Elena Ilyukhina, a member of the Management Board of Gazprom Neft, talked to sobaka.ru about her personal rules for leadership, the importance of freedom of thought and time management. She tells us about how these played a part when she worked on the construction of Europe’s tallest building: Lakhta Centre, as well as when she was preparing to launch a new icebreaker to the Arctic and when Zenit won the Championship for the seventh time in history.
— You are working on several projects at once: from developing the oil industry to managing the board of directors of FC Zenit. It’s hard to keep up!
— People in eastern cultures take the view that for work to remain relevant and dynamic, we should shake things up every five years, and I think there is something in that. But when you get the chance to implement major new projects within a company, it’s just like getting a new job. In any business, as in a football team, it is important to understand all the underlying processes and be able to manage and organise them. And, of course, the attitude with which you approach work is very important.
I treat every project as if it were my child. In a sense, you could call me a mother with many children. Incidentally, a few years ago, according to maritime tradition, I did actually become godmother to Gazprom Neft’s first icebreaker. I was right there for the whole of this behemoth’s journey into existence, from the beginning of its construction to its launch at St Petersburg on its way to the Arctic. I remember visiting the shipyard that day: it was so overwhelming that for a while I was lost for words as I prepared to give my speech in front of the crew.
Now I worry constantly about how the crew is getting on, whether everything is OK in those tough conditions that they have there in the north. I am a member of their team, and we send each other greetings at New Year, Easter and on birthdays!
— ‘Zenit’ recently won their second consecutive championship before they had even played their last match. Is it difficult to find enough motivation for a new project after such a great success?
— Not at all! You need to keep on changing in order to remain successful and stay ahead of the competition. We intend to become the strongest football team in Europe and, for that to happen, we have to be realistic. We must constantly improve on all fronts, and that includes improving our own personal efficiency. Self-motivation is essential for professionals.
We must now pay careful attention to the development of our young players at Zenit. I am aware of a problem that the fans have known about for a while: we need to fill our ranks from within, and we have a long way to go in order to build a pipeline of homegrown talent. This is a management problem: we are over-reliant on transfers. That is why we will soon be identifying someone to manage our young players. This needs to be someone who is passionate and committed to the development of youngsters, and who has experience of making the processes work. Most important of all, it has to be someone who isn’t afraid to take personal responsibility for the results.
— What do you imagine your employees would say if I asked them what kind of boss you are?
— They would say I am disciplined, someone who clearly understands what she’s doing every day, and how she’ll do it. I always have a list of tasks: anything complicated or boring needs to be done first. And I always remember that decisions not taken today will weigh me down tomorrow.
At the end of each year, I write myself a plan setting out what I need to change and what I need to work harder on. I see it as a tool for my own development, rather than an algorithm to follow like a robot.
— Are you a strict leader?
— Yes, I think so, but I don’t want people to be scared of me. I try to be part of the team, a partner.
— What does your day look like?
— I wake up early, no matter what time I need to be in office, take an ice-cold shower and do my exercises. I like to start the day bright and breezy. I put together my own work schedule for the day. It’s usually made up of no more than three or four meetings each day. I always leave a gap between meetings, so I have time to switch my thoughts from one to the other, and read the relevant documents. Sometimes I get a little anxious, but I still manage to gather my thoughts and I get to work full of beans. I have a complicated meeting today so, at 6am, I was already going through the materials and planning what I would say at it.
Do you reflect when things go wrong?
— Actually, I get very upset. After all, if, for example, my meetings overrun, it also messes up the schedules of my team members or partners. In general, I live with the motto “Failure is not fatal, success is not final”. The only thing that matters is moving forward.
— Would you also advise young managers to do the same?
-Yes! I’ll advise them to draw conclusions, be open-minded, and to make sure that they set themselves only ambitious goals.
— Have you got used to Zoom conferences and remote working? How did you cope when colleagues’ neighbours did home improvements when you were having a meeting, or when a cat ran over the keyboard?
— Of course, it is difficult to work when there are other people also trying to work in the same apartment. We did our best to help by sending a newsletter to all employees with suggestions on how to organise a workplace at home.
I don’t recall seeing anyone wearing pyjamas on a video conference, but Gazprom Neft has long taken quite a liberal approach to dress code and, most importantly, to its way of thinking. Only a person who is free can come up with disruptive and creative ideas.
— It seems as if the time of remote working is coming to an end. What is its legacy?
