Corporate Finance & Leadership Partner. Host of Firmsconsulting TV.
Kris holds the unique distinction of being hired as a business analyst at a major international consulting firm, at age 26, despite not possessing a university degree. She was thereafter promoted twice within 17 months of joining the firm. She led strategy studies in Europe and Africa where she presented to CEOs, boards and billionaires.
After consulting Kris completed a BComm from UNISA, cum laude, and a Richard Ivey MBA, with Distinction, where she was editor of the Public Sector Review. Kris thereafter became a banker on Toronto’s Bay Street where she was promoted within 6 months of being hired and eventually left as a Director in corporate finance.
Kris served as a master classical concert pianist and an official music ambassador of the Russian Federation, and holds a diploma in classical piano from DG Shatalov State Musical College.
At Firmsconsulting Kris is a partner leading the Corporate Finance practice and High Performance Leadership Program. In the former Kris leads some of the firm’s most exciting initiatives in Big Data and Healthcare.
This is the story of how I changed my life when I found myself at the age of 25 without a degree, in a foreign country and working as a front-office receptionist for a 4-person manufacturing company where I earned ~$500/month with no health benefits. I will be candid about the struggles I faced and mistakes I made. Although it is not easy to discuss these things, I am optimistic others will realize they too can succeed despite significant obstacles.
The Person Who Influenced Me The Most
I was born in Russia where I lived until the age of 21.
My paternal great-grandfather was born in Dagestan. He died so early that his son, my grandfather Aron, did not remember him. A foster family raised Aaron. Later he moved to Azerbaijan for his studies and for a better life.
He married and had 4 children. The youngest was my father. My grandfather, Aron, supported his family by working as a technician on ships.
My maternal great-grandfather, Grisha, was captured and tortured during the war after the revolution but escaped through the sewage system.
On his way home he wanted to kill himself due to the pain he had endured. He felt he had nothing left for which to live. He found a hospital with infectious disease patients and ate the food from the garbage hoping he would catch something that would kill him.
Yet, he did not get sick. This made him realize that maybe there is a reason he should continue living.
He finally made his way to Kuibyshev City, now Samara, in the southeastern part of European Russia. He married a lovely Russian lady named Maria, and they had 3 kids. The youngest of them was my grandmother, Galina, the guardian angel of my life and the person who influenced me the most.
My grandfather, Alexander, was a very talented painter. He married my grandmother, Galina. Alexander’s family were extremely wealthy before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. They owned a chocolate factory in Samara and ships on the Volga River named in variations of Trofimov – Alexander’s family name.
During the revolution the factory, ships and all their possessions were seized.
Alexander never formally studied painting yet he could perfectly replicate any piece and had an opportunity to study at a prestigious arts academy in St. Petersburg. This was a great achievement since most professional painters could not gain admission to Russia’s top school for painters.
Yet, his father forbade him from attending, stating that this was not a job for a man.
Alexander listened to his father and went to work at a factory instead. He worked in factories his entire life until his death.
He became an alcoholic shortly after joining the factory and by the time I was born he was drinking himself to an unconscious state on every payday. This was the only day of the month when he had money.
He would spend most of his salary on alcohol and the rest would be stolen from him while he lay unconscious on the street. My grandmother’s pension was the only money my grandparents had left over on which to live.
What made it worse was that Alexander’s possessions, such as a winter hat or shoes, would also often be stolen or he would lose it, which necessitated buying at least one expensive clothing item every month to replace a lost or stolen one.
Galina and I used to go out and look for Alexander on the streets of Samara and carry him back home. I was about 5 years old at the time. My grandmother would not let me help her carry Alexander because he was very heavy.
So I would carry her handbag, making sure his feet didn’t get caught anywhere, while my grandmother would carry Alexander on her back with his feet dragging on the ground.
Sometimes we would find him quite far away and it would be so hard to drag him back home.
This is when I learned that people should always do what they think is right for them, even if it is against the wishes and opinions of others. If my grandfather had ignored his father’s advice and went against his family wishes to study painting, with his talent his life most likely would be shockingly different from what it turned out to be.
Galina and Alexander barely spoke to each other. I only saw them talking to each other once. I walked into the kitchen and saw them fighting. As soon as they saw me, my grandmother immediately stopped talking and my grandfather walked away. My grandfather slept in a storage room, the tiniest room you could ever find, and I was instructed by Galina to never talk to him or bother him in any way.
Galina and Alexander lived in one half of a tiny house. The other half was occupied by another family. Their half had just one room, the tiny storage space where my grandfather slept and a narrow hallway that was also a kitchen. There was only cold water available from one basin in the kitchen and a hole in the ground in the backyard that was used as a lavatory.
