IN THE DIRECT SENSE: Katrin Alakbarov from Oriflame about why direct sales remain in the trend and how after 16 years of the business travel not to fall out of love with your job

Direct sales, network marketing, and similar phrases often evoke an indulgent smile of the uninitiated people. However, this business model has repeatedly proved its amazing resilience during the recent global economic crises. The secret of its anti-fragility – people who work in such companies. Leadership Journey asked Katrin Alakbarov, Vice President of Oriflame in Central Asia, Ukraine, Mongolia, and Moldova, about the intricacies of managing such companies.

Katrin Alakbarov

Leadership Journey (LJ): Katrin, how do you feel in the role of Vice President? Is it difficult for a woman to climb the career ladder to such a peak?

Katrin Alakbarov (K.A.): All stereotypes about men being more successful should be left in the past at last. I am convinced, in today’s world, success does not depend on gender, and each person is responsible for his own career growth. If you really want to achieve a lot, you need to set a clear goal, focus on results, be proactive and have inner strength and courage to make difficult decisions.

Both small businesses and huge corporations are all interested in increasing sales and profits. Investments are expensive; they must be justified and returned. I am well aware of this and strive to achieve high results with my team.

APART FROM AN EXCELLENT WORK, INITIATIVE AND ENGLISH PROFICIENCY, YOU NEED TO BE MOBILE

If we talk about a successful career in an international company, then there are some peculiarities. In addition to excellent work, initiative, and English proficiency, you need to be mobile. Mobility implies that if you are offered a cool position in a new country, you do not think long; you pack your bags and go forward.

And in this case, it is more difficult for a woman. When making a decision to move, you need to be ready to live for some time on suitcases, take care of children who do not always easily adapt to new conditions, climate, and environment. There will be no familiar circle of friends to recommend you a reliable babysitter. And you can spend the whole night with a sick child, and in the morning you have to go to work – to get acquainted with a new team, with new people, learn the language and culture of another country.

LJ: Looks like a military career. For men, this might be easier to move to a new place. He moves the family and provides the ‘bases’.

For a woman, a career is a double burden, because, after an office work, she has a no less tedious household work at home.

K.A.: I would agree. Men focus on working in a new office, while the spouse is in charge of the household and children. For a woman, a career is a double burden, because, after office work, she has a no less tedious household work at home. And I understand those who refuse to do a career. Permanent guilt in front of family and children, haunting many women who build a career, takes a lot of energy.

LJ: How did you manage to save this energy?

I put a lot of effort to secure reliable ‘bases’

K.A.: I put a lot of effort to secure reliable ‘bases’. I have always had good helpers and support from my family. I was to deprive myself of many things. Virtually all my time I spend on work. I only have time for reading books and doing sports. I do not even remember the last time I was lying in front of the TV watching a series.

LJ: How many times did you move while working at Oriflame?

K.A.: It all began in the Baltic States, and then there was Azerbaijan. For ten years, I was living and working in Kazakhstan. Since 2017, I am in Ukraine. And my work has always been associated with travel. Therefore, we can safely say that of the 22 years that I had been working at Oriflame, about 16 years – on trips. My children got used to thinking that their home is where their mom and dad are. (Laughing)

LJ: Nothing to say! You have had a rich life. During this time, have you ever thought of working for another company or your own business?

K.A.: Once I had made a decision: as soon as I feel like not willing to go to work, I would quit. However, through all the years at Oriflame, I never had such a feeling. I really love my job and love this company.

I earned my living by odd jobs. It was very hard; I had to work for 20 hours a day.

At one time, I had to work in different countries. In the early 1990s in Estonia, where I came from, there was no opportunity for a good career. For several years, I lived in Germany, Poland, USA, and Sweden. I was earning my living by cleaning houses, ironing shirts, working in a restaurant and babysitting. It was very hard; I had to work for 20 hours a day. And in my spare time, I actively studied languages, because I understood that it was just a necessity for a good position in a good company.

Just at that time, I literally fell in love with the Scandinavian culture: I liked the Swedes attitude to life, to people, to a family. There, men and women do not differentiate (household) duties, but do everything together: cook, clean, put children to bed, do the dishes.

Sweden is a very beautiful country, and Swedes have a special attitude to beauty. It is important not only how you look, but also how you feel. Then I decided that I really wanted to work in a Swedish company.

