A Quiet Business Revolution Waiting to Happen


The new column on business training written by David Dowse, Senior Partner at Webb Dowse, in the latest issue of Diplomacy&Commerce:

One of the many pleasant surprises that greeted me when I arrived in Belgrade in the chilly January of 2006 was the way that age and experience is still relatively highly valued in Serbia.

It was a welcome change from the ‘finished by 45’ attitude that prevails in corporate London. Of course, youth has some great attributes for business – energy, ambition, drive, creativity, innovation – qualities every leader wants and needs in a strong team. But every team needs leadership, and good leadership demands experience, usually gained through surviving hard times and making mistakes. There are no shortcuts.

I have often interviewed young job candidates with excellent PR or Communications degrees. They’re full of the latest theories and enthusiasm, but completely helpless when set loose among the lions in the business jungle of the real world.

Thankfully, in Serbia age and experience still seem to be largely seen as a good thing. This is especially true in the academic world. Professors are regularly invited into TV studuntitledios to comment on developments. The greyer the hair and the longer the beard, the more respect they tend to engender. The opposite tends to be true in the UK, where ‘academics’ and ‘experts’ were specifically targeted for public ridicule during the recent, cataclysmic EU referendum.

Business training is valued in Serbia – but mainly if it’s gained outside Serbia – in London, New York, Rome… or delivered by some visiting, over-paid international ‘expert speaker’. By ‘business training’, I mean ‘in job’ training, as opposed to the many ‘business academies’ where graduates go to try to improve their employability, with varying degrees of success. There’s certainly no lack of appetite for learning, as I’ve found from many guest lecture spots in public and private faculties.

I’m talking about practical, business-focused training in areas such as Customer Service Excellence, Leadership Skills, Conflict Resolution, Time Management, Managing Effective Meetings, Presentation and Negotiation Skills, Verbal and Non-Verbal Communications, and so on. This is where the ‘in job’ business training industry inside Serbia is still relatively in its infancy. I think there are some specific cultural reasons for that.

Respect in the average Serbian office is often still based on fear, and those in some positions of power give full rein to their macho egos. Top jobs frequently come via patronage, rarely through simply being a very good manager. Many top positions are not deserved, and everybody knows it, including the senior person himself. Treating ‘subordinates’ appallingly helps to reinforce an already inflated self-image. (Sadly, this seems to be equally true of the growing number of women in senior positions as it is for their male counterparts).In behaving this way, leaders callously throw away any chance of developing the most important strength any team can acquire –good morale and a strong team spirit.

Career progression is often still grounded in the murky world of patronage. There’s little incentive to train and develop new skills if your next career move is determined by who your father or your ‘kum’ knows, what influence they can bring to bear on your behalf, and who owes what favour to whom. How demotivating must it be to see a lazy, incompetent colleague promoted ahead of you for those kinds of reasons?

When foreign investors come to Serbia, they often inherit entrenched local management hierarchies, and it takes a lot of time and energy and to introduce the oxygen of meritocracy when it’s fiercely resisted by entrenched vested interests.

Foreign companies are also more concerned with business ethics and corporate reputation – throwing them into direct conflict with patronage in all its forms, and – let’s tell it how it really is – where financial ‘kickbacks’ for lucrative supplier contracts are the nasty-smelling elephant in the room.

I’ve seen all these scenarios first hand. As someone who is committed to a future in Serbia – I’m married to a Serbian wife and our child will grow up here – I care deeply about these issues.

Why does it matter? Compared to many international businesses, Serbian companies are inefficient and slow to develop. Genuine talent is wasted and potential future leaders are left to languish in meaningless positions. Thankfully some of the brightest young business stars in Serbia are now taking the entrepreneurial path, and scoring some major successes in that freer, more versatile environment.

A business system so deeply rooted in tradition and culture isn’t going to be changed overnight. But it can and must be changed. Training and Knowledge Transfer should play a vital role in the evolutionary process towards meritocracy – and there are many people in senior positions right here in Serbia who have a vast amount of knowledge and experience to pass on.

Business owners – you simply need to invest more in your most valuable asset. Do it willingly, substantially and intelligently, and your ROI will be enormous.

Let’s train Serbian business people so that many more reach their true potential; among the world’s finest.

Author: David Dowse
Corporate Communications Consultant, Trainer & Writer

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