Interview with Nikolai Pryanishnikov, President, Microsoft Russia

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Nikolai Pryanishnikov has three degrees, including an MBA (Higher Commercial School of the Ministry of Foreign Economic Affairs and Trade of the Russian Federation and the International University of Management, Paris), plus a Ph. D in Economics. He has been working in telecommunications since 1992. Starting in 1999, he served on administrative posts in VimpelCom, and in 2007 he became responsible for managing all of the company's Russian operations. He became VimpelCom's Executive Vice-President for Development and International Business in 2008. He was named President of Microsoft's Russian operations on January 1, 2009.

TEI: Does Microsoft use coaching in its managers' development, and if yes, in what way?

Nikolai Pryanishnikov: We focus a lot of attention on our managers' development, and part of that process includes using coaches. We choose candidates annually for our HiPo (high-potential employees) group. We have an assessment program and even what you might call an internal competition when each team holds a meeting where they decide who will be a HiPo employee that year. These meetings often see some pretty serious arguments break out.

After the HiPo employees are selected, they have a special program developed for them that includes a whole line of different activities: training, help in getting extra education, aiding organizational development, etc. An individual employee development plan is also worked out within this program. And in addition to the number of managers that the employee works with, an external coach is also brought into the mix.

TEI: Could you give us some examples of goals that were set within a coaching program and tell us about how they were worked on?

Nikolai Pryanishnikov: We work out a development plan for our colleagues that they discuss with their coaches. Having said that, the company does not set any rigid framework for working with a coach. The goal is to give the manager the chance to have a trust-based conversation and help with anything and everything. The development plan was an outline that we rolled out for interaction that only had the development zones specifically laid out.

«The company does not set any rigid framework for working with a coach. The goal is to give the manager the chance to have a trust-based association and help anything and everything»

For example, you have a person whois very productive, but is not efficient enough in how he interacts with colleagues in a management or a leadership team. We define this moment as being a development zone, where this person and his coach together work through this zone, form a plan and discuss what needs to be done to fulfill it. This could be done by holding additional meetings with colleagues to bring everyone closer together, synchronize some certain issues and make their informal relationship stronger. Later on, a discussion is had with the coach to find out what is going on while fulfilling the plan, whether any difficulties have arisen and whether the coachee 's interaction has improved or not.

I must say that we saw progress in the aims laid out by directors who worked with a coach. Therefore, I believe that investing in coaching is a justifiable thing to do should you have the desire to grow and should you have the right approach.

TEI: How do you rate your subordinates' coaching results?

Nikolai Pryanishnikov: We try to rate results using a certain formula. The first criterion that we look at is the results the manager achieved. No matter what we do for development, what we expect are results. If the results improve, this is a plus, and if they get worse, this is always a bad sign. Second, we use 360-degree assessment and feedback from subordinates, the latter of which is sometimes received in an informal manner.

TEI: What do you believe helps or hinders coaching's effectiveness?

Nikolai Pryanishnikov: Coaches have worked with a number of my direct subordinates this year, and I have been able to talk with both the coaches and the managers, so I had an opportunity to see just how effective coaching is. Here is what I think about coaching: if a manager clearly understands his strong and weak sides, knows where he needs to develop, is interested in his own growth and is prepared to spend time on this, then coaching as an additional element for a high-potential manager is extremely effective. If you see coaching as the only way to help a poorly-developed manager and if you pressure using coaching without a system, plan or the manager's desire to use it, then it will be nothing but a useless tool.

When we did everything together in one package, then I saw that coaching is effective. First, it lets one get a fresh look at his development plan and at understanding the situation at hand. It could be that we are letting something slip from sight, become obsessed with something or do not see certain principle aspects. An independent coach can help here, since he is knowledgeable in many different industries, has seen many different types of managers and can give an additional point of view on things.

Second, it is always nice to have someone on the outside that you can talk with regardless of your work issues. You can talk about, for example, your manager, priorities or stressful situations that are coming up at work. This is extremely important. When you are in the corporate world, you should always think about what you are saying and to whom you are saying it. You cannot be overly critical of your manager or colleagues. With a coach you do not have to hold anything back. On the one hand, this helps you open yourself up and see the situation as a whole, while on the other hand, it lets the coach listen to you and give some important advice.

TEI: Some companies roll out their coaching goals in terms of changing certain business indicators, achieving business goals and implementing business projects rather than in terms of expertise. Do you see this as the right thing to do?

Nikolai Pryanishnikov: We try to keep business objectives and development issues separate. If we need help solving business objectives, we hire consultants that are specialists in the field we are looking at. Moreover, we do enough analysis within the company itself to achieve our business objectives. We see coaching more as a way for developing leadership skills and managerial expertise, such as a manager's personal development. Overlapping business indicators is something that I believe complicates everything. In this case a coach should be given different requirements: he should be a professional in the business field, and know the industry, but in this instance he may not be as capable of understanding leadership skills and qualities.

This is an important topic. I am very interested in psychology, including managers'psychology. This is an area that I work on myself, andI try to teach a little bit of it to my colleagues. A coach can definitely make a contribution here, because he is independent of the coachee's business.

I think it is right that a manager strives for peace of mind. Living a full-fledged personal life, being in good physical shape and being happy in general are the foundations for being a successful manager.

