7 Secrets of Success
What Russia’s business leaders taught me about success
By Andrew McChesney
Allow me to share an adventure that has led me to meet some of the most successful business leaders working in Russia. They are not Seventh-day Adventists; they may not even be Christian. But as I have interviewed them as part of my work as a journalist, I have come to understand that their biggest secrets for success come straight from the Bible—whether they know it or not.
Here are seven things I have learned:
1. There are no “little people.”
The president of Alfa Bank, the largest private bank in Russia, invited me to a barbeque at his villa outside Moscow one afternoon. Pyotr Aven, 58, who has built a personal fortune of $5.4 billion in the 20 years since the Soviet collapse, arrived in a chauffeured black Mercedes sedan, waved at his guests waiting in the garden, and walked straight over to a server standing in the garden behind a table loaded with fruit juice, mineral water, wine, open cigarette packs, and lighters.
Aven shook the server’s hand and engaged in a brief conversation. The server was clearly pleased with the attention and smiled broadly. Then Aven came over to talk to us. After a few minutes a man wearing a tall white chef’s hat emerged from the villa, and Aven darted over to him, shaking his hand and chatting with him.
As we ate later, I suggested to Aven that it was unusual for a billionaire to pay so much attention to the hired help. Aven paused and gave me a penetrating look. “You’re right,” he finally said. “But you know, most of my staff have worked for me for 20 years, and I have made it a tradition to greet them this way. This is why they have worked for me so long. They are loyal.”
Lesson learned: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:8, 9).
2. Manage time well.
Patrick Ghidirim, 39, has his hands full with AgroTerra, a corporate farming outfit he created that includes 1,000 employees, a half billion dollars in net assets, and 617,500 acres (250,000 hectares) of rich, black earth in central Russia. When I asked him about his source of inspiration, he confided that he carries around “a most incredible quote” that he jotted down during a meeting with legendary investor Warren Buffett at Harvard.
“He looked at us at a session at Harvard and said, ‘Look, you guys will all be successful at some point; some more, some less. Don’t worry about that; don’t worry about success. Just remember one thing: You will eventually take on a lot of the characteristics of the people around you at the place where you end up working. Whether you like it or not, it will happen. So be very mindful and purposeful choosing the companies where you work. This is one of the most important choices you can make. Choose a company and surround yourself with coworkers whom you want to become like,’ ” Ghidirim told me.
Knowing that the people with whom we spend time also transform our minds, Ghidirim said he carefully weighs his use of time. “The older you get, the more each minute of your time becomes truly valuable,” he said. “As somebody said, there is one single, truly irreplaceable resource in life that we don’t appreciate. This is time, our own time. I want every moment of my time to matter.”
Lesson learned: “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed” (Prov. 13:20).
3. Honor your promises.
Vladimir Vilde, 51, a self-made multimillionaire who surreptitiously printed prohibited religious literature in Soviet times, builds $15 million palatial villas for the fabulously wealthy. I asked him how he manages to be successful without resorting to bribery and the other forms of corruption common in the business world.
“The answer is easy,” he said. “You must be professional under all circumstances, under any regime. When you’re living in an economy like ours, you must be very professional and always fulfill exactly what you promise. If you promise to hammer a nail into the wall and you hammer it well, you will be known as an independent, highly professional craftsman, wanted by many and able to command a good salary. You can build palatial villas, as I do. But I got this far only through small steps, each of which was fulfilled with professionalism and predictability. Other people must know that what I promise will really happen.”
Lesson learned: “Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? . . . He who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Ps. 15:1-4).
4. Keep learning.
Indra Nooyi, 57, chair and CEO of PepsiCo, radiated quiet confidence as she sat across from me, legs crossed, for an interview in a Moscow hotel. An Indian-born U.S. citizen with a master’s degree in management from Yale, Nooyi was ranked as the world’s most powerful businesswoman by Fortune magazine from 2005 to 2010. Pressed for her secret for success, she replied that it was a desire to learn from everyone, from world leaders to her housekeeper.
“I look for people who have a story to teach me,” she said. “It could be a world leader who has a very interesting perspective on a particular issue. I might do more research on that person. Likewise, it could be a PepsiCo salesperson or a janitor at PepsiCo. There was a secretary at PepsiCo who went through a lot of problems, and I learned a lot from that person. I talk to the person who cleans our home. She has a tough life, and I listen to her stories for hours because I want to understand how somebody who lives her life can still smile through it all.”
