MAIN ADVANTAGE: Zhanna Kitaeva from “Volia” about content, unique products, and soul at work
Leadership Journey (LJ): Zhanna, what are your responsibilities as a financial director?
Zhanna Kitaeva (Zh.K.): Now, I have a non-standard, expanded role in the company. I started working as a typical financial director. Over time, some financial functions were completely rebuilt and debugged. We hired competent employees and trained them. Gradually my responsibilities and tasks expanded.
Now, besides financial services, the administrative department, the procurement and logistics department, the legal department, the security, and information security department are in the area of my responsibility. I am also responsible for the b2b sector. In our case, these are not large corporations, but the Horeca segment – cafes, bars, restaurants, hotels, and other small businesses. I am also responsible for our data center. The b2b direction in “Volia” is small and makes up only about 5% of the business since the main clients of “Volia” are individuals.
LJ: How many people do you have in your team?
Zh.K.: A total of about 350 people; 270 of them represent all our back-office functions, except for HR, which is directly subordinate to the general director. The b2b team stands alone, including 84 employees. These figures refer not to Kyiv, but to the country because we operate in many cities.
LJ: How long have you been with the company?
Zh.K.: Six and a half years. For me, this is a record time of working in one place. Before that, I did not work in one company for more than three years. Financial directors and investment specialists are not usually tied to a concrete industry. For three months you figure out the specifics of the company’s activities, and after that, you can quickly implement changes. In my career, I worked with companies from various industries: producers of brick, ice cream, dairy products, sunflower oil, with IT companies and retailers, the media business, grain traders. I had a feeling that after several years in one place, when you already were familiar with the company’s operations, the routine was getting boring; the feeling of novelty and growth was disappearing. But it turns out that you can effectively grow within a company, by taking new responsibilities and developing along with the rapidly changing market.
You can effectively grow within a company
LJ: What is interesting for you in “Volia” activities? What is its specifics?
Zh.K.: Technologies and understanding not only the current trends but the technological trends of tomorrow. Everything is changing so quickly that, focusing only on what the consumer needs now, you will lose the market. To grow, you need to understand the consumers’ demand for tomorrow. I was very lucky that our shareholders own businesses in different countries and understand the dynamics of the industry and global trends well. Ukraine, unfortunately, is not a leader in this area, and we must look where companies are moving and how technologies are changing around the world.
By focusing only on what the consumer needs now, you will lose the market
LJ: What is innovation for you?
Zh.K.: Innovations can be various: process, management, technology innovations. But all this is the base. Product innovation is at the top. No matter what you change – management or technology – the change should result in a product that the consumer would buy, pay good money, which would give a high margin to the company. If the consumer likes the product, he will become loyal and will cooperate with us for a long time.
LJ: If a person connects to a provider, doesn’t he stay with it for a long time?
Zh.K.: Not always. There are people who come to a promotion action to one provider; six months later, they switch to another provider’s promotion action and then come back to the first one. All market participants are struggling with this big problem. There is no definitive solution. We try to keep track of whether a person has been with us on promotions previously and at what address, and often do not give a repeated discount.
As for market methods of customer retention, it is necessary to create products that competitors cannot beat. For example, in 2018, “Volia” signed a contract with UEFA, thanks to which we were able to offer our consumers unique content – all UEFA matches.
No matter what you change – management or technology – the change should result in a product that the consumer would buy
Today content is the main competitive advantage. Everything else can be built — faster or slower, with high or low picture quality, cheaper or more expensive — but possible. And the content is what makes the service unique. Two types of content are important for our consumer: global, without which we will not be in demand, for example, Disney, Discovery, Universal Studios, and local, domestic. And for me as a financial director, it is important how much all this will cost the company and how quickly it can pay off.
LJ: There are dozens of Internet providers in Kyiv. How big is the competition?
Zh.K.: They are more numerous. There are small gray companies that serve several houses. With legal large and worthy competitors, such as Kyivstar, for example, it is actually easier to compete. We are similar, we pay taxes, we work in the legal field, and we have a similar cost structure. It is much more difficult to compete with those companies who work not entirely legally, do not pay taxes, pay salaries in envelopes, and steal content.
Such providers save on some costs and have a large profit. That is why they can afford to dump. For the consumer, such nuances are not important. It is even more convenient: firstly, the service is cheaper, and secondly, Petya or Vasya from a small company, which is next entrance, is always available and will come to fix something 20 minutes after the call, because they are in the same building. Although each of these providers has a very small market share, they are numerous. The competition is very high. Sometimes up to 10 companies work in the same building.
LJ: Tell us about innovations in personnel management.
Zh.K.: The personnel market has changed a lot over the past few years. Now it is much more difficult to find a good employee, motivate him and keep him in the company for a long time. Employees today want to receive from the company much more than just a good compensation package.
My generation grew up in the difficult 1990s, and therefore for many of us the money and an opportunity to ensure our independent survival were the main driver when looking for work. My parents are not from Kyiv, so I had to rent an apartment and earn a living and study. My choice was to survive in a big city or go back home in Chernihiv to mom and dad. There were cases when you had come to the office at half past five a.m. to have time to finish something before the arrival of the bosses and had seen another employee rushing out of the shower in a towel and shouting, “Is it morning already? Hell, I hadn’t managed to finish at night!” Sometimes we slept in the office on the sofas. I even had a period when I was sleeping right on the floor in the office. I finished my work very late. I had no money for a taxi, so I was sleeping on the floor.
