One of the subjects with which I helped my Russian company in the two years I lived and worked in Moscow was leadership development, and more specifically, executive coaching. In addition to coaching myself, I’ve met and interviewed about 35 external coaches whom had been recommended to me. Together with my own experience, this has given me an interesting insight into the Russian coaching market and the differences between Russia and the West.

It is only in about the last five-plus years that executive coaching – seen as a Western phenomenon – has gained more of a foothold in Russia. Ever ready to exploit an opportunity in the ‘free market’ many people now call themselves coaches and offer their services. Even if they have no experience. And even if managers may not be ready for coaching. But that’s maybe not too different from the Netherlands.

One of the main differences between the senior executives I have met here and those in the West is that they tend to be at least 10-15 years younger than someone in a comparable position in a comparable company outside of Russia. Which means they often have had less opportunity to develop other experiences or any other leadership style than directive. They have generally been very successful with this style. So why change when the very senior people above them also only seem to have only this style?

The recent history in Russia has also taught them that everything can change all of a sudden and maybe retrospectively. So long-term strategies tend to be less applied than short-term fixes. And the same is true of their own development.

Another factor is that even if an executive wants to change his or her style, what will their direct reports think? Why is he (or she) asking me instead of telling me? Does the boss no longer know what they are doing?

One of the coaches described the management situation in Russian companies thus: directive, afraid to make mistakes, hardworking, ambitious, perfectionistic, result oriented. Another described Russian business culture as: straight to the point, controlling, expertise based, tough, aggressive. I would probably also add that even if managers see that they should develop themselves, they often see no need to develop their people as this would only create threatening competition for their own job.

Partly because of some of these factors, the difference between mentoring and coaching is not always appreciated. Mentoring in this case being the offering of advice based on experience or directly fixing problems rather than the process of equipping executives with the tools, knowledge & opportunities they need in order to develop themselves to become effective. There should be quick results and the timeline should be short. The asking of questions and not giving the answers can be regarded as doing nothing and not worth the money.

I have therefore adapted my own coaching style to include more mentoring. They are genuinely interested in my experience and knowledge. I do not tell them however what I did or would do. I try to give two or three possibilities from my own experience or from other companies so they can choose which approach might work best for them.

The definition of goals themselves (for coaching or development) can also be frustrating for Russian executives. There is an expectation that the goal or aim will be formulated for them and then they will work on it. Assessment techniques are therefore accepted and widely used within Russian companies. Self-assessment is difficult.

A third difference, a number of the coaches told me, is that when senior Russian managers asked what they feel, they invariably answer what they think. They actually hide their emotions behind their thoughts. Which is interesting given the display of emotions sometimes shown in meetings I’ve attended!

And talking of emotions, like many HR people in Russia, a large fleet of coaches (excuse the new collective noun) has a (clinical) psychiatric or psychological background. They like to treat the whole person, not just- or even rather than – the business issue. Eating, exercise and sleeping patterns, psychology lectures, dealing with issues in childhood, before coaching them on the business-related situation. At least two-thirds of those I have seen have such a background and such a view on executive coaching.

There are however also some coaches who have come from business roles. One endeared herself to me by saying that the problem with HR as a whole in Russia was that it was full of bewildered psychotherapists with no understanding of the business. Not true of course, but amusing nonetheless. And I did meet one or two who qualified!

Top coaching issues appear to be: strategic thinking, conflict management, moving from hands-on operational to apparently doing far less and maybe not even seeing people that often (in other words more strategy), the politics operating at a higher level, (slight) changes in leadership style, and communication – both internal and external. So despite first impressions, not really a difference to the West.

A penultimate thought. One of the things I also did was coach very senior managers who did not speak English, through interpreters and the language barrier. Not the easiest way to get a rapport and build trust between coach and coachee, especially when the interpreter is even more confused by both the questions and the following silences than the top manager I’m coaching. But a fascinating and rewarding experience when it works!

Finally the last major difference is one of price. Even relatively inexperienced coaches can apparently charge much more than we would in Western Europe. Maybe the psychiatric or psychological background isn’t such a bad thing after all.   

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