Business consultant Tatiana Knyazeva: ‘Russian-speaking entrepreneurs are held back by conservatism and boilerplate thinking’

Photo: Tatiana Smith
Photo: Tatiana Smith

It seems the saying “East or West, home is best” long ago lost its relevance. Nowadays, over the course of their careers, as well as changing professions several times, people also change their country of residence. However, not everyone can manage to find happiness in a new location far from their family, friends and familiar social circle. How can we move to another country and find a place for ourselves in the new culture? How can we interact successfully with local communities? What rules need to be followed when conducting negotiations? How can we put together a CV competently, find the work of our dreams and achieve that longed-for promotion? Why is it important to be able to say “No”? Tatiana Knyazeva, a business consultant and coach of negotiations and business communication skills, gave Kommersant UK practical advice from real life. 

Currently, many people are relocating their businesses. They often think beforehand about the financial aspect and their everyday comfort, while the question of how to fit into the new society is often forgotten. What is the best way to move to a new country and establish connections with society there?  

I often see people who have lived abroad for years, but remained within their comfort zones, amongst people from their home country and yet complain that they have been unable to find a common language with the locals. This is why it’s necessary to embrace the new culture immediately after arrival and immerse yourself in it as much as possible. You must talk to the local inhabitants and widen your comfort zone. This will help you to learn to communicate and understand the new mindset. Each country has its differences. In Britain, for instance, being able to read between the lines is an important ability, as is self-irony and small talk. Unfortunately, most newcomers lack these skills and they can only be learned through practice. So, small talk (in Russian we’d say “boltovnya ni o chem”, or “pointless chit-chat”), is an important element of English life and even if you just ask ‘Are you ok John?’ as you walk past, this is a sign that you’re paying attention to the person. I generally advise people to begin with conversations about the weather, as this is a foolproof approach. Demonstrate your politeness by making compliments, giving praise for trivial things, and apologising (even when someone stands on your foot). I held training courses for large corporations from CIS* countries, small talk turned out to be one of the most difficult stages; the participants wanted to get straight down to business and tackle discussions head-on. This is precisely the reason why people from the Former Soviet Union are often seen as boorish or rude. To immerse themselves more quickly into the new environment and make acquaintances amongst the local inhabitants, I recommend new arrivals go to different meetings, do networking and join clubs with busy social calendars. 

What mistakes do newcomers make most often when integrating into a new society?  

The most obvious one is being too direct; people from CIS countries love to give advice and show initiative even on occasions when it is not really required. For example, in response to the formulaic question “How are you?”, novices begin long accounts, as if their news really was of interest to someone, but the British are simply asking out of politeness. 

Is it necessary to integrate into the local business community even if your business is run online and has no connection to the country of residence?  

Everything depends on the context. If people are just living here because they like it and their business isn’t connected to Britain, then, in my view, it’s not compulsory. They will be significantly more interested in learning about the business culture of the country where their company or business partners are located. But if they do business in Britain, then of course it’s important to establish links with the local business community. I would advise them to make their entrance into the local culture in a relaxed setting, such as via a hobby. Join a golf, tennis or booklovers’ club, etc. Also, attend different events related to your line of work.   

How should we behave when meeting new people to produce the right impression? 

There is a universal principle which applies both to business communication and everyday life. It’s called the Golden Rule of Conversation; speak for 20% of the time, and for the other 80%, listen to the other person carefully. 

Negotiations are an important step in conducting business. What should you emphasise to your partners? 

For me, negotiations are an art form that combines excitement, fluidity, a sense of play, and a challenge. The 7/38/55 rule applies to them (it’s also suitable for informal discussions). The idea is that seven per cent of what you communicate is what you say (your words), 38% is how you say it (your voice, intonation, pauses, and the speed of your enunciation), while 55% is non-verbal signals and body language. From this rule, it follows that 93% of the impression you make is formed by how you speak and what signals your body sends. This is why, when you meet a new group of people, the first thing to pay attention to is your posture (keep your shoulders squared, back straight, and chin raised). Speak confidentially (and address the person you're talking to by name), look them in the eye and ask open questions. 

The first mistake people make is starting endless monologues; they try to give pre-prepared spiels or just offer their services without knowing who they’re talking to or what this particular person needs. 

The second mistake is not asking questions. The secret of negotiations is simple; the more open questions you ask, the better the result you’ll achieve. Most often, these questions begin with “How…?” or “What…?”. They encourage the other party to tell you what they need. The main thing is to understand that your questions should not prompt “yes” or “no” as a response.  

Some examples of open questions: 

  • What’s the most important thing about this product for you? 
  • How can I help you to…. (insert ending as required)?
  • What’s the reason why you can’t do that? Please explain…
  • How can we resolve this issue?  
  • What don’t you like about that and what would you like to improve?  
  • How does my proposal fit in with your project?
  • When can we put that into practice?  
  • Which of these tasks is the most important? 
  • What makes your position stronger? (Facts or figures) 
  • What else should I know about your company? (Goods or services) 
  • What’s our next step?  

The third mistake people make is starting negotiations without having any concrete aims. You need to set maximum and minimum goals. What do you want to achieve? You have to believe in what you’re saying (use the British formula of “thesis, argument, example, and conclusion”) if you can’t sell your goods or services to yourself, you’ll never be able to sell them to anyone else.  

The fourth mistake is either to make ultimatums, as this can be received negatively by the other party or to conduct negotiations from a position of need (as soon as the other side realises that you have an excessive interest in the deal, you’ll have to make concessions)

Photo: Tatiana Smith

As part of the Key2Success project, I hold negotiation games (I based them on the Harvard Model of negotiation simulation). They help to reinforce negotiation skills and put theoretical knowledge into practice.