Time has become the most important resource, and people do not want to sell their time, even for very big money
Now, despite the still difficult economic situation in the country, no one from the new generation wants to work all day long and just for money. Young employees need drive, freedom and personal time. We had an employee who was engaged in reporting, and in his spare time, he wrote music. No monetary incentives and career advancement would motivate him to work 24/7. Time has become an important resource, and people do not want to sell their time even for very big money. Therefore, we have to find a balance between interesting work and freedom.
An opportunity to change one’s activities within the company is another important motivator. Many candidates respond to a vacancy, not being sure in a concrete position. In a year or two, they see better options for themselves in the company. We had two successful transitions from finance to marketing. It seems strange to switch from a position of a conservative and accurate financier to a creative marketer position! But in the end, everyone was happy. It is important to adjust the company’s opportunities to people and not only adjust people to the company. Sometimes we create special new positions for specific talented specialists because if they are not given the opportunity to develop, they leave.
An opportunity to change one’s activities within the company is another important motivator.
LJ: How do you do personnel evaluation?
Zh.K.: We do not yet have 360 degrees evaluation. But we do evaluate our personnel annually. There are several stages. First, self-assessment by corporate and personal criteria, as well as the goals that a person received for a year. A scale from 1 to 10 is used. After that, I get the results of the self-assessment of my direct subordinates and evaluate them by the same criteria.
At the next stage, we meet together and discuss why our assessments did not coincide on some issues and argue our opinions. Then we compile a joint development plan, which may include business projects and training. If a person wants to take on new functions or move up the career ladder, we describe the necessary competencies. The assessment results are sent to the HR department.
We have grade categories of employees: A, B, C, and D. Most people belong to B. There are also C – those who need to improve results, A – these are stars and personnel reserve, and D – those who can soon be fired or they themselves have lost motivation and will soon leave.
LJ: Do you have an assessment of personnel’s satisfaction?
Zh.K.: Of course. It is also held once a year. Three indicators are measured: engagement, satisfaction, and loyalty. The assessment is conducted by an external provider; employees receive an electronic form, fill in anonymously, and we see only consolidated reports throughout the company and across departments.
We discuss them first at the top management level, then at the level of all employees of the function, and prepare a plan to improve those indicators that received the lowest score. When I first came to Voila, we had a rather low level of engagement, but since then it has grown more than 2.5 times. Now it is much higher than the market average. We do not think that it will be possible to raise it even higher from this very good level; our task is rather to keep it.
LJ: Tell us about the mission and values of the company.
Zh.K.: Our mission is to make “Volia” a leader of digital entertainment. Our values include responsibility, efficiency, engagement, proactivity, and speed. We were discussing and choosing the values together with colleagues. There was a meeting, at which our managers had offered their variants, and then we had voted each proposition. Our annual staff assessment process takes into account our values.
For me personally, the proactivity of employees is the most important feature. If a person is not passive and not silent, experience, responsibility, and technical skills can be accumulated eventually. Each manager has a list of successors for his position. Not being proactive prevents from being on the successors’ list, as a rule.
For me personally, the proactivity of employees is the most important feature
LJ: Who are the successors?
Zh.K.: These are talented employees with high potential for development and growth, who will eventually come to work in our positions. We are not going to work to the end of our days in the company that is why each top manager has 1-3 persons who will take our positions after we leave. I have people who can become financial directors. For them, there are a number of perks, for example, an increased budget for training.
LJ: Do you choose them yourself?
Zh.K.: This is a natural selection. They are so distinguished, that no questions arise. They are concerned people. They come and say, “Let’s do this thing also.” They, in their turn, have their own successors, who will be promoted eventually. Already now, when I go on vacation, these employees take over my responsibility, and colleagues perceive them as leaders.
LJ: You have mentioned training and education programs. Do you use internal or invited trainers? Do you send people to study in other countries?
Zh.K.: We have many different options in our company: an internal program developed by the HR department, training conducted by our specialists, and events with guest trainers. We also send employees to study at other organizations, universities, and countries.
I study under the program of the University of Chicago with a focus on leadership, social psychology, and people management. This is the most important issues for any manager, a technical specialist, financier or seller. At the top management level, the task is to build a team.
Therefore, the main thing is to form a good team that can work independently, even if the manager leaves. I do not like companies, where after the dismissal of the leader, the team falls apart. A top manager should be proud when his team works as a streamlined clock mechanism when he leaves.
LJ: What does motivate you?
Zh.K.: Two things. The first thing is – the way people you hire and work with for some time – change and grow up. You start working with a young analyst who is eager to do everything but does not know how to do it. After a while, he is becoming a brilliant financial monster with a bunch of skills, knowledge, and competencies. Some of my former subordinates have long been financial directors, and I like to see how they have grown professionally.
If you like the result, it thrills and drives you. You cannot work solely for the sake of money
The second motivation is the result. If you like the result, it thrills and drives you. You cannot work solely for the sake of money. You need to look for those areas that are of real interest and motivation. Because no money can replace real life. At work, we spend more time than, for example, in the family, and if do not enjoy your work; the money will not help. You live not yours but somebody else’s life.