There was no shower or bathtub.
When brushing my teeth, my grandmother would take water from the kitchen basin, heat it up on the stove, as it was ice cold, and bring it to a little pot we used to wash our hands.
Yet, the times I spent with Galina are the best childhood memories I have.
Despite all the poverty in Russia, it was a wonderful time. My grandmother loved me unconditionally. If it was not for her, I don’t know who I would be today. She spent a lot of time with me, while my parents worked very hard trying to find their feet and raise 4 children – I am the oldest.
Galina died of cancer when I was 14. She forbade me from visiting her when her cancer progressed to a terminal stage. It was important for her that I didn’t see her in this very ill state. This was a very early lesson for me in taking care of those you love, in a selfless way.
However, I decided to go against her will.
My grandma and I loved bananas and ice cream. But it was a luxury that we could rarely afford. Yet, it was something we often dreamed about. Before she became sick, during lilac flower season, we sold lilac flowers, from our backyard, at the bus stop.
After a few hours of selling we would usually make enough money to buy two ice creams or two bananas.
So when my grandma became ill, I collected money over a month by looking for coins on the street and I also tried not to pay for the bus when I was going to and from music school, by hiding from the conductor. Eventually I had enough money to buy one chocolate ice cream and one banana.
I, thereafter, visited my grandma bearing gifts.
She finished both the ice cream and banana, to make me happy seeing her eat. She was happy to see me but I was strictly instructed to never do this again. In fact, she made me promise to not visit her again, until she asked me to. I did promise, which is something I regret to this day, and she was alone through her suffering.
Only on her deathbed did she ask for me. We only got to spend a few minutes together as she was unconscious most of the time. During the few minutes that we had, she made me promise that I would not go for Shaping, a type of exercise that was popular at the time. That was her death wish and I never went for it even thought I really wanted to.
To a stranger it may seem like an odd request. But I think she was trying to show me that I did not need to “run an extra mile”. I was already special.
After Galina died, Alexander realized he loved her, but it was too late. Funny thing about life is we rarely appreciate what we have until it is gone.
One year after her death he decided to go out for his first date, as he felt lonely. It was minus 25 degrees Celsius and he waited for his date for a few hours on the street. She never showed up. He caught a bad cold waiting for her and died shortly thereafter.
I was the last person he spoke to. He promised me he would stop drinking and went to bed. It looked like he was getting better. Yet, a few minutes later my father noticed that Alexander was not breathing.
Ever since that moment when I see or talk to someone I love, I know it may be the last time we have together.
The sad stories of my family, passed down from generation to generation, were always a glowing reminder why you should not take what you have in life as given.
You should fight for more. It will not be given to you. You will likely not luck out and get to where you want to go by chance. You need to have determination to fight, to do what you believe is right even if it is against the advice and wishes of those around you.
Never ever settle for a miserable life without purpose.
Being a Minority
My father was born in Baku, Azerbaijan. My mother was born in Samara, Russia, the daughter of Galina and Alexander.
My father came to Samara after university. At that time, to keep a more consistent demographic distribution across the country, the former Soviet Union required that people reallocate wherever the government chooses for 3 years after university. My father was assigned to move to Samara.
They met as students on a trip to dig out potatoes in the village. It was common during the time of the former Soviet Union for organizations to send their workers to villages to help collect produce; a type of volunteering for the common good. So a lot of people went away for a few days to a remote location to dig out potatoes. Both of my parents worked in factories at that time and both were sent to that same village.
One night everyone, including my parents, was sitting around the fire. My mother recalls at one point in the evening everyone, except my father, looked behind her, screamed and started running away.
Before my mother had a chance to turn around and see what had scared the crowd, my father grabbed my mother, lifted her and ran. She turned and saw an angry bull chasing them.
That was May 22, 1979. They married 2 years later on May 22, 1981 and I was born 7 months later on December 22 when my mom was 22 years old. My mom always told me that the number 22 is a special number in our family.
Ironically, number 22 also features prominently in my life in other ways, so maybe my mother was right about the importance of this number.
Both of my parents worked incredibly hard, as hard as it was humanly possible, but we were quite poor. I remember a day when the landlord unexpectedly asked us to move out by the end of the day. I recall us walking through the snow. My parents carried my twin newborn brothers on the sledge along with our belongings.
I was trying to keep up with them but it was hard walking through the snow that was above my knees.
Yet, they could not help me since their hands were full and there was no space for me on the sledge. I remember really suffering but trying to put on a brave face as I knew my parents were devastated at being thrown out of their rental just that morning, with no time to find another place to stay.
