Understanding your Russian Principal.
Coming from the west your first experience of working within a Russian household or for a Russian principal can be extremely confusing. It has been said to feel like a cold bucket of water has been thrown over you when you suddenly realise the cultural gulf between your employer and yourself. Because of these misunderstandings many prospective applicants feel that a placement with Russian employers may be too challenging for them. All Russian families are different of course, some live in a distinctly western fashion, but for others especially outside of Moscow and St Petersburg some traits do seem to be widespread. I hope I can offer some pointers to help you understand your potential or current employer.
Meet the “Clan”
Wealthy Russians do seem to work in teams, when you start work in a Russian family it’s useful to make a note of where your direct employer fits inside this network. If the family is in business you will generally find a top tier section of the family who control the principle asset while the extended family act in a supporting role, that could be within the principle business itself, within local politics, the security services or acting as custodians of the families wealth offshore. Local elites often intermarry and this acts to cement business relations between powerful families. These networks can be fairly intimidating and information can speed through them at the speed of light so it is essential that you show maximum courtesy to everyone you meet. There will usually be a clan “boss” whether that is a grandmother an uncle or even perhaps your direct employer and so it is wise to make a good impression. Discretion is a must, not just when talking to people outside “the family” but also to those within it. Starting a family conflict will not help endear you to anyone. A good tip is to offer a helping hand to other members of the family, that could be helping to edit university applications for a cousin or picking up purchases for a grandmother on your way back from holiday. Having other members of the extended family share positive things about your performance will reinforce your direct employers favourable opinion of you and maybe eventually even help you be seen by others as an honorary member, albeit an employed one!
Relationships, relationships, relationships!
Outside of the Anglo-Saxon business world business relationships are often far more about personal relationships than contracts, there are contracts of course but these are often the result of a good relationship and existing trust between the parties involved. It’s highly likely that your principal as a successful person in Russia will also be a master at nurturing these relationships. Friendship and business go hand in hand, so social events double as business events. Children’s parties, holidays, sports events also double as important relationship builders so it is imperative to always act with your bosses interests in mind. One thing that will strike you when you start work is the sheer amount of handshaking going on. If a man enters a room of seated associates he will often work his way around the table shaking the hand of everyone in turn before finally taking his seat.
Appearance and presentation.
For Russians appearance and style are hugely important especially as a signifier of wealth and status. For many Russians childhood was not a lavish affair but fairly Spartan, their parents struggled to provide the best quality clothes and food as they could. Later these same children following the good example of their parents try and do the same but now their resources are enormous so they can tend to go a little overboard. The same goes not just for themselves and their children but sometimes even for you, if they can see you are hungry or you are not suitably dressed for the weather they may immediately send someone to purchase you a complete set of new clothes worth more than your monthly salary or feed you an enormous extravagant meal. It’s acts like this that can be confusing when sometimes your Russian principal appears distant and unapproachable.
Unlike the wealthy British elite who will often glide around almost unnoticed apart from a few subtle signifiers such as a tailored jacket and an accent. The Russian elite often feel it necessary to present their status in a more forward manner, rose gold Daytonas and chunky Hublots are often present on wrists but recently the wealthiest have begun to explore different methods. Who needs a watch or distinctly branded clothes when you are seated at the back of a hundred meter yacht? The practical g-shock can be found on the wrist of many businessmen who don’t feel they need to prove anything while successful politicians may dispose of the watch altogether when all they have to do is ask their security team the time.
Russians appreciate style so it appreciated when you show some knowledge, a few decent items that cannot be found in Russia always go down well, For guys I have found that Emmett Shirts, Trickers shoes and Jackets from Joseph seem to cause admiring glances and complements. It’s important to dress well, your boss may even be offended if you are dressed in “sub par” clothing especially if they have guests.
Food and table manners.
Russians enjoy food and drink and are increasingly interested in trying out different cuisine from around the world. Sushi does seem to be a firm favourite, the towns and cities of Russia are teeming with restaurants selling there own version, usually involving cream cheese and sometimes deep-fried! Russia is a desert if you enjoy Mexican or Indian food, harsh spices are not a favoured. Some knowledge of restaurants will go down well with your employer, Nobu and Hakkasan may be visited as will the ubiquitous Novikov and Ginza project restaurants.
Cooking for Russians can be difficult but they appreciate healthy, clean flavours, soups, fish, vegetables are always a safe bet. It is sometimes a good idea to avoid things that they may not be too experienced in eating such as strongly flavoured cheese (Stilton), chilled soups and spicy curry. Mushrooms, fresh vegetables, grilled meats are always enjoyed in my experience. Russians especially enjoy wine, when pairing wine with food I would be careful with big tannic varieties such as those from South Africa and Australia. When serving white wine it is normal to serve it ice cold, if it is not deemed cold enough it is quite normal for a handful of ice to be dispensed into the glass.
Russian table manners can be refreshing if you have been brought up in a middle class British home, everyone generally eats as soon as the food is in front of them and if they want something they simply reach across and take it. There can sometimes be a bit of confusion when you are abroad and there are distinctly different dishes spread over a large table. If the waiting staff haven’t worked out to get everyone at the table served from the different dishes take the lead and ask for peoples plates so you can serve from the dish in front of you.
Remember you are just as likely to seem exotic to your boss as he or she is too you. Working for Russians can sometimes be frustrating but never lose your temper or get angry, Russians appreciate harmony and stability above almost anything else. Like you they love their family and their children are the centre of their world. If you show loyalty, discretion, present yourself well and do your job properly with a positive attitude you will hopefully light up their life and you will have a great experience while being richly rewarded.
If you have any further tips or thoughts on how to best serve your Russian employers feel free to comment below!