«There are some things that you will never understand if all you have is a good education and coaching: if you have not made mistakes, been victorious, gotten laid off, received an appointment, etc., you still will not become a strong manager»

Therefore, we are happy to see any manager experience this kind of growth, but we do not insist on it. What is very important here is to have a balance. If a manager can improve other areas of his life, look at his overall well-being, satisfaction, motivation, etc., while going through a development plan, then that is good. Having said that, there is no need to dig into his personal background and upbringing. If a coach and coachee agree on this, then it helps improve the situation, helps them draw conclusions and make the right decisions for growth. If the conversation does not get this far or the person does not want to talk about this, then there is no harm in that either; every manager has the right to do so. In the end, we take responsibility for the manager's work, but not for his personal life.

TEI: We heard of a case where a company hired a coach for an employee that it had been preparing for a high ranking position in the finance department. When her work with the coach was through, she decided to quit the company and become an artist. The company saw this as an example of coaching being dangerous. What is your view on these types of results?

Nikolai Pryanishnikov: This is a positive result. When someone has some hidden characteristics, they will still be uncovered later on. If a person wants to become an artist, then finances will sooner or later make her absolutely sick, or she could have a nervous breakdown while putting together a yearly balance, which would backfire on the company to a much greater extent. Whatever the case, a person's growth, and giving him the chance to get to know himself better is the right thing to do. You gave a pretty extreme example, since coaching usually does not get to that point, normally certain qualities of an employee are brought to light and his confined interests are brought out. These qualities and interests can usually be tied in with his development within the organization, give the employee a better opportunity to realize their potential, find additional motivators and do more for the company.

TEI: How much do you believe an organization should control a coach's work? Do you think that there should be any reports, meetings, etc.?

Nikolai Pryanishnikov: I would say that there needs to be a general outline, development course and action plan that is agreed upon and discussed, but the organization should not have to concoct a deep analysis. This does nothing but throw everything into the bureaucratic mix and kill the idea entirely. All you need is an outline, defined regularity and minimal information (on what was agreed upon and what aims does the work take on), while any further formalities can only worsen things.

TEI: Have you worked with a coach before?

Nikolai Pryanishnikov: I have never worked with an external coach before, though I have always tried to learn from managers around me. I am thankful for those who have helped me grow during my career, and am learning now from my managers here at Microsoft. What is more, I have always tried to learn not just from my managers, but also from my colleagues. If the “neighboring” vice-president has some unique experience, then you can use this for your own growth. You can even learn from your subordinates. If you hire strong managers – and this is exactly the way you need to do things – they should always have something to learn from. This is all about constantly learning and growing, which is very important.

Would it be better if I used coaching? At some point, it could probably help me become faster and more effective. Coaching is an additional element that can be of a lot of help when you have the right set up for growth and development. I have seen how this has worked with my directors. But at the same time I would not talk about coaching as a goal in and of itself. In the end, the main thing is to have a base that includes a good education as the foundation and some managing experience. There are some things that you will never understand if all you have is a good education and coaching: if you have not made mistakes, been victorious, gotten laid off, received an appointment, etc., you still will not become a strong manager. If you have an education, have some serious managerial practice and are in addition continuing togrow by working out your own development plan, continuing to train, are conversing with your colleagues at the same level, all the while working with a coach, then in the end you have a very synergetic effect for growing.

TEI: If you would want to hire a coach for yourself, what qualities will become critical for making your choice?

Nikolai Pryanishnikov: I would analyze several factors. The first factor would be the person's experience in similar projects and work. The second would be his international experience, meaning that the person would not get hung up on work within one certain country, plus the person would know and understand different cultures and have a broad outlook on things. The third would, of course, be his psychological skills, either from education in psychology, experience with it or something connected to it in his results. Finally, the fourth thing would be the level of confidentiality I would have in conversing with this person. We are all human, so after the first meeting everything should be crystal clear: you are either able to open yourself up to this person and trust him, or not. Our directors have used foreign coaches, which gives me some doubts. On the one hand, a foreign coach can be a good coach and have international experience, which is both right and good. But on the other hand, the coach is required to be a good psychologist, be able to understand his coachee intuitively and see all the nuances when you interpret events or your goals. In this respective, it is very important for the coach to speak with you in your native language. In the long term it is very important to have more coaches with international experience, all the while speaking your native tongue – this makes things more effective for you. Therefore, Russian coaching for managers has promise.

TEI: Could you be a coach?

Nikolai Pryanishnikov: That is an interesting question. I think I could. What is more, after seventeen years of a pretty successful managerial and leadership career, I would like to share my knowledge more. I have already begun to do this, and I think I will continue to follow this path. I have a workshop called “10 principles for being successful in a large corporation.” I have held it for both university students and company directors. Coaching is something separate, but since in any case I am constantly dealing in managerial activities, certain concrete skills are certainly there. Moreover, when you are talking about one manager meeting another, you have even more trust than if you are talking with someone who has not run anything. So becoming a coach could be interesting in principle. In what form and when is hard to say, but I would be prepared to review different options for my continuing to develop as a coach.

This article was published as part of the third issue of Talent Equity Newsletter "Coaching as a Management Development Tool".

To read all other journal issues, please follow the link to TE Newsletters page.

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