
Fear of failure
From day one and in the eyes of ResultPartner, Yury Panov was a classic representative of the systemic way of thinking. His way of managing throughout the years had only worked through the belief in authority.
– Most Russians have faith in authorities for good and bad. They turn left when told so. If ideas, tasks or merely thoughts are too dangerous they leave them be. Yury was a major task. He had to be convinced that his harsh, macho way of managing had to be abandoned. It was difficult, but quite quickly he realized that he had to soften his leadership to get something out of the employees. In this case, the obvious theme was modern, Western management principles held up against a communist, sluggish mindset, says Lars Moeller.
The Russian engineer certainly had to turn up the personal ambitions and he had to work hard on the ability to be able and willing to cooperate. The many years of a systemic way thinking were the obstacles he encountered in the outer ring of the Execution Model.
– When you are about to execute a strategy, it is important to create a motivation to mobilize the required force. And ambition is an important part of creating this motivation. It also has to be a great ambition as we all like to succeed with something big.
At Unomedical we very quickly noticed that the desire to express a great ambition was quite modest. The fear of not succeeding and the consequences of failure proved to be the leading reason for this behavior. The missing courage has been one of the key areas that we have worked with during this process. Today, we see that people to a greater extent dares to express an ambition and to take responsibility to do something about it.
44 years of programming in Soviet thinking
Yury Panov was basically a person who was born and raised in a culture where he doesn’t promise more than he can be sure on delivering as he doesn’t dare to run the risk of failing.
– Here, we had to work specifically by asking him: “What is the worst that can happen?” Basically, he had a hard time dealing with this issue. In the beginning, he preferred to avoid the issue completely and it is a typical reaction when you have no courage. The maneuvre with Yury Panov focused on creating a desire to set the bar higher as it is fun to fulfill the big ambitions. You have to make the person see that there isn’t much fun in succeeding in something small. Most of us only jump up and down when we succeed in something were we to begin with thought: “This can simply not be done.”
– The motivation for making changes is almost always based on the fact that we previously succeeded with something that we thought was very difficult. It is preferable to get addicted to succeeding in something that is difficult – instead of settling with just succeeding with something that is mediocre. Customers often ask why it is so important to set the bar high. Actually, I couldn’t care less as I’m not the one to decide the company’s ambition and goals. But high ambitions are important for the process. Otherwise, I can’t get the managers to engage in it. It is our experience that the managers have the desire to win the great battles and not the small battles.
– If you as the consultant believe that it takes three months to fundamentally change approximately 44 years of programming in Soviet thinking and leadership, you are wrong. Even though Yury Panov and several of the other managers at the company in Minsk could intellectually understand that a more contemporary style of leadership would support them in their financial performance, they often returned to their usual attitude when the autopilot took over the role of leadership. It was therefore important to work individually with Yury Panov and the other managers in the areas where conventional thinking and current thinking was challenged and changed. And it was important to see them act together in the management group and together with their employees so we could discuss specific episodes in their behavior as managers.
– When you have to change people during a process like this one, you should not fundamentally underestimate people. It requires both prolonged and efficient work. If you underestimate it and don’t take the time needed for this kind of work, the strategy execution will not be implemented. It is very crucial to get a person like Yury Panov participate in the whole process as nothing will happen if he throws in the towel and sits back with his arms crossed.
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