What’s the right way to put together a CV?  

The first thing I’d pay attention to as a corporate hiring manager in London is whether a CV has an accompanying letter, (candidates rarely write one, but they should!). There should also be a brief summary at the start, which, in two or three sentences, tells me whether or not to read the rest of it. The second thing is that there’s no need to write down the duties which the applicant had at their previous place of work; what’s necessary is to write about achievements which demonstrate the abilities and skills the company needs, with evidence based on hard figures. I recommend using the STAR system (situation, task, action, result): what the situation was; what the task was, what you undertook and what result you achieved. For example, if someone writes ‘I have been a speaker at various events’ then they must state the topic, the number of times they gave talks, and the audience. This gives the interview an impression of the candidate’s capabilities; ‘I have talked at ten Artificial Intelligence conferences in London for 5,000 participants’.  

Nine mistakes when writing CVs


  1. Using the same CV for all vacancies. You have to customise the CV for each specific company. 
  2. Giving too much personal information: it’s enough to give your name, city, email and telephone number. Only provide a photo if it's required. 
  3. An excessively long CV; no more than two pages are needed. 
  4. A messy CV with spelling mistakes. The CV gives the employer their first impression of the candidate, so it’s better to check the text well and clean it up. 
  5. Including duties instead of achievements: 80% of this section should be about achievements and 20% about duties. 
  6. Generalisations: we only need the specifics.
  7. Listing skills without giving examples. Examples must be provided. 
  8. Mentioning hobbies: this information should only be present if it’s important for the new position.
  9. Lying; the truth may come out during the interview.

How should we behave during an interview to succeed? 

First of all, you need to prepare and gather information about the company (when it was founded and by whom, what stages it went through during its formation, its vision, strategy and structure). Use this information during the interview, but only when it’s appropriate. For example: “It’s amazing how quickly your company managed to achieve such great results! It would be a great honour for me to become part of such a successful team!”. Secondly, it’s worth finding out who will conduct the interview, and doing some research on them (you could look at their LinkedIn profile on social media) to find out about their education, their achievements during their career and their hobbies. You might find some points of common interest; for instance, you could discover that you both went to the same university or run in marathons. Carefully and strategically introduce this information during the interview. Letting the interviewer know that you share the same values as them can’t hurt. Thirdly, candidates sometimes talk about themselves too much during interviews (this is one of the commonest mistakes). What you need to focus on is the benefits your expertise can bring to the company. To have a better picture of their priorities, I recommend looking for employees of the company on LinkedIn, trying to get in touch with them and asking about the company values, the kind of people they’re looking for and so on. Also, it’s essential to highlight each of your skills with examples of how you used it to show what you have achieved and how you have coped with some difficult situations at work. (The more examples you give for each skill, the better). 

Many people believe that their bosses undervalue them. What’s a subtle way to suggest you deserve a raise or promotion?  

It’s important to understand exactly what you want. Are you seeking a raise, or career growth? The strategy will be different depending on your aims. In general, of course, there’s no point in being afraid of taking the initiative. Make your own mistakes, take responsibility for them and say what conclusions you have drawn. Regularly, confidently and proudly tell people, including the management, about your achievements, using the STAR method (develop a long-term strategy), and accept praise (don’t depreciate your contribution). You have to hold meetings with your boss one to one and ask for feedback (the English can be hesitant about giving it). For instance, ask what you could have done better, what your manager would have done in the situation and what you still have to do to get that promotion. This will show your boss that you’re ready to receive feedback and follow recommendations. Also, demonstrate that you have taken the feedback to heart and acted on it. Then you will grow. 

How can we learn to say “no” without causing offence? What are the best phrases to use when refusing to do something?  

It’s difficult for people to say ‘no’ as we are afraid to upset people and put them in awkward situations and we always think about other people and not about ourselves. Here are several phrases which can be used when giving a refusal: The first option is the Cushion Method, which is how Grandma would do it; praise, refuse, and show gratitude. For example, imagine you’ve been invited to work on a project. You could answer ‘This is a great project, but this time, I’ll have to pass. Thanks for offering me a part in it’. The second option is to say ‘I’m afraid I can’t hold that meeting for you, as at lunch, I’m interviewing someone and it can’t be rescheduled’. In this approach, you give a concrete explanation of the reasons for the refusal, as you consider it significantly weighty. The third option is to say ‘Sorry, not this time’. Sometimes you really don’t have to explain anything. It all depends on the context and how close you are to the person you’re saying “no” to, as, if you’re close, it may be better to name the reason. The fourth option is the Open Door method; say ‘I won’t be able to speak at the conference this time, but please let me know next time’. This allows the possibility that you’d be interested in doing it in the future (only use this method if your circumstances may really change). The fifth method is to offer an alternative ‘Today I have to go to a competition with my son, but I can help you tomorrow’.   

What do Russian-speaking entrepreneurs have to work on to fit into British society?  

The first issue is conservatism and boilerplate thinking. For example, I might suggest some new, non-standard solutions, and hear the answer ‘No, we’ve always done it this way’. Logically, if you always do something in the same way, you can expect to get the same result. The second thing is a lack of creativity and flexible thinking. In negotiating games, the greatest difficulties arise when people need to be creative; the participants react like rabbits in the headlights and start to make everything more complicated. It’s easy to complicate things, but often, we need to simplify our CVs and learn to talk about ourselves in simple terms. 

* The CIS, or Commonwealth of Independent States, is a club for post-soviet countries.

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