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A leader has to be curious, to get the best outcome from every moment: Mr Kiril Kravchenko on what it means to be a great CEO

There's no single or universal definition of a company's success. But what's often very important for a CEO is having a specific objective or goal that he or she wants to achieve, says Mr Kiril Kravchenko, Deputy General Director of the famous Russian oil company "Gazprom Neft", in an exclusive interview
Datum: 27/08/2018

A leader has to be curious, to get the best outcome from every moment: Mr Kiril Kravchenko on what it means to be a great CEO

Kiril Kravchenko is a Doctor of Economics and Deputy General Director of the famous Russian oil company "Gazprom Neft". In parallel with engagement in "Gazprom Neft", Kravchenko successfully managed one of the largest energy companies in the Balkans region for a full nine years as a General Manager. In 2018 together with his collegues, Kravchenko has published a book titled "CEO School - Master Class 20 Global Business Leaders", which was also written by in Harvard Business Review.

What surprised me while reading your book was that the first personality trait you wrote about was curiosity. What does it mean to be curious in business?

Curiosity is very important for success - it acts as a motivator, opening up new horizons. Curiosity, ultimately, was the motivation - the stimulus - behind colleagues Stanislav Shekshnia (a highly respected professor at INSEAD) and Elin Williams, from Oxford, and me, co-authors of the book, deciding to research the world of global business leaders.

Curiosity is part of day-to-day life for everyone, and particularly so in the life of a leader. A leader has to be curious, to get the best outcome from every moment - because every moment has something to offer.

You argue that the best CEOs don't just know their businesses, but are also interested in their employees as human beings. How personally involved should a leader be?

For CEOs of large companies, employees are extremely important - they are a key resource and without them no company, led by a good CEO, could succeed - and the CEO him or herself wouldn't be able to be a good leader.

It is very important that every leader is personally engaged, because they are an example to their employees - from whom maximum engagement is also expected. They must have some life experience, some knowledge of life's realities, and must be constantly enriched by that experience. A leader is an emotionally intelligent, emotionally mature person. I believe a true leader should promote genuine values, universal values - and family values are very important here: in my case, a happy family. Another value I would highlight is sport. You need to do some sport, to have hobbies - put simply, you have to have a work-life balance. The leader needs to have more than just one single goal - the company: he or she should have a balance in all areas of his or her life, as an example to others.

When is the right time in one's life and career to start thinking about becoming a CEO? What are the first questions one would have to ask oneself?

The time for someone to start thinking about a career as a CEO is when that person has evaluated their cumulative experience, their career path, and whether they are ready for a new role and new responsibilities, as objectively as possible. They need to ask themselves - and be very honest - whether they are ready to devote more personal time to work, in a new role and environment. Once they know the answers to all these questions, a future leader then needs to consult with two or three other successful CEOs, from whom they can obtain advice to help them make the right decision. Every CEO needs to have a long-term view or vision, based on knowledge and experience. At that point they will be ready for their new career.

We live in a world where CEOs often change jobs. How important is longevity and long-term planning in senior management, and for the success of the company?

There's no single or universal definition of a company's success. But what's often very important for a CEO is having a specific objective or goal that he or she wants to achieve. "If you don't know where you're going how will you know when you've got there?" Of course, planning is one of the most important phases in the management process, apart from organisation, oversight and control. Bob Dudley, Group Chief Executive of "British Peroleum" gave an interesting definition of the success of a company, saying that there are certain universal areas of knowledge: legal responsibilities and constraints, investor relations, finance, and industry knowledge. If you do not know these, you cannot be a CEO. You also need to know how to bring it all together, how the corporate machinery works.

 

In compiling your book, you spoke to 20 CEOs, and conducted case studies on even more corporations, from all around the world. I know it's a hard question, but which one of them was the most engaging, both personally and business-wise?

Jeffrey Immelt, CEO, General Electric Company, was one of the most interesting interviewees I met and spoke with. I didn't just make a good CEO throughout his career, but was also cited as one of the most influential and well-loved leaders.

He himself expressed the view that curiosity is an essential characteristic of every leader. I remember his comment, he was in touch with Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, both very successful and always ahead of the curve.

Interestingly, he views every change, and every change in the company in which a CEO works, as a new birth, he thought the day when he became CEO of "General Electric" was the first day of his life - as if he was a child once again."

One of the habits you suggest is reading books on various topics, for personal growth. What books would you recommend?

I sometimes think some books should carry the word "Caution!" as an inscription, because they can change lives, in the best and most positive sense of that word. I read everything, from classic literature (particularly Russian) to self-help books, political analysis, and political history. I think it's helpful in opening up the world, and the people in it.

We increasingly hear about successful companies headed by CEOs without a formal education. Do you think a university degree is still necessary in this day and age?

We're talking about CEOs - managers of the most successful companies, who do have an academic education. I'm not talking about those owners of certain successful companies, who don't have that background. You have to differentiate between good CEOs and company owners - their roles aren't the same, and so there isn't the same need for a certain level of education. Based on research on the most successful CEOs at successful companies worldwide, and based on my own personal experience, I think a university degree is very important. There used to be some company heads who didn't have a higher education, but a person's greatness is also reflected in his or her education.

Out of your 20 CEOs, only a couple got their first degrees in arts, languages or the humanities. Were they any different to talk to from engineers and economists?

Most of them had pursued several courses of education. The best formula is one of combination and balance.

Shuzo Kaihori, CEO of "Yokogawa Electric Corporation" from Japan

Said that we have to always be looking with fresh eyes, not relying on past successes.

How do you see the role of business schools and this whole industry of "creating leaders"? Can you teach somebody to be a good CEO? What is the purpose of coaching and mentoring?

As my colleagues and I say in the book, there isn't any single formula for personal development, for what will make a successful CEO. But there are certain specific determining factors that characterise each leader. One of these is the role of a mentor. In sharing knowledge, it multiplies. We have all learnt from each other, in the best sense. A good mentor leads and gives direction and, at the same time, strengthens. I think mentoring is best in terms of ongoing education, personal and professional development, and sharing knowledge and experience.

One of the most overlooked fields - which thankfully your book does not neglect - concerns the lifestyle of a CEO. Your interviewees were all in good shape, and energetic. How important is physical fitness, and can you share some insights and advice for leading a healthy lifestyle?

As the old Latin proverb goes, "Mens sana in corpore sano" - "Healthy body, healthy mind". There's a very deep philosophy hidden in this simple and formative thought. I think everybody needs to look after their health, play sport regularly, eat good food, get enough sleep, and spend time in nature and the outdoors - it's all part of life. Sport neutralises stress, and has beneficial impacts for people - i.e., giving them an appreciation of victory (and, also, the ability to accept defeat); the ability to learn from mistakes; and it strengthens team spirit. And for a CEO, that's mandatory, part of the job. He or she is a constant example to others, and their effectiveness depends on their health.

You had been working in Serbia for a number of years. Can you tell us if there are any good CEOs in Serbia, and how do they compare to their more famous counterparts?

Good leadership isn't driven by geography. What I saw, from my own personal experience, is that there are excellent leaders in Serbia, and an increasing number of world-class leaders.


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