I was around 3 years old at the time.
We were homeless for a while, asking people if we could spend a few nights in their homes. The last resort was to stay with my grandmother but her house was so small; there was no space for 5 additional people.
From an early age I noticed many people treated us differently, because my father was Azeri, had an Azeri name and all the children had Azeri names as well. My name was Gyulya.
One evening, when I was around 8 years old my father went outside to take out the garbage and came back with blood all over his face. He said he fell, which was clearly not the case.
Later, my mother teased out an explanation from him. Our neighbors beat him up. When they finally let him go, they told him that we should leave Russia. Otherwise, next time, they will finish him off.
There were many other similar incidents. Like any great and wonderful country, a few nasty people could make the lives of many intolerable.
I was urging my parents to move out of Russia when the former Soviet Union collapsed and many people immigrated. They always told me we couldn’t because it was too hard. They also told me that it would not be better elsewhere. They said that the grass is always greener on the other side.
I changed my name to Kris (Kristina) just before it was time to get my Russian passport, around the age 18, as I did not want to carry this burden of discrimination for the rest of my life.
Those were tough years.
As a child I used to search for coins on the street. Usually after a few hours of searching I could collect enough to buy a cheap ice cream from the street vendor. Around ten kopeks for milk ice cream and 20 kopeks for cream ice cream. If I would collect 20 kopeks I always went for the milk one, so I could buy two and take one home.
The transition times from the former Soviet Union to Russia were even tougher. I remember standing in lines for hours to buy one pack of margarine. I was around 10 years old at the time. People were given tickets for the amount of food they were allowed to buy.
Stores were mostly empty. If some food items suddenly became available in the store, the line would spill out onto the streets far from the shop doors and people would stand in line for hours in the hope of getting 1 pack of margarine.
How is this productive use of human potential?
While going through school, I was in parallel attending a music school. I learned to play the classical piano.
When I initially applied to the music school at the age of 6, I was rejected. According to the music teachers who tested my abilities, I had a fantastic sense of rhythm but I could not identify notes very well. After I was rejected my mom left me in the hallway and went back to reason with the teachers into admitting me.
I saw my mother not taking “no” for an answer, and I realized then that “no” often does not mean never. Sometimes it means maybe or not now. If you keep on pushing, you may very well get what you want.
I ended up studying in that music school for the next 7 years. It was on the other side of the city and I took two buses to get there, a trip over one-hour each way. Because my parents had 4 children and my grandmother fell terminally ill, from an early age I took this trip by myself.
I got lost many times by boarding the wrong bus or missing my stop and ending up in an unknown part of town, sometimes after sunset. Yet, it thought me to be independent and resourceful.
By age 13 I was selected to represent the Russian Federation as a “gifted child of Russia”. I performed in Bulgaria, France, the Czech Republic and Germany. I was an official cultural ambassador of the Russian Federation. I was so proud of myself. Those trips opened my eyes to the world and opportunities outside of Russia.
I also wrote my own music. Once when I was playing my own composition a famous Russian composer, Mark Levyant, overheard me play. He made a point to contact my parents and insist that I continue my musical education because I was very talented. This is how I ended up in DG Shatalov in Samara, where I spent 4 years after school perfecting the art of the piano.
I had a 100% scholarship but still needed money for food, clothing and medical expenses. I wrote songs, performed at events such as weddings, at restaurants, in nightclubs, in casinos and one of the songs I co-wrote with a friend, and performed, even made it onto the local radio playlist.
Despite this, I would only earn about 100 Rubles (2.5 dollars) per day and sometimes people did not pay me. The most difficult part was to get home in one piece after the performance because I was not making enough money to take a taxi.
The Low Points of My Life
On one particular night, the most esteemed regular client of the restaurant where I worked, and a well-known businessman in Samara, asked if I needed a ride home. I agreed as I thought I would save the 7 rubles that I would have to pay for a bus home and it felt safer compared to walking through dark alleys from the bus stop to the apartment building where my family lived.
He brought me to his apartment instead and locked me there. Bodyguards with guns surrounded him so I just walked in without a fight. I made an excuse to visit the restroom and locked myself there for the entire night. They banged on the door but never broke it. They probably just assumed I would eventually come out.
I sneaked out in the morning after it went quite for a long time, so I was relatively certain they went to sleep. As I was running down the stairs I could hear someone running after me screaming, “Where are you going bxxxx? Do you think you can run away from me?”
I managed to run away and I never showed up in that restaurant again, even though it was my most stable gig.
Another time I was walking home at around 4pm. A man stepped out of the car as I was crossing the road and started walking towards me insisting I get into the car. I started running and he ran after me screaming at the top of his lungs, “Stop fxxxxxx bxxxx!”