No sooner said than done. In 1997, a friend of mine saw an ad for interns at Oriflame, and I immediately called them. I have been here ever since.

LJ: In your view, does Oriflame’s corporate culture correspond to your idea of a Swedish company?

K.A.: Absolutely. Focus on people is at the heart of Oriflame’s corporate culture. Human is at the center of all processes. We work together, support each other, love what we do, love our company and our product.

The entrepreneurial spirit is another component of our culture.  Managers trust employees, encourage determination and initiative, give freedom in decision-making. The vice presidents are expected to manage the company as if it were our own business.

THE VICE PRESIDENTS ARE EXPECTED TO MANAGE THE COMPANY AS IF IT WERE OUR OWN BUSINESS

The horizontal structure is the third component. We have practically no rigid hierarchy. People are the main value; we reign trust and freedom, and direct communication. Yes, all these mean Oriflame, and I am crazy about it.

I often speak in our meetings about the importance to love your job. If you no longer like what you do, you need to find a job where you will be happy.  

LJ: Your company has a specific business model: working with partners, and doing direct sales. From the outside, everything seems simple and organic. Is it difficult to manage such processes?

K.A.: In fact, this is a very efficient business model. The reality in which we live allows us to diversify our sources of (personal) income. The trend is still gaining momentum in Ukraine, but this is a long-established phenomenon in Sweden. For example, a person works in an office but still looks for opportunities to increase his income. He can be a Uber driver on the way home; he can rent out his apartment while spending the summer in the country and help a friend with company’s Facebook page for money on weekends or during a vacation.

All of this is part of Sharing Economy; a co-consumption economy is a global trend that has come from the US

All of this is part of the Sharing Economy; a co-consumption economy is a global trend that has come from the United States. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, in 2015, one in five Americans earned from two or more sources, and the global income of sharing services such as a car, office space or housing rental, video and audio services, and personal services will reach $ 335 billion in 2025 – compared with $ 15 billion in 2014…   

Direct sales are also an additional source of income. The recommendation of Oriflame products can become the type of employment that not only a housewife can afford, but also a bank employee, an office employee, a student, and a pensioner. There are, of course, people who are working with our company, not just for additional income. They decided to devote all their time to cooperation with Oriflame, and now they are entrepreneurs with serious business and a serious income.

LJ: What role do office employees play in the direct sales business model, because your partners do the business itself, as far as I understand?

RECOMMENDATIONS ARE THE BASIS OF ORIFLAME’S SALES

K.A.: That is right; the employees themselves do not sell. The main function of our sales department is to help partners and train. We have 1200 items of goods. Recommendations are the basis of Oriflame’s sales. It is impossible to give convincing recommendations without knowledge. We conduct master classes in makeup, skin care and healthy lifestyle sessions, and business training. Our office workers are essentially business coaches. They teach our partners how to set goals, plan steps to achieve them, effectively master and run their business. Other divisions of the company provide our partners with a high-quality 24/7 service.

LJ: Are people a resource or a capital?

K.A.: Of course, a capital, and the main capital. There is no company and no me without the people I work with.

LJ: How many people do you have in your subordination?

K.A.: About 500 people.

LJ: Multitasking is a serious challenge in the life of a businessperson. How do you handle it?

K.A.: For many years, I have been using the Eisenhower matrix. The cells ‘important, urgent, not important, not urgent’ automatically pop up before my eyes when I plan my work and prioritize.

You need to form a team in such a way as to be able to delegate tasks

In general, you need to form a team in such a way as to be able to delegate tasks to the maximum. An always loaded and haggard leader is a bad leader. If you do the work yourself, you do not trust your people. And if you don’t trust people, then you don’t know how to form a team. I try to work with people who are more professional and stronger than I am in some issues. Therefore, my expertise to select the right people and to prioritize tasks is my solution to the problem of multitasking.

LJ: Do you find time for education?

K.A.: Yes, by all means, and on a permanent basis. For the last 10 years, I have been working with a personal coach. We analyze different aspects, focusing on what is relevant for me at a certain stage: personal development, development of management skills, leadership skills, etc. We discuss books, films, theories, ideas. I also try to make time for reading books or online courses on a variety of topics. Recently, for example, I listened to many courses devoted to the skill of public speaking.

Today, anyone has access to knowledge; a wish to learn is the main thing. In my view, the main distinguishing feature of a truly successful person is not a high income, but the readiness to constantly learn, grow and strive for new achievements and goals.

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