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About Success Builder

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

How a university makes a complete person out of you, how a CFA changes your life, and why an economist should never stop developing professionally — SIBUR Chief Expert for Investment Activity and Project Management Nikolai Tlekhgulov explains this and more.

When you were just completing high school, how did you imagine your future studies at HSE University, and did those dreams match the reality?

It took me three attempts to get accepted to HSE University. I really wanted to study at this particular institution. I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees here. Then I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a PhD student in the Stock Market and Investment doctoral program headed by Nikolay Berzon. I didn’t defend my PhD dissertation because I had to choose between my studies and work, but my time spent in the department gave me a good understanding of the academic environment. In the 10 years since I graduated, I haven’t lost that connection with HSE University.

I graduated from high school in Vologda. A friend told me about this cool university in Moscow — the Higher School of Economics. At that time, everyone wanted to study in either Moscow or St. Petersburg. I came to Moscow for the HSE Open House day, and it was fantastic! I had prepared (for entrance to HSE University), but it’s not so easy to get in. I wasn’t accepted, and so I returned home and studied mathematics and system programming at Vologda University. But my desire to get into HSE was so strong that I applied three years in a row, and finally got in on my third attempt. Economic Sciences is the best faculty at HSE and is home to the academic elite.

I stood in line for 12 hours to get a place at the dormitory. That year, 2003, was wildly competitive: there were winners of national competitions, people with medals in all kinds of subjects…and then me. I was finally assigned a dorm room with three other people and was the happiest guy in the world

Over the years, my attachment to HSE has only grown. For me, HSE University is an alma mater, a community, a place that makes you into a Person with a capital ‘P.’ I am always happy to take part in the life of the university. I started by conducting workshops for master’s students in economics, and then began serving as an academic advisor as they worked on their master’s theses. As a student, I would have really liked having someone with industry experience who could have helped me come up with a topic and clearly explained the mechanics of writing a master’s thesis.

Every spring, I am present when the master’s students take a practice run at defending their theses. I try to engage them in a discussion and not ‘shoot anyone down.’ You have to not only give an expert evaluation of each student’s work, but also try to be truly helpful. I know the students are great and have worked very hard to get this far. I take their side and talk things over with them. The result is effective teamwork and a laid back workshop. I also try to be of help to my academic director, Associate Professor Andrey Stolyarov. All of this is basically volunteer work. It’s not really that difficult: the 21st century has given us many means communication that are always at hand. I can’t replace the academic director — I’m not of that caliber — but I try to be of help.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

An important issue in modern education is that students often don’t see the real-world application of the knowledge they’re gaining. How can we change this situation?

It was only 10 years later that I realized why our instructors had tortured us with all those econometrics, macro- and microeconomics, mathematics, statistics, and investment analyses. It was only then that I could really appreciate the importance of what they had given me. That knowledge comes into play as you grow and find yourself in a particular environment, working in a specific industry and with actual people and processes.

The university doesn’t give you a place for the instant application of knowledge: it gives you tools, helps you build models and a lens through which you can view the world — along with a strong command of foreign languages

Here you form a reliable picture of the world. Only after you start working do you begin to understand the technical processes and reality.

Why did you get master’s degree? You already had a good job at that point.

The company where I was doing my internship in my fourth year hired me onto their staff. That same year, HSE opened the first master’s programme and the classes were held in the evening. It was a great solution, combining my work with study in the Stock Market and Investment programme. Now it is called Financial Engineering. In the morning I would go to work at a small consulting firm, then attend classes at the university, go home to read, do homework and get a little sleep — and then do the whole thing over again. It was great! By the way, I had to pay for that programme, which provided additional motivation. And the investment in myself paid off only three months after I graduated.

How could you maintain that schedule without getting crazy?

It was a challenge. I can’t live without challenges. Once, an instructor told me he didn’t think I could pass the test to become a CFA [Certified Financial Analyst – Ed.]. ‘Really?’ I thought. ‘Let’s just see about that.’ So I’d go to work, then to the master’s degree classes, and then study for the first-level CFA test. From February to May, I slept four hours a night and studied during my only day off each week. As a result, I completed three levels in four years, I have applied for membership in the association, and I qualified. I am now a Chartholder.

How does being a 3rd-level CFA help your career?

It provides an entry of sorts into an elite club of professionals. When I went to a job interview at RTM Development right after I had passed my first level, I scored 100% on the test they gave me. It turned out that my future boss was a CFA member. He appraised my level at once and gave me a high-paying job as a senior analyst. It was a real point of pride for me as a master’s student. The CFA Association of Russia has only about 1,000 members, so a CFA certificate really helps your resume when applying to major companies.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

Do the large companies look at a student’s social background?

