The leadership lessons of Tamara Sakovska

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Chartered Director Tamara Sakovska

With 20 years in global finance under her belt, the IoD Chartered Director of the Year serves on the board of JPMorgan Russian Securities as a non-exec and runs her own business. She reflects on experiences – from living in the Soviet Union to working on Wall Street and facing the financial crisis – that have shaped her

Every business is a “people business”. Even if your company comes up with the best product or the most innovative strategy, this won’t lead to sustained success unless there’s a team of people behind it who work well together.

Tesla is a case of what happens when people aren’t the focus. Its product is amazing, but the business has been struggling to meet expectations because not enough operational processes seem to be properly delegated. They still revolve around its brilliant founder. No matter how technical things get, you need to look for the human element everywhere.

A truly collaborative workplace needs to accommodate a range of personalities. My first leadership role taught me that we all have different working styles. People can achieve the same goals using different approaches. Some people are introspective thinkers, while others can ideate only when they have a sparring partner.

Having a network of supporters isn’t vital for everyone. I’m the type who likes to hear different opinions and consider several data points, but I appreciate that some people can innovate in total isolation or be inspired by unrelated things – the arts or sports, for instance.

Growing up in the Soviet Union taught me resilience and adaptability. I lived under this completely different paradigm and saw it disintegrate virtually overnight. A set of events redrew borders and changed the nature of the economy, which effectively pushed people to develop these traits.

Two things matter in times of crisis: integrity and a cool head. Working in finance during the recession stress-tested every relationship. But all things come to an end – and you’ll be thankful later that you kept your integrity. You will be faced with many difficult choices in a crisis and you’ll need to be able to cope with the emotion involved in making these.

Always try to know what you don’t know. At the start of my career in the late 1990s I was working as an analyst for Goldman Sachs in New York. A senior colleague gave me this advice and I still think about it often. It helps me to make better decisions by being pragmatic and it encourages me to tap into other people’s knowledge.

Building a portfolio career takes curiosity and preparation. You need to make the effort to learn as much as possible about each industry you’re entering, including from independent sources. You must also know what to do when things don’t go to plan. You only have to pick up a newspaper to see that no company is infallible.

Find a way to learn that works for you. I considered several providers of training in corporate governance before settling on the IoD. When I met the Chartered Director course co-ordinators and looked at the learning materials, I was pleased to find that they were covering relevant, up-to-date cases, so I signed up.

I make better-informed decisions as a result of becoming a CDir. The IoD has greatly expanded the knowledge I need to serve effectively as a non-executive director on the board of a listed company.

I always have a list of three areas I want to develop. I’m naturally curious, so keeping it down to three helps me to stay focused and means I can actually achieve my goals. I don’t want to spread myself too thin.

You need to offer a development path. It’s important for your people to feel that they will advance. But, if you can see that someone has reached their full potential in your business, you must be understanding and let them go on to bigger things.

When working in different territories, you cannot assume that what worked in A will work in B. I’ve led transactions in more than 10 countries and found completely differing definitions and tolerances of risk. This makes it impossible to extrapolate your knowledge. You just have to learn to manage these variations.

I’m at my most productive when I am far removed from my desk. I can generate ideas when I’m distracted from work, which typically means being in nature.

My next goal is to launch a digital strategy for my business, Lavra Group. I like helping others with my skills and knowledge. I am developing a number of tools that will enable me to connect with like-minded people across the world and collaborate on projects.

The world is in safe hands. The unbelievably intelligent and driven young entrepreneurs I meet at work reassure me of this. There is a whole generation of people who aspire to – and accomplish – amazing things. That knowledge keeps me motivated every day.

Tamara Sakovska is a non-executive director at LSE-listed investment company JPMorgan Russian Securities and the founder of Lavra Group, where she works with companies and investors on private equity and governance projects. She has more than two decades of experience in investments and has served on the boards of a wide range of companies. A fellow of the IoD, Sakovska won its Chartered Director of the Year Award last year. She holds an MBA from London Business School and a degree in economics and art history from Stanford University, where she won the Anna Laura Myers Prize for her economics thesis.

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About author

Hannah Gresty

Hannah Gresty

Hannah Gresty is the assistant editor of Director magazine. She previously worked on a local news website and at a fashion PR company before joining the Director team in 2016.

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