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Asked to name their biggest concern about conducting business in Russia, many investors point not to worries about corruption, rising costs or even an unstable investment climate. The biggest problem is that qualified personnel are in increasingly short supply.

To tackle the problem, some companies in Russia have launched internal MBA or executive education programmes, hoping to build – and retain – the sort of managers and specialists each company needs.

The rapid growth of the Russian market is what prompted Unilever to launch its executive education programme this year, says Matthias Jost, Unilever’s HR director for Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

“It’s a high growth environment,” he says. “I always say we manage a continent, not a country.”

Matthias Jost National Human Resources Director for Russia, Ukraine and Belarus

With GDP growth averaging 7 per cent per year and solid consumer spending trends spreading beyond the traditional centres of Moscow and St Petersburg, the Russian economy is a force to be reckoned with, in spite of recent market turmoil amid the global credit crunch.

“The retail market is developing really fast and it has only 15, 16 years’ experience in this system. It’s not comparable to other developing countries in that sense,” Mr Jost says.

Russia’s education system cannot keep up. Riddled with corruption, it is common practice to pay for entry to university, for good grades and for the right to graduate. Few MBA programmes exist.

“The biggest problem is the Russian mentality. We don’t have experience in training managers,” says Maria Artamonova, the head of MTI, a Russian firm that provides business training and educational consulting services to international and Russian companies.

“Management must understand that they can get more added value, because they have these people already, but can get more from them,” she says.

Investing in people

The Unilever executive education course, run in collaboration with the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, aims to do just that.

The programme targets Unilever’s Russian and Ukrainian employees, based on need as well as potential for further career growth, Mr Jost says. There are about a dozen people taking part in the pilot two-year programme.

The students attend six to seven one-week training modules over the course of two years. The modules, taught by Darden professors, focus on leadership and strategic management, particularly in the context of a high-growth company and environment. When not attending the modules, the students continue to work full time, in addition to executive education projects and coaching.

The only other country in which Unilever runs a similar programme is China.

One of the students on the pilot programme is Sergey Bobrovskiy, who manages two Unilever factories in Russia.

Mr Bobrovskiy, 34, says he had considered doing an MBA until Unilever announced the programme. “It’s an excellent opportunity and much more effective than just an MBA.”

In Russia he adds, there is a lack of good and effective management.

“You have to develop the managers on your own. Unilever realises that and they’re investing in their people.”

Mr Jost, who designed the Unilever programme after relocating to Moscow from Switzerland in 2006, was upbeat about Russia’s education system. “We see a lot of people doing MBAs in Russia, but they’re not customised exactly to our needs.

“We wanted to have something that is really customised to our needs, our industry and our business at Unilever.”

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