As a rule, HR always looks at whether an applicant has volunteered somewhere or has experience with a non-profit. It is important for them that a person supports and will help develop the company’s values. I joined SIBUR only recently. Here, they pay a lot of attention to how well rounded you are — your certificates, internships, volunteer activity. If you’ve done something and have not just been sitting around, it means you are motivated and show promise. You’re not just another ‘cog in the machine,’ but an individual and a future member of the team.

Did you also work in the industrial sector before your job with SIBUR? What attracted you to this sector?

My connection with industry began at my previous job, where I went from analyst to director of investment in nine years’ time. The Magnezit Group is a mining and metallurgy company with 10,000 employees. In addition to constructing financial models, I frequently had to fly on business trips. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve circled the globe. I’ve been to every continent except Australia. I’ve been to the graphite factory in the mountains of Brazil; drove a jeep over the spring ice in Angar to get to the airport in time; got lost in the taiga; and many other things. I would never have believed that economics is an adventure if I hadn’t experienced it myself.

Can you tell us about a recent experience?

I was returning to Moscow from the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, and my route went through Sakhalin where I had to wait eight hours for a connecting flight. What to do? I rented a car and asked, ‘Where can I find crabs here?’ and took off. Along the way I stopped to see the local Sakhalin Energy plant that exports liquefied gas — I love factories! Then, 100 km further on, someone was selling crabs by the side of the road. I had a regular feast on the ocean shore.

How do you explain your love of factories?

When you prepare the proposal on paper and then you see them dig the pit, lay the foundation of the future factory workshop, bring in the equipment, and — voila! — a mining and refining plant goes into operation and begins shipping its products, you know that it is, in part, your hands, or rather your head, that helped bring it into being. That is a wonderful feeling, and I can say from personal experience that, contrary to stereotypes, the economist’s profession is very much connected to the real world, and is not just theoretical.

Which personal skills help you advance your career?

The ability to speak in public is very useful. I used to fear it, but to overcome that, you only have to do it over and over. I went to graduate school partly because I had to learn how to speak in public. Graduate school entails speaking at conferences and to groups of students. It’s scary at first, but as an employee, you need to report to the Board of Directors, and this helps you do it better and better. You can develop any skill through practice. It’s like riding a bike.

Why did you decide to leave your job as a director and what attracted you to SIBUR?

Last year, after launching a major project with partners from China, I felt empty, as though I had come to a stop, lost my motivation, and become too comfortable. I needed to do something I had never done before in order to start growing again. I went on a short expedition to Europe with no particular purpose, thought things over, and concluded that I wanted to change companies.

I sent out my resume and SIBUR responded. I went through a serious selection process that lasted three months and included six interviews, and at the last of them, the company made me an offer that was too good to pass up

This is because the new job involved — guess what —many, many ambitious tasks. Now I work as the Chief Expert for Business Development.

What do you find interesting about this company?

It is a petrochemical company that processes the by-products of oil and gas production. SIBUR has a non-standard hierarchy, or rather, it has no hierarchy at all. It does not have the traditional departments and divisions or junior and senior positions. It has only less experienced and more experienced staff and certain functions. This is my first experience in a cross-functional matrix structure. In my opinion, this is a progressive organizational format for the 21st century.

Here’s how it works. You form a team of professionals whose task is to implement a project. Each person takes on the function that they do best. No boss could assign responsibilities more effectively. The team consists of five or six people. They perform their project tasks in a decentralized manner and a collective body evaluates the work. If a member of the team becomes a weak link, he ‘exits the game.’

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

It sounds almost like a human blockchain.

I still cannot believe that such a high level of cooperation, trust, and responsibility exists. I marvel at it. These people launch gigantic industrial complexes! And yet the company’s staff is very young. I also like the company’s attitude towards new employees. When I started, I was assigned a partner from HR who was charged with personally helping me adjust to the company. And my immediate supervisor said that his main task was to ensure that I found the job interesting. At the same time, the work environment is very sensitive to the quality of the work you do. In such a closely-knit chain, it is impossible to do work badly or just ‘pretend’ to be working. I am also motivated by the fact that all my colleagues are very capable specialists.

It sounds like some sort of experimental start-up in Silicon Valley. Is it really a Russian company?

One hundred percent. It’s just that the company’s managers and shareholders want to effect change, to advance industry, and be modern. If you want to be a big, profitable, and sustainable company — and dynamic at the same time — you can’t work according to the old pattern. At the last of my interviews with SIBUR, I was asked, ‘Why would you leave your current senior position to come work for us?’ I answered: ‘Because I like your company.’

What challenges do you set for yourself at SIBUR?

I have always liked implementing projects, and I want to develop in this area. You can also move horizontally in other directions and test yourself in something new. SIBUR has a corporate university, a personnel reserve program, and the company can send you to get an MBA.

My personal challenge is to learn Chinese. I am certain that the volume of business between Russia and China, as well as investment and their commodities and monetary interactions will multiply. That requires proper communication. And besides, I am interested in Chinese culture.