Nooyi also showed a vulnerable side, saying it is important to learn every day because success—even her success—can be short-lived. “We all look successful today, but we don’t know what we are going to look like and be like tomorrow,” she said. “At every point in life we should understand that success can be fleeting. You should make sure that you learn from everybody who is out there so as to better yourself as a person.”
Lesson learned: “Wise people store up knowledge” (Prov. 10:14).
5. Be humble.
Many people whom I spoke with were self-effacing and media-shy. But Antonio Linares, the managing director of Roca Russia, the local branch of the world’s largest maker of bathroom equipment, made a special effort to point out that humility is important because nothing can get a person into trouble like pride. The 42-year-old Spaniard, who opened seven factories in Russia in just eight years, said he constantly reminds his 2,500 employees: “Don’t put your ego on the table.”
“For example, we once had a never-ending discussion at one of our factories about where to put a window in a big wall,” Linares told me over lunch in a chic Moscow restaurant. “Some engineers said, ‘Why not here? The window has been placed here in every other factory in the world.’ Other engineers said, ‘But this is Russia, and the regulations say there has to be this much distance from here to here, so the window cannot go here. It has to be there and have these characteristics.’
“After some time it got to the point where we had to remind the people around the table: ‘Gentlemen, why do we need the window so badly? And why did we want it here so badly?’ The debate was the result of egos on the table.
“This is what I always suggest: Leave your ego in your pocket or, if possible, in the car. Don’t carry it close to your heart.”
Lesson learned: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).
6. Lead by example.
Arturo Cardelus, 70, pointed me toward a collection of silver paper stars affixed to the ceiling above his office desk at the Moscow headquarters of Ferrero, the Italian family-owned maker of such confectionary as Ferrero Rocher, Nutella, and Tic Tac.
“Values are very important. Look at all the stars there,” Cardelus told me. “All the stars have words on them: ‘encouragement,’ ‘creativity,’ ‘openness,’ ‘humanity,’ ‘fairness,’ and ‘trust.’ These are the values we push in this company.”
Cardelus’ values are rooted in his grandfather, the prominent Spanish comic playwright Pedro Muñoz Seca, who was killed by a firing squad during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Cardelus said that his grandfather showed honor by not writing for the opposition to save his life and that he, as his grandson, could never betray that honor.
I asked how he promotes those values to the more than 2,000 Russians whom he oversees at the company’s local operations, which he grew from just 150 people in eight years.
“The most important way,” he said, “is by example. You have to give a good example. Always. That’s the key. If you fail—if you fail once—that’s it; your credibility is gone. I have never failed once. I have never dreamed of failing, of not being honest, trustworthy, or credible—never, never, never. It’s part of my core being. This is the way I’ve always been. This is the way I’ve always run companies, and it’s always worked.”
Lesson learned: “He who says he abides in [Jesus] ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6).
Then it struck me. All these lessons on success and leadership point to one thing: Love.
Perhaps Cardelus expressed the truth of love best when I asked him to share his secret for successfully managing people and business.
“The advantage I have is that I like people. I love people,” he said.
He said his employees, whom he always referred to as “my people,” are a tremendous source of inspiration. “I just want to grow them,” he said. “People are like the biblical parable of the talents. I have to leave them better than when I got them.
I have to, or what . . . are we here for? You have to leave things richer, better. You know, when you go upstairs, our Friend is going to ask: ‘OK, what did you do in life?’ What am I going to say: ‘Oh, yes, we made the budget every year’; ‘I never missed an appointment’; ‘I went to every meeting on time’?”
Cardelus said he makes every effort to know what people are feeling, and succeeds by being open and never playing games. “I know what they have inside because I’m very open. As you can see, I’m extraordinarily open, totally transparent, and they respond to me.”
That begged a question. “It sounds like a key part of leadership is the ability to be transparent,” I said.
“To be, not the ability to be,” Cardelus gently chided me. “I’m not putting on a show. No, I’m always very clear, very transparent, very open. I never try to play games. . . . Lead with the heart.”
Lesson learned: “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself ’ ” (Matt. 22:37, 38).
This is the biggest secret to success, and it comes directly from Jesus, the greatest Leader of all: “Love one another” (John 13:34).
Andrew McChesney is a journalist in Russia.