In this article Henley Research International’s Irina Dobson, a native Russian, discusses the challenges of finding and headhunting senior executives in Russia.

Over the years, Henley Research International has undertaken a number of executive recruitment projects across a diverse group of Russia’s industrial sectors, with a particular focus on senior management roles and regional leaders. This article explores why undertaking executive search (commonly referred to as ‘headhunting’, although the two terms are not quite synonyms) in present-day Russia can be more challenging than ever before. As a little quick disclaimer, I’m not a fan of making sweeping statements and hope that the opinions about ‘most’ and ‘majority’ expressed here are not viewed as generalisations, but merely as our own observations and findings with the highest degree of verisimilitude.

Russia is the world’s sixth-largest economy and provides a unique environment for domestic and international organisations. Currently Russia remains a unique recruitment marketplace and there is certainly much interest in the country’s potential. The sharp devaluation of the Russian rouble, which began in the second half of 2014, and a wave of sanctions against Russia introduced in response to its annexation of Crimea triggered the changes in the country’s labour market.

As a result of the sanctions, Russia is facing both short and long-term challenges in its job market. On the one hand, internal production and exports are growing, which explains the increasing demand for highly skilled top-level managers. On the other hand, there is a substantial drain of expats from overseas, who are not seeing their remuneration packages being increased proportionally to reflect the rouble devaluation. This, coupled with Russia’s tough immigration laws, makes it difficult to bring in skilled workers from abroad. The above-mentioned scenario has created an unprecedented internal demand for Russian specialists with international work experience.

In the past, for the majority of Russians, a career at a foreign company used to be associated with stability, structure and support and considered as respectable credentials. In the light of the above-mentioned scenarios, as well as due to the effects of continuous internal propaganda and attempts to strengthen pro-Russian moods, there seem to be certain shifts in attitudes towards careers at Western companies. More than ever before, Russian companies realise that their success depends heavily on the quality and qualifications of their employees, which makes them really care about their employees, their career development, adequate financial remuneration and minimising potential reasons for leaving. Which, in turn, makes it much harder for search firms looking for senior top-level executives for positions in Russia.

So, what are the challenges that might prevent foreign companies from being able to attract the right calibre of global-minded top-level managers from Russia or perhaps deal effectively with a shortage in skilled workforce for their Russia-based businesses?

Apart from the most obvious challenge of linguistic barriers, it is cultural differences that should definitely be taken into consideration. Not every international candidate appointed to manage a Russian company will necessarily be capable of dealing efficiently with the numerous domestic controlling bodies. And I’m not referring to the notorious corruption and bribery culture here. Cultural background can become a determining factor in communicating, for example, with fire safety or tax inspectors.

When undertaking executive research on behalf of Western corporations we always face a challenge of finding a candidate who ‘ticks all the right boxes’. There are quite a few cultural differences and nuances impacted by the internal traits of Russian character that should not be underestimated. Russians love their Motherland and all things Russian: blinis, balalaika – you name it. Russian top-level managers love working in Russia, but they re-locate their wives and families to Switzerland. Russians are warm and friendly – just not in public and, of course, they don’t smile at strangers. Clichés that border on truth… I have recently spoken to a highly regarded executive search consultant who, after having five conversations with a candidate and then flying to Moscow to meet him in person, found his candidate to be extremely ‘cagey’ and very hard to comprehend. This reinforces the need for someone to be able to ‘broker’ and carry out that in-depth, meaningful and in-confidence ‘Russian-to-Russian’ conversation in order to go beyond the superficialities and have the best chance possible of deciphering that ‘mysterious Russian soul’.

From the point of view of a Western headhunter wanting to apply measurable parameters when undertaking executive search, an ideal candidate would be the one with a highly developed trait of openness to experience. Western corporations are interested in hiring conscientious employees. An ideal candidate is therefore the one who possesses both traits. But the two traits are the opposites and are very rarely combined in one person. In modern-day Russia there is a scarcity of conscientious candidates capable of streamlining their ideas and working in a systematic manner. At the same time, Russian people are highly creative. It is an internal trait of character. Russian business environment is agile and uncertain. It is also vital to understand that one of the reasons why professional certification standards in Russia are lower than the Western ones is the fact that ‘power’ and ‘management’ are two different things. Management in Russia is not institutional and based on personal connections. You are always employed by ‘a person’ even if you work for a large corporation. Which explains one more challenge of undertaking ‘pro-active’ search and dealing with potential candidates – do not underestimate how many people in Russia are employed through personal networks.

Looking for candidates within a country that is ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ can be compared to a search of a needle in a haystack. Despite the fact that LinkedIn has been blocked in Russia since November 2016 because it stores the user data of Russian citizens outside of the country in violation of the data retention law, the website is still successfully accessed by a vast number of Russians via Chrome, which offers a free plug-in for this purpose. Although during all the years of its existence in Russia LinkedIn did not become as popular as other famous Russian job portals like Headhunter, and SuperJob, LinkedIn still counts around 7.6 million users from Russia (just over 10% of the working population, compared to around 67% in the UK), and here, at Henley Research International we have been using it among other methods for direct search.

In the meantime, the best alternatives to LinkedIn in Russia are the following main professional networks, which have the highest chances of attracting the Russian LinkedIn audience: XING,, and Myco. Facebook, Skillsnet and Viadeo have the potential to compete with LinkedIn, but they might require some major updates and improvements. The following networks will highly unlikely replace LinkedIn: Sumry, and Moi Krug.

It should also be noted here that not every LinkedIn profile of a Russian professional perfectly showcases their experience, their education and their skills, therefore diminishing their professional flame by sending the message that they are less capable or less professional than they actually are. Quite a few people are very modest and reserved about their credentials, which stems from another Russian trait of character – the one of ‘underplaying’ your own achievements. Quite a few profiles have not been updated for various reasons. And certainly, just like with any candidate from any part of the world, we need to be wary of LinkedIn bios that are overly embellished.

A bigger challenge still is locating the right candidate. The majority of top-level professionals (regardless of where they are) are usually employed and do not register with job boards or read newspaper job adverts. The majority of Russian top-level managers are very ‘cryptic’ about their personalities, for various reasons, including the almost inbred specific feature of Russian mentality – the principle of ‘not sticking out’. Therefore, looking for such candidates in the open market is very difficult. We have come to believe that they can only be found by means of direct search. Which brings us to the next challenge.

According to an old Chinese wisdom, a good merchant hides his wealth and tries to seem a beggar. It can be safely assumed that most businesses in Russia try to do exactly that by being really protective about their top-level managers and preferring not to highlight the achievements of their employees and their successful work experience and contributions for the benefit of the company. The biggest players in the markets usually sign the so-called non-solicitation agreements with their top-level managers. For example, such ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ are signed between Yandex, Parallels, Kaspersky Lab and Acronis. Such a clause is also usually included in the contract with top-level professionals. This is another way for businesses to protect their rights and intellectual property as well as their investment in employee training and client base, especially when an employee who leaves the business, is linked with a particular customer.

And in the end of this little excourse into the challenges of undertaking executive search in Russia I would just like to mention that calling a Russian switchboard and speaking English will usually get you to the right person, as long as the interlocutor on the other end speaks English, of course. If you are a foreigner who can pronounce a few phrases in Russian with your cute accent, the gate-keeper will gladly put you through to the person you would like to talk to. When introducing yourself, it always works if you refer to a mutual acquaintance.

If, having read all this, you feel that finding executive talent with the right skills, experience and cultural fit in Russia’s constantly evolving marketplace is better left to the professionals, please feel free to get in touch with our team at Henley Research International.