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Ode to Mobility
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Ode to Mobility

While working on our assignments, we constantly face the issue of moving specialists across Russia. And we consider one of our strengths the ability to solve this problem through careful search planning and systematic approach. When laying out the Search Plan, we start with finding answers to following key questions:
  • Which categories of high potential specialists could be interested in the position to be filled?
  • Which industries and specific companies have the highest probability of employing perspective candidates?
  • And finally, which territorial strategy to choose? Namely, in which particular city or even country we can find candidates meeting the requirements for specific skills and caliber and for whom the location of this particular client’s position would in itself be attractive.
The main parameters of comparative attractiveness of employers and vacancies are well known. Yet in Russia, where living conditions may differ drastically from region to region and from town to town, it is also extremely important to consider comparative territorial attractiveness as well.

For example, to say that Moscow is attractive to the majority of other cities’ residents, and vice versa that Muscovites are not attracted by the majority of other cities, would be to repeat the trivial statement that Volga flows into the Caspian sea. In the Soviet times Moscow has gained the status of a "state within a state" where the living standards are several times higher than in the regions. This manifests itself in the system of education, transportation, communication, entertainment, living conditions, employment rate, the concentration of business and cultural elite etc. As a result, it is not a problem to move strong managers from the regions to Moscow. It is a different matter that in such case one will have to take care of the accommodation and temporary registration formalities.

Yet today the business development of Western companies seriously targets the regions. This requires relocation of highly skilled specialists from other places including Moscow. When an investor builds or acquires a factory in the regions, the need immediately arises for strong qualified professionals primarily in Marketing, Finance, Human Resources Management and Quality Control. In our opinion, the best approach in such case is to send specialists from Moscow office on a 2-3 years assignment into the regions and to develop local specialists in the mean-time.

In case the company lacks such specialists in Moscow or is unable to persuade them to relocate, it should turn to Executive Search firms. Placing job ads in Moscow newspapers in such cases, in our view is a shear waste of time and money as they would hardly attract really strong candidates.

Social integration is another serious obstacle standing in the way of effective employee mobility. The older people get, the deeper their territorial roots go and the more difficult it is for them to tear up and move to a new location. Such factors as family ties, young children, aging parents, real estate, social links and even location-specific diversions (for example fishing or hunting) all contribute to the low mobility patterns. It is a well known fact that Russians are far less mobile than Americans. We believe that among other things this is due to the fact that in Russia family ties are both closer and stronger than in the US. Besides showing traditional respect to their parents, most Russians are supporting them after they retire. On the other hand, in many instances parents are supporting their children even after the latter form their own families. This leads to general preference to live close to one’s parents or children.

Another cause of relatively low mobility in Russia is the so called “apartment issue” (which in the words of one famous Russian writer “has spoiled everyone”). Before early ‘90s there was no housing/real estate market. Living quarters were allocated either by the state or by enterprises. It was also practically impossible to rent an apartment legally. There were so many restrictions on building one’s own house that it made this venture extremely complicated. Construction materials were scarce and hard to get without having right connections. Allocation of an apartment was regarded as a sort of award for good work, loyalty to the enterprise and adherence to communist ideals. The waiting lists for new apartments were enormous, and generally a person could get a dwelling of his own not earlier than he was 45 or 50. Most young families had no chance of getting an apartment and were forced to live together with their or their spouse’s parents for years.

Today we are dealing with a new reality. It is not a problem anymore to rent an apartment or build a house. Yet human habits and mentality are not that quick to change. All Russians are still very cautious wherever housing is concerned and prefer to know in advance exactly what conditions they will be living in when they move to a new location. Thus an offer may look much more attractive to the candidate if the future employer takes care of the housing in advance.

We may understand the nature of low mobility patterns in Russia better if we look into the country’s past. In the Soviet times the vastness of the territory and the need to develop distant regions forced the government of the USSR to use planned approach to mass relocation. These state programs for moving people across the country were supported by strong propaganda. The romantic spirit of the new territories’ discoverers who were overcoming difficulties, neglect hard living conditions and despite all obstacles achieve “victories of labor”, was constantly promoted in mass media. The fact of going to the site where a new town, factory or railroad was constructed started to be treated as a heroic, highly moral and patriotic act. Such people were featured in newspapers, in TV specials; they became heroes in songs, poems and even theatrical productions. Besides ideological, financial motivators were also used including regional salary indices and the preferential treatment with regard to getting a new apartment. It was in this way that most major regional industrial enterprises were staffed in the North, in Siberia and in the Far East, where these enterprises became the core of newly built cities such as Norilsk. Bratsk, Nizhnevartovsk, Tynda and many others.

