Igor Smelyansky is one of the reformers-commandos who came to raise Ukraine after its latest revolution. Under his belt, Smelyansky has a life path of the American dream scenario: three diplomas of American universities, a job on Manhattan and the passport of the country that prints dollars.
In Ukraine, Smelyansky fell into the track of the Ukrainian dream. In 2016, he was appointed General Director of Ukrposhta, the largest state-owned company, with about 70,000 people who received their salary there. He had to do the impossible – to reanimate the company, which name had already become a synonym of technological backwardness, inside and outside.
For three years, the company was going through its own corporate Maidan. Mobile post offices, computerization of rural offices, and training for more than 30,000 employees – this is only part of the changes that have taken place in the Augean stables of this state-owned company. As a result, Ukrposhta not only returned to the lost markets of traditional postal services but also brought out a few of its branded ones.
The people’s interest in Smelyansky is also supported by the fact that he is one of the few visiting managers who remained in power, despite the pressure of the Ukrainian bureaucrats. «What does keep me going? Perhaps adrenaline. New projects, overcoming problems that initially seemed intractable – all this drives a lot,” shares Smelyansky his antidote.
In an interview with Leadership Journey, the General Director of Ukrposhta spoke about the most important things in his Ukrainian period of life.
Leadership Journey (LJ): What were you thinking your role would be as the Ukrposhta head? What have you actually become?
Igor Smelyansky (I.S.): I was realizing that I would be a crisis manager. Still, I underestimated the depth of the abyss the company was in. Today I know a lot more and I think that the stage of basic crisis management in Ukrposhta is ending. Now we are closely involved in planning with the team: we are preparing a strategy for the future development of the company. In the development, there are two options, and the state as a shareholder of the company will have to choose the future model.
The desire to demonstrate that reforms in the country are possible was one of my drivers of that time
LJ: What was your personal motivation as a manager?
I.S.: I will not talk much about patriotism, which over the past few years, alas, has lost its former significance. Nevertheless, one of my drivers at that time was the desire to demonstrate that reforms in the country are possible. If we are able to transform such a mastodon as Ukrposhta, then there are no tasks unfeasible.
As a professional, I like doing things that others couldn’t do or doing something for the first time. For example, I was interested to make the first successful (I will emphasize the word “successful”) merger of banks. Then there were other mergers, but it was no longer a driver. In “Ukrposhta”, I had an opportunity to demonstrate that it is possible not only to create a development strategy (as it was in consulting before), but also to put it into practice, and also to prove: in the public sector you can work honestly, which is a rare case, unfortunately, in the history of modern Ukraine. My main motivation is to show the possibility of change. And to a certain degree, I was a success.
LJ: If you come back to 2016, would you say “yes” again, knowing all you know about the company now?
I.S.: This is one of the most popular questions, which people ask me. Apparently, in the country, there are almost no technocrats, who came three or four years ago, since people have a question: what keeps us (those who are left) going? I think I would again agree to head Ukrposhta. Of course, I would give much if I knew the company and its business processes at least a tenth of what I know now. This would allow us to do many things much faster.
I LIKE TO DO THINGS THAT OTHER PEOPLE COULD NOT DO
LJ: But you have а great experience in consulting and strategic planning, working in the financial sector …
I.S.: Well, who knew that I would have to work with a certain “aunty”, for whom installing a computer, strengthening control and introducing KPI would become real demotivators … Similarly, I didn’t know that a salary increase was not a guarantee for improving the quality of work. For many people, an increase in salary does not mean they must work more (better). As to the projects that we did – nobody before was doing anything similar! Internet connections for all branches of Ukrposhta in villages with over 2,000 residents; launching mobile branches – these tasks look wonderful on paper, but their practical implementation was tough. The tasks required tremendous effort, aspiration, and patience … The main thing is to have a vision, you should know the way it would be, because we did and are doing everything on our own, without consulting companies. This requires real fast decision-making
You should take many daily problems with humor only – this is a normal reaction of a healthy organism to stress
LJ: That is, before you had joined Ukrposhta, you had no chance to familiarize yourself with the company’s internal cuisine.
I.S.: Of course not. Moreover, even after joining the company, I had to learn constantly, every day. The hardest thing was to perceive the situation as it was, and not as you would like it to be. In terms of finance, we figured out quite quickly, but adjusting the infrastructure took more time. There was a great discrepancy between the balance sheet and the real situation. As they say, two big differences. For instance, you have 3,600 vehicles on your balance, but only 2,500 of them are on the move. This was the next phase of immersion: an understanding of the company and all the difficulties that you have to face. Finally, the fourth phase was even deeper. It took even more time to understand how Ukrposhta employees reacted to certain messages, whether they were ready to change the company with us.
