Russia: only for the savvy MBA graduate

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Moscow made the headlines last year when an HSBC survey found that expats in Russia were the most highly paid in the world, sparking a slew of stories advising job hunters to head east.

So does that mean that highly paid jobs are easy pickings for MBA graduates in Russia? Not so, say headhunters. Knowledge of the Russian market and proven ability to steer a company through the tough business environment on the ground since the 2008 stock market crash are much more important.

“If you stayed in Russia during the crisis, overcame difficulties and drove your company through the crisis in 2009-10, you will be far more in demand in the market than someone who took a learning sabbatical,” says Alexey Sizov, a consultant at Odgers Berndtson, a recruitment company.

An MBA remains a good qualification and still counts with multinationals, banks and consulting companies working in Russia, but what employers want most is knowledge of the local business environment, he says.

After the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank, the boom times in Russia came to an abrupt halt, with many companies halving in value as stocks plummeted. Understanding how to sell goods to increasingly choosy customers and navigate the tough – and often corrupt – business environment in the country is a quality prized by employers. An MBA qualification really needs to be combined with local savvy.

Elmar Kamaev, a project director at Basic Element, a Russian energy assets and metals company, says the environment for MBA graduates has toughened since he graduated from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, North Carolina, in 2008.

“After graduation it was a blossoming market. It was relatively easy to find a good opportunity, and those offers I had in Russia were slightly better than abroad, especially taking into account the personal income tax situation here,” he says. Russia has a uniform rate of tax on the income of individuals.

However, employment conditions have become harder. It is now difficult to find the right niche even with an MBA, Kamaev says. “An MBA can be a positive influence on your career, but it needs to be combined with a good personal attitude and a little bit of luck.”

Igor Klimov, general director of Acuris, an executive search company, says an MBA can help people in Russia broaden their minds, structure their thoughts and connect with an international alumni network.

“If you are smart, you will achieve things here anyway. An MBA is something that you should do for yourself rather than for the market,” he says.

An MBA from Wharton, Harvard or London Business School can be useful for companies that want to tap into a global alumni network, although MBAs from lesser schools count less with employers, he adds. “It is appreciated by some companies because an MBA alumni network can enable you to pick up the phone and set up a meeting with someone in a variety of companies, but in Russia it needs to be combined with good local experience,” he says.

One serious mistake MBA graduates can make is to return to Moscow with their newly minted qualifications and demand a certain salary from employers. Graduate arrogance can be a turn-off for companies trying to find the right employee.

Employers want to know that graduates understand the unique challenges they face in Russia, not that they have looked at management case studies in textbooks, Klimov says. “You can’t come to Moscow and say, ‘I’ve got an MBA,’ and expect people to jump,” he warns.

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