On the other hand, the Soviet government made enormous efforts to curb the free migration of people from one region into another, as well as the competition for talent between enterprises. As recently as the mid-sixties peasants (or collective farmers, as they were called) had no passports and thus could not apply for a job in the cities. There was a strict ban on employing anyone who did not have local registration, or "propiska". The regulations concerning “propiska” were kept secret and related claims were not accepted by courts. In other words, except moving to the close relatives’ location, a person had no right to choose where to live.

Graduates from institutes and universities had to go through obligatory "job allocation", pre-scribed as his place of work for 3 years after graduation by the state commission. Top managers were relocated only upon the decree of the regional party bodies or respective ministries. These “leaders” were exempt from general rules regulating registration and housing allocation and received “special” treatment.

In summary, the Soviet state in its human resources strategy treated the country as one huge corporation. Although it may seem surprising, we can find similarity to this approach in several big multinational companies operating in Russia today for example, Coca-Cola, which strives to manage the relocation of employees within the company and counteracts attempts of specific departments to compete for talent, manages compensation and careers.

Most of this is history now. Yet habits linger longer in people’s behavior than the realities which produced them. And one should keep this in mind when dealing with relocation.

A few words about our own experience. When working on an assignment, no matter where the actual location of the position is, we use the “global” approach, considering not only all regions of Russia, but also other FSU countries as potential sources of candidates. Here are some “trade secrets” we use in our searches.

When moving a top manager from Moscow, we always keep in mind that many of them have parents who live in the regions, and this fact may make a 2-3 years assignment in the respective location seem attractive to them. The same approach can be successfully applied when we are moving a person from one region into another. So my advice to HR managers would be to keep in their files such information about their employees’ families, as well as make a note about the locations where they lived or worked in the past.

Some other examples. Substantial number of highly skilled specialists in St. Petersburg on the one hand, and less career opportunities on the other hand, make it possible to attract strong candidates from this city to work not only in Moscow (which has always been attractive to citizens of St. Petersburg), but also in Samara, Nizhny Novgorod or other regions.

Great masses of highly educated Russian-speaking population in the Baltic states as well as the small size of these countries which limits the business growth make top executive positions in Russia regions attractive for skilled specialists living there.

In Ukraine, where the majority of the population speaks fluent Russian and where the level of education is relatively high, we see that economic reforms are slower to take root and that compensation packages are a little lower than those in Russia. This allows us to include this country in our list of potential sources of qualified managers for Russian regions.

Rapidly developing industrial regions in European part of Russia are still quite attractive for residents of Siberia and the Far East.

Controversial political and economic processes in Kazakhstan and the ethnic policy of its leaders drains top specialists from this country into various regions of Russia.

These are just some instances which we are taking into account when planning our searches. At the same time our experience shows that relocation within Russia is still a challenge and that the grounds for effective staff mobility and rotation are still to be laid. So what would be the best way to do it? Of course, one can count on headhunters. Yet to be successful in vast regional expansion a company must work out and implement a consistent internal mobility policy where the goal is to be able to freely relocate staff not only from regions to Moscow or vice versa, but from one region into another. Take notice if a candidate for a position has high or low mobility. Include the possibility of relocation as a separate clause in the employment contract. Make a working assignment in the regions a prerequisite for promotion. Try to provide the best possible living conditions when relocating (take care of housing, medical insurance, schooling etc.) You may even consider introducing a relocation bonus. But all this is still not enough to ensure an adequate mobility level within a company You need to make mobility an integral part of the company culture and build its prestige. Or may be why not making use of the past tradition to build up the romantic image of exploring new regions and write songs about the spirit of discovery? It might work in some companies.

By Viacheslav Volkov
Managing Partner
Slava/IIC Partners
Slava Search Partners
Global Executive Search