LJ: You speak with humor about the problems of Ukrposhta; it appeals to me. Does this mean that you are still interested in this chair and you do not have the fatigue-making syndrome?
I.S.: First, you need to take many daily problems only with humor — this is a normal reaction of a healthy organism to stress. Well, there is no Internet in the village, so what, sit and cry? No, you need to look for a solution to the problem. There must be a positive attitude in everything. Second, I do not hold on to that chair. You can get up and leave at any time, making any day the last one. However, if today we did something good, then the day was not wasted. And as long as you manage to do such things, you need to continue to reform the company.
YOU CANNOT BE IN A LEADERSHIP POSITION FOR LONG
I am sure that you cannot be in a leadership position for long. Smart people deliberately came up with time limits, rotation, and supervisory boards. Sooner or later, a person should come to the company with fresh energy and new ideas. I will stay as long as I have an interest, and despite all the difficulties and problems, I still have this interest.
I envy people who manage to earn a lot and sit down at home for family dinner at 6 pm, communicate with children and wife a lot
LJ: What does your job in Ukrposhta mean to you currently?
I.S.: Any job is as three communicating vessels: professional interest, money and the opportunity to spend time with the family. I envy people who manage to earn a lot and sit down at home for family dinner at 6 pm, communicate with children and wife a lot. This was not the case in my life yet. As for Ukrposhta, professional interest is my main driver; I have almost no time left for my family. I will stay in the job as long as the other two communicating vessels are compensating for this.
LJ: So, a work-family balance does exist, but not here and not now, does it?
I.S.: Definitely! I sleep for four hours a day. This is not a work-life balance story at all admit it. What does keep me going? Perhaps, adrenaline. New projects, overcoming problems that initially seemed intractable – this is driving.
LJ: Whose hands are holding the company’s strategic line of development?
I.S.: My team and I determine the direction. When necessary, we consult with the shareholder, which is the state. As for specific projects, in this regard, I am grateful to the Minister of Infrastructure, who, in fact, personifies the shareholders of Ukrposhta. We have excellent working relations with Vladimir Omelyan; he supported most of the changes that we implemented in the company.
WHAT DOES KEEP ME GOING? PERHAPS, ADRENALINE
LJ: There are process thinking model and results thinking model. There is a view; a correctly aligned process will eventually lead to a result. Another approach is to move on and break the walls. What is your type of thinking?
I.S.: Definitely, I am a man of the result. You need time to build a well-established process, and this time “must be bought”. In Ukraine, everyone wants the result “for yesterday”. Do you want employees in Ukrposhta offices were smiling to you already today, don’t you? However, you do not care how I will do it. You do not care that it takes me up to six months to fire employees who are rude. All operators need to be convinced that it is important to smile your customers that each customer is worth his weight in gold.
IT IS IMPORTANT TO SMILE TO YOUR CUSTOMERS; EACH CUSTOMER IS WORTH HIS WEIGHT IN GOLD
Imagine, we have more than 24,000 department heads and operators, and everyone should know this! Therefore, it is necessary to achieve results now no matter the methods (of course, within the framework of labor legislation), while at the same time working for the long-term goals, and continuing systemic reforms, implementing KPI system, adjusting the recruitment and evaluation processes, quality feedback of customers … Currently, we are getting close.
It takes me up to six months to fire employees who are rude
LJ: Your salary is one of the most discussed topics in Ukrainian society. I fully agree that the head of a strategic company like Ukrposhta should receive a market salary. On the other hand, I wonder, how do you justify your big salary before the company’s employees?
I.S.: You cannot explain this; you just need to take it for granted; the salary reflects the market, the market is like this. However, of course, for the majority of employees, this is not an argument. Similarly, many people do not understand that it is incorrect, to put it mildly, to compare a postal worker and a manager with three best US universities’ diplomas. I explain to people that it used to be bad, but now it’s better (the situation in the company). For example, in rural offices, there were no computers, but now there are. The salary was low, but now it is higher and will continue to grow. People agree, but the question is still open at the end. Would the same improvements be possible if the head of the company had a salary of, say, 40,000 hryvnias?
THE SALARY REFLECTS THE MARKET, THE MARKET IS LIKE THIS
This is a game that at the stage you cannot win – you need to show and explain that my salary is directly related to the level of changes in the company. You need to demonstrate to people that financially I am absolutely honest: I do not take bribes and almost half of my salary goes to taxes. I have an effective tax rate of 38 %, and if anything happens, I will be judged not by the Pechersk District Court (in Kyiv) and not even by NABU, but by a court in the United States that is independent of our deputies. So you have to live and work honestly.
LJ: You make an impression of a self-confident person who goes to the intended goal, regardless of criticism. And what is the reality? Do you have any doubts when making strategic decisions?
