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Andrey Sharonov

National ESG Alliance chairman, former director of the Skolkovo School of Management

Andrey Sharonov on empathy, Ohm’s law, immortality, optimism and a good education

People and jobs
When I’d been working at the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade for eleven years and decided to leave, frankly, it was terrifying as well as very interesting. I’d got used to my job as First Deputy Minister and Secretary of State. I was generally someone who was fairly well known. I was forty-three by that stage and I hadn’t worked in business or the private sector at all.

I left for Ruben Vardanyan’s Troika Dialog: Ruben and I had been speaking for a year before that. When I finally made up my mind, I made a lot of discoveries — not all of them pleasant. It suddenly became clear that some of the people who’d been happy talking to me either became less willing to, or stopped talking to me altogether. To begin with, this really upset me. I wondered why it was: I didn’t think I’d changed. I thought perhaps I’d even become brighter and better, because I was studying the workings of the financial sector: I grasped them and they stuck... And then I calmed down a little and it hit me: who am I that people will always love and respect me? In the end, the people who were interested in me as Andrey Sharonov and not as a deputy minister carried on talking to me.
Very often, a career is a trap, and getting that stripe on your shoulder or smart nameplate on your office door doesn’t mean you actually get the essence of the job.
Stripes on your shoulder and nameplates on your door
Our jobs and positions come and go. They are conferred on us externally. But what’s inside us, our inner resources and our personality, is always with us, and that’s our real treasure. That’s what leads to our future jobs and positions, and not the other way round.

Very often, a career is a trap, and getting that stripe on your shoulder or smart nameplate on your office door doesn’t mean you actually get the essence of the job. For a while you’re sustained by the idea that you’ve achieved this post, but then you realize that there’s nothing behind it. Your work is less interesting, you’re mixing with people who aren’t as nice, there’s very little scope for creativity and you’re basically not your own person.
When you sense that you’re doing something important, you develop expertise. You go on the right training and you meet the people you need. That just doesn’t happen if you’re thinking about your career. Expertise is a set of abilities and the way you acquire them is through education. But there’s education that doesn’t give any expertise; it imitates the process of acquiring it. So a good education is extremely important
Why education is needed
I’ve been living by the maxim “never say never” for quite a while now. On the one hand, in this context, I don’t assess whether I’m at the end of my career, its pinnacle or the middle. On the other, I try to live my life in such a way that I don’t turn any particular stage into a stepping stone to try to reach something “better.”

I certainly never wanted to work in the field of education. If you’d suggested to me ten years ago that I would, I’d have burst out laughing and asked what on earth you were talking about. But all the same, I did come and work in education — education of a special kind, of course. SKOLKOVO isn’t a secondary school or a university. It’s actually a new entity that started just fifteen years ago and doesn’t have any skeletons in its cupboards. It has its issues like everywhere else, but it’s a fundamentally different institution, of a completely new type and era.

I’m not part of any power struggle, but I think I’m engaged in a battle for people’s minds, because I want to live in a more comfortable country. You can approach this aim in different ways. I’ve worked in parliament and government and, as I now realize, I also tried to influence the situation through standard-setting and enforcement activity. But now I work in the adult learning sector and I realize that maybe education is the shortest and surest route to change. That is, through changing not just legislation, but people. It gives far more lasting, systemic results.
Optimism doesn’t mean denying a problem: it’s being willing to work with it and not seeing it as a failure.
Low points
Our low points often have an external cause. If that’s a natural disaster or some sort of biological phenomenon, we can’t avoid it. Education can help us experience the situation differently and be more prepared — that’s its value. Not just any education though: you may be a brilliant specialist in a technical discipline or a specialized field of industry, but if you don’t have the people skills it holds you back and you won’t be able to build the relationships that can be threatened by external circumstances. So education that’s simply theoretical isn’t a panacea that lets you easily escape any situation or crisis.
Optimism after 1991
Optimism doesn’t mean denying a problem: it’s being willing to work with it and not seeing it as a failure. At the end of 1991 I went through an experience that recurred later, but less dramatically: it was when the Soviet Union was breaking up and a crisis was beginning. But to begin with, everything was fine for me personally. At the beginning of August I was appointed a minister in the Russian government, and I was also a People’s Deputy of the USSR. But by November the Silayev government that I’d been serving in was dissolved and I was dismissed. The Soviet Union ceased to exist in December and the Congress of People’s Deputies disappeared with it — and a bad patch began for me. My family had no source of income; we had to leave the flat we’d been renting. In short, things were really bad — and this was happening to me, a high-achieving perfectionist. I thanked God when things started to improve, but later I realized that this was also essentially a part of life: not a page that you should turn as quickly as you can and forget about, but something you should live through properly and learn from. You have to appreciate that life is sweet and sour: the sweet bit doesn’t taste as sweet if you haven’t tasted the sour part; you don’t have anything to compare it to.
A step towards immortality
The fact that people are mortal — and as Bulgakov said, unexpectedly mortal — makes you stop and think when you want to get involved in something or when you like certain things. A sense of frailty and transience holds you back from taking certain steps. In my view, that’s a good thing.

