Tuesday 11 October 2011

Romanian companies and enlightenment values

This article first appeared in Vivid magazine in 2003 and the world it describes has changed enormously, but not completely beyond recognition. 

Romanians have spent thirteen difficult years of transition “encamped like bewildered travellers in a garish  and unrestful hotel” in the phrase of Joseph Conrad describing another period of change. In these years, the most hopeful development has been the work not of politicians but of foreign companies. The great achievement of the multinationals that have entered the Romanian market since 1990, and more especially since the pivotal elections of 1996 when the ex-Communists left office, is their role in educating a large section of the Romanian generation in their 20s and early 30s.

But every foreign firm (and its foreign managers) rightly adapt themselves to the Romanian way of life. Romanian human resources are products of today’s Romania and every firm here whether local or international has a Romanian way of doing business. What does this mean?

Because Romania had the good fortune to escape the Reformation and the Eighteenth Century enlightenment and because it was industrialised only at the diktat of Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej in the 1950s, it retains an essentially pre-industrial social structure. The family is the essential element of Romanian society and as a kind of extension of the family the Romanian in his childhood, teens and early adulthood takes his or her place in a clan of friends who support each other. Beyond this, skeins of relationships make up client systems a little like those in ancient Rome. Outside the family and the network of friends, outsiders tend often to be viewed with distrust and suspicion. Dr Johnson’s aphorism referring to another conservative, agrarian society applies equally to the Romanians. ‘The Irish are a very fair people, sir. They never speak well of one another.’ The profoundly religious Romanians have in common with the Irish an acute awareness of original sin.

In the office, copies of these clan systems are reproduced in miniature. Relations in business and at work are always about human relationships, which is one of the things that make doing business and living in Romania so delightful to foreigners used to more impersonal environments. It is also, incidentally, why politics in this country, as in eighteenth-century England, is about factions rather than political principles. The distinction between work and leisure, between private life and business life, is less clear-cut than in the West, beyond ‘the Iron Curtain of the mind’. The corollary is that if Romanian colleagues do not strike up friendships with each other (in a few cases, it has been rumoured, even love affairs) either spontaneously or for motives of self-interest, they very often get on badly with each other. Not for nothing are many training companies earning good incomes from providing team-building exercises. Unfortunately, the best training often has only limited effectiveness because it is based on Western models that transpose badly to Balkans. Romania is in many respects the Orient  dreaming that it is France.

Managers in the modern sense of the word were few before Communism, society was semi-feudal and positions in the civil service, the law and the armed forces were much more prestigious than going into trade.  Many business leaders were Jews, Germans, Hungarians or expatriates. Management came in with Communism and managers expected to be obeyed unthinkingly. Today Romania, like other post-Communist societies, remains a hierarchical and deferential society that would gladden the heart of Edmund Burke and present-day Romanian management style still owes very much to the 1980s model, despite valiant efforts to introduce new ways of working. Managers are expected by their subordinates to make the decisions and take the responsibility when those decisions turn out to be wrong. When a subordinate makes mistakes he can expect to be bawled out by his chief but too often will not be shown how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Sometimes this can be for the good and sufficient reason that the manager himself does not know how to do so. The idea that all are working together in a common enterprise and that the boss has the comfortable chair and the big desk simply because he has more experience to share with his colleagues is one that is gaining acceptance only slowly.

Before starting doing business in Romania five years ago I thought connections were things plugs went into. I quickly learnt better. Before the Revolution jobs were filled by personal connections, pile. In very many companies, both Romanian and foreign-owned, they still are. Rather like in nineteenth century English novels or indeed like in England forty years ago before the classless meritocracy challenged the old boy networks. Jobs are also kept by personal connections. A well-qualified candidate who enters a firm without personal connections, as the result of answering a job advert or being sourced by a recruiter, is vulnerable unless or until he builds his own connections. His weaknesses will be immediately identified by his peers and ruthlessly used against him. On the other hand, the more capable he is the less popular he may be with weaker colleagues. One jaundiced foreign businessman with very long experience in Romania told me, unfairly, ‘In business, Romanians show no gratitude and no mercy.’

The wiser foreign manager has a very clear idea of the office politics that make many Romanian workplaces soap-operas comparable with the Latin American serials that are the staple of Acasa, complete with intrigue, passion and betrayal. The less well-informed foreign manager can sometimes be a kind of roi fainéant manipulated by Romanian colleagues.

The cohort of Romanians born after 1965 that is being educated within the good multinationals is the great source of hope for Romania. However, while the majority is learning the values of transparency and the work ethic along with technical expertise and western know-how, some young professionals have a philosophical outlook than can best be described as baroque. Baroque in the sense that they observe the forms they learn at work but ignore the spirit, absorb the technical expertise and up-to-the-minute management-speak but continue to do business in the old ways. Whether the future holds more FNIs and Bancorexes or the long-awaited economic upturn finally rewrites the script of Romanian history depends in part on which of these two schools of thought wins out.

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