I.S.: How can you be completely confident in the correctness of a decision? Any adequate person has doubts. In some decisions, I have more doubts, in some — less. In Ukrposhta, my experience in consulting was very useful for me — the ability to make decisions in the absence of complete information about the company and its business processes. Intuition, experience, and analytics are my decision-making components. There are some anchor things, such as, for example, a decrease in the country’s population, and there are issues that can only be judged hypothetically, for example, employees’ reaction to changes in the motivation system. And although decisions are now made much easier than at the beginning of my working for the company, there is still an element of uncertainty.
I adhere to the opinion that in Ukraine, where the situation is changing very quickly and you need to respond to it here and now, it is better to make a decision today than to make it tomorrow or not at all.
INTUITION, EXPERIENCE, AND ANALYTICS ARE MY DECISION-MAKING COMPONENTS
By the way, with my joining Ukrposhta I finally figured out the reason why our state institutions are so slow in making decisions. It’s simple: an official will not be held accountable (and even will get the planned premium) for not making a decision, but he will be guilty (and even put to prison) if the decision is wrong. Since the laws in our country often contradict each other, a marsh of no-decision cases is created: one no-decision case entails other cases, and so on …
LJ: Have you made decisions in Ukrposhta which, for some reasons, were not effective or wrong in your view?
The first association of the majority of Ukrainians, when it comes to sending a postal parcel, “only not Ukrposhta”
I.S.: At the beginning of the reforms, we thought that as soon as we improved the quality of work, increased customer focus, the task was done. People will rush in crowds to us. Yes, but no, because there is the power of habit. For most Ukrainians, when it comes to sending a post parcel, the very first association … “only not by Ukrposhta”. Our competitor for a whole generation has built a conditioned reflex: if you need to send a post parcel, use their company, regardless of the higher tariffs. Another issue: we thought with increased salaries people would start working better. Again, not everything went to the plan. Because, it turned out, that for many people the financial component is not the main incentive.
A lack of benchmark is one of our problems. We are in many ways a pioneer, because there is no other state postal service in the country, and it makes no sense to compare us to Western companies due to the peculiarities of Ukrainian realities. Therefore, mistakes were, are and will be made. It is important to be able to admit them and draw conclusions. One of our main achievements — an open moral climate created in the company when grassroots employees stopped being afraid to talk about problems. Much has been done on this path, but more needs to be done to turn the passion of betrayal inherent in Ukrainians into constructive criticism and a desire to find a solution to the problem.
LJ: The job of the head of Ukrposhta is certainly demanding in terms of emotional intelligence. How do you evaluate your own EQ level, how do you train and increase it?
I.S.: EQ is the most important thing in my job. You cannot learn to love people – your parents’ education and your social environment either form this or not. I often have to be tough, but no matter how serious the disagreement may be, I respect my opponent – this is one of my basic principles. You can train yourself to be restraint, and in two and a half years, I have certainly improved in this.
Mistakes were, are and will be made. It is important to be able to admit them and draw conclusions
LJ: What are your basic leader’s rules? How had they transformed after your taking the position in Ukrposhta?
I.S.: My key principle: treat people the way you want them to treat you. I can be proud that after taking the position in Ukrposhta I did not change my principles. You need to believe in what you are doing, and in any situation remain honest with yourself, your partner, and your opponent. For example, I had to refuse many times to do favors to my friends or acquaintances who wanted their relatives to have a job at Ukrposhta or, tried to sell our company the services of their firms. My close friends know I am very tough on this issue. You cannot make an exception for someone and refuse to do favors to other people. So I say “no” to everyone, no matter how painful and difficult it may be.
LJ: However, the world does not split into “white” and “black”. How do you maintain clarity of thinking and a vision of the purpose?
I.S.: When making serious decisions that constantly arise in Ukrainian reality, you should be guided by a simple rule: make a decision, which would let you sleep peacefully.
LJ: You have joined Ukrposhta as an anti-crisis manager and remain the one until currently. After two and a half years at the helm of the company, what is your vision of a possibility of the company to make a profit?
To discuss profits when you have no investment strategy is a crime against the company and the country
I.S.: I really hope that in the first quarter, Ukrposhta will show a profit. I strongly hope that for the first time, taking into account the compensation mechanism for the delivery of pensions, we will still be paid for this service. However, for such a company, profit is not an aim in itself. Moreover, to discuss profits having no investment strategy is a crime against the company and the country. The profit itself cannot be an indicator of the success of a company like Ukrposhta. It is important for the state to make a decision on what it expects from such an infrastructure company as Ukrposhta. Does the state want to make profit or to develop the company and create an infrastructure in the places where, except for us, no one wants to work? These two directions are under consideration as part of our new strategy, and I hope that by the end of the year it will become clear which path the company will take.