In fact, there’s a psychological basis for the fact that when people take on long-term initiatives which should ideally outlive them, they’re attempting to move towards immortality. Of course, people are mortal — but if you build a place of worship or create a company that outlives you, that’s a step towards immortality. And it’s largely the desire to immortalize oneself that drives people when they undertake these things.
Ohm’s law vs empathy
I don’t know about you, but we weren’t taught how to build relationships properly. We never heard what empathy was. Essentially, I think it’s strange that the founding fathers of our education system thought it was important to teach Ohm’s law — because you couldn’t learn that by yourself — but that learning to make relationships and understanding what empathy is, was something you could do by yourself, and which didn’t need to be touched on at all in your learning. I think that Ohm’s law is much simpler than empathy.

You need to realize that it’s people you have in front of you and that if you want a productive two-way relationship or you want them to do what you ask, you need to think about how they relate to you, to a given task, and to the organization. If they don’t relate well to you, then they probably won’t do a good job on the task, or they won’t do it at all. But Soviet management thinking was based on the notion that you’re given an order and you jump to it. We were all a bit military. It’s a feature of the previous era, which many people are still living in: they don’t care what people think — what matters to them is that people keep in step and do what they’re told to.

Empathy is closely linked to emotional intelligence. Putting it simply, it’s the ability to recognize your own emotions and those of the person you’re talking to. If you’re sitting, standing or running and your mood changes, you should be able to understand what’s happening to you fairly easily. A typical reaction by someone who doesn’t show interest in this could be to ignore the change and say, “Well, so what? What difference does it make? I’m a soldier after all, so I’m moving.” Or alternatively they might deceive themselves and say “I’m not angry with this person” (although they know that they are angry) or “I don’t envy that person” (although they know that they do). They know that malice and envy are bad qualities — they were told so at school — so of course they deny those feelings because they see themselves as a good person who couldn’t possibly have those sorts of attributes. We deceive ourselves and live with these feelings, which distort our lives, and the quality of our lives suffers a great deal as a result.
We were all a bit military. It’s a feature of the previous era, which many people are still living in: they don’t care what people think — what matters to them is that people keep in step and do what they’re told to.
Mistrust is expensive
The fundamental problem that holds back everyone in our country — from young to old, from the President to every last clerk or worker — is a lack of trust. No one trusts anyone, and that creates great costs. You spend on security because you don’t trust the people who come to see you. The government spends a huge amount on inspectors and the police. Mistrust is very expensive indeed.
From influencer to leader
I like something I heard recently: “What’s the difference between a leader and a manager? A manager wants people to carry out a task but a leader strives to make people want to carry out the task.” Do you sense the difference? There are a million definitions of leadership but I’ve tried to distil a few characteristics and essential components which are highlighted in almost all schools that study leadership. The first is probably having goals. The second is having followers. Leadership is a process, not a deed. Running around rattling a sword and saying “I’m the leader!” or accomplishing some great feat isn’t leadership.

If an influencer has some great aim and they talk about it publicly, they become a leader. Yes, they may have a blog with hundreds of thousands of followers, but they’re using it to appeal to others to do good, as they see it — for instance to raise funds or visit children’s homes or hospices. If other people actually do what the influencer asks, rather than just giving them likes, then of course as a result the influencer becomes a leader.
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Veronika Zonabend