— You know, I hardly noticed that we were working at a distance. Everyone kept on working alongside each other, and just met up on video. Contrary to what some feared, efficiency has not been compromised, so we are considering expanding the opportunities for employees to work remotely beyond the end of the pandemic. We are thinking about an approach that combines face-to-face and remote working formats.
-That’s tens of thousands of people!
— Yes, but it’s not a big deal: the most important thing is that everyone understands the process, and that there is trust. I don’t go in for micromanagement. I am not saying that there is no control, but everyone knows what they have to do and when they have to do it by. This is all part of business as usual: no one is asking anyone to continually justify what, why and how they are doing.
— People are saying that a crisis leads to opportunities. Do you agree?
— Absolutely. For example, we needed to set up facilities for continual testing of employees for Covid-19. My team and I are far from being medical experts, but we have been able to acquire new competencies. These days, we negotiate with hospitals and support the doctors, we are buying tests, and we are beginning to understand about medication and treatment protocols. We had plenty of difficulties in the early days of the pandemic: laboratories weren’t ready to carry out mass testing, and there was a lack of equipment. But now we have carried out more than 330,000 tests; as a result, we have managed to contain the spread of infection in our enterprises.
In April, we donated 1.5 million pieces of personal protective equipment to doctors. In May, a consignment of Swiss-produced ventilators was delivered to St Petersburg and the regions of Siberia. Antiseptic was produced using spare capacity at our plants.
— Are big business and social responsibility inseparable?
— No business, and particularly no global business, can exist on its own. It is always closely related to its environment. In St Petersburg, we have assembled the strongest engineering and IT personnel, and we have established large technology hubs. We are now preparing to open a digital space for work and recreation in the restored “House 12” which we named “Zifergauz” on New Holland.
Improving the business climate tends to develop the surrounding infrastructure. I am proud that we built Europe’s tallest building — the Lakhta Centre — and managed to transform the appearance of the city’s sea front. Now it is one of everyone’s favourite neighbourhoods, as is clear from the number of photos of it on social networks. I hope the Okhtinsky Cape district will benefit in a similar way, as we plan to develop an innovative urban and business environment there.
I am sure that thanks to new, prestigious jobs coming in to the area, and infrastructure projects such as these, we will help stem the ‘brain drain’ of young professionals from St Petersburg to Moscow and abroad.
— Did you feel burned out at work?
— My burnout lasts just up to that point at which a new project appears. Then I feel needed, happy, in demand! To reboot, I go to the sea. I have loved Crimea since my childhood; for me, it will always be a peninsula of happiness: when I go there, I feel like it’s the first day of the summer holiday.
— So, were you euphoric when you started building the Lakhta Center?
— At first, when I was asked out of the blue to lead the construction, I thought I couldn’t handle it. I had to call on absolutely all my previous knowledge and skills: both my engineering and legal education. Every day, we faced hundreds of tasks that could not be accomplished by one, two or three leaders alone. What mattered was the mechanism of teamwork, when each participant’s experience allows him or her to make independent decisions and to do so quickly. That way, we were able to turn around the residents’ attitude to the project with our actions rather than our words: even those who had criticised it in the past, agree that it has turned out well, that it is beautiful, and sets the scene for the next chapter in St Petersburg’s story.
— It’s about responsibility, too. You were courageous and you threw yourself in at the deep end.
— I was scared, but I didn’t hesitate! To accumulate professional experience, you need courage and you mustn’t be frightened of taking risks. That’s why, by the way, I always trust my employees, especially the young ones. I urge everyone not to be afraid to share ideas. About a quarter of our team is now under 30 years old and I am very glad that the company has such a supply of human resource potential. If we are talking about St Petersburg, then one in five of our interns from local universities comes to work with us after graduation.
— Do you turn off your phone at 7pm?
-Yes, sometimes. But thoughts about work often do follow me home. Physical exercise helps to distract me from these thoughts; they disappear once I get on the running track. Turning emotional stress into physical stress is a great way of avoiding an explosion. In April Gazprom Neft gave all its employees the opportunity to train online with professional instructors free of charge.
I make sure that Saturday and Sunday are dedicated to myself and household chores. I really love my friends (it’s a pity that we don’t have enough time to meet up as much as I’d like). And I would also like to be involved in the lives of my godchildren as much as possible.
— Do you cook for your friends?
— No, to be honest, I hate cooking. I don’t even have a kitchen at home. But I like to invite guests: I offer everyone a glass of wine, and I order in food from professionals.