As I was running, I passed an apartment building where my friend lived on the first floor. I saw her mom standing near an open window and she saw me running. Talk about a guardian angel moment!
I asked her if I could run in and hide. Fortunately, I made it to her apartment and was hiding there until that man left. She later kindly walked me home, as I was terrified and shaking.
Thereafter, every time I walked out of the apartment I would wear the most ugly and bulky clothes, no make up, and I would cross the street to avoid men and any further lunatic experiences.
And there were a lot of violent experiences like these, one of them was not very far from rape.
Apart from assaults by “interested” men, the crime situation was also bad in Russia. One day when I was walking home at around 6pm I was robbed and violently assaulted on the street near my apartment by two men. I had a ring on my middle finger that was very dear to my heart. My mom gave it to me and it was my most precious possession.
It was a simple golden ring with no diamond and it was very tight. They could not pull it off and wanted to cut off my finger. I begged them to allow me to take it out myself. They said, “Take it off in 30 seconds or we are cutting your finger off” and I pulled it out with my teeth while taking out a large amount of flesh in the process.
This happened right next to a police station so I ran there, as I was terrified to walk home. A few kind policemen drove me home but could not walk me to my appartment as they got a call that someone was just robbed and fatally wounded. They told me I was very lucky I was not killed and hastily drove away.
When I came home that night I was shaking and terrified. I called a friend who insisted I call the emergency services. The emergency services arrived and sent me to the hospital for a check up.
Yet, the doctor in hospital was not very interested. He rudely asked me why I was there. I explained the reason.
He asked, “Did they beat your head against the asphalt?”
I said “No”.
He said, “So, why are you wasting my time?”
I left without being examined and went home promising myself I had to change my life.
My passport, with my address, had been in my handbag taken during the assault. A few days later a group of men came by my apartment stating they had found my passport and would “kindly” sell it back to me.
Those men were my neighbors from within my apartment building. They asked me a lot of questions about whether I remembered the robbers. I knew better than to say anything and they were pleased when I said I remembered nothing. I paid for my passport and they left.
Emotionally, these events took a toll on me and it took a long time to recover. Thankfully, my best friend, my sister supported me through this.
In the DG Shatalov Music College I immersed and challenged myself with complex pieces like Rachmaninoff’s musical moment number 4 in E minor, which alone required at least 7 hours of practice each day. I practiced this while working on a few other pieces at the same time. Yet, I knew the path of being a professional pianist for the rest of my life was not the right path for me and I chose not to go to the conservatoire.
I was not passionate enough about music to dedicate my entire life to it.
There was a particular event that forced me to pick my own path rather than follow the life that was unfolding before me. A few months after I started at DG Shatalov I woke up with my face blown up and swollen on the left side. My eye could not open. My family was joking I could play the starring role in a horror movie without makeup. I was 16.
After 3 days with no improvement in my condition I was hospitalized. The doctors diagnosed me with a severe and likely fatal allergic reaction. Yet, they were not certain what caused it but the most likely cause was the recent vaccination I had, which, as it turned out had not been properly tested. This is a great example of an unexpected negative externality of living in a developing country.
Various doctors came from other parts of the region to look at my special “horror movie-like” condition. They were not there to help me. They were there because I was “an interesting case.”
I remember being surrounded by doctors and they were saying, “She will not live until the next day. There is nothing we can do. As soon as this blown out part of her face will go down to her neck she will die.”
Doctors told this to each other in my presence over and over again, yet I was still alive.
Over the next few weeks the inflamed part of my face burst, and the swelling went down to my neck and eventually disappeared. I got out of the hospital with a big scar on my left side of the head next to my eye. I still have this scar.
This experience taught me that all we have is today. Any day something really bad can happen and everything can end. So you have to push the boundaries while you can, while you still have time. Now, I was even more determined to change my life completely.
I tried to improve my chances one last time before leaving Russia. I tried moving to Moscow to seek more professional opportunities.
I called Gyulya, the best friend of my father, the woman in honor of whom I was named. She lived in Moscow and I told her I wanted to try moving to Moscow for professional reasons. She said, “Come to Moscow and we will figure things out.”
Gyulya and her husband ran a very successful real estate business that included flipping apartments. When I arrived she allowed me to live for a few months in a derelict apartment they bought to flip. This apartment was unused as she only planned to start renovations in a few months time. And she could not rent it out because it was in an unlivable condition.
There was no bathtub or shower, no refrigerator, an old dirty couch with bed bugs and so much dirt and dust that only a major renovation could help. It was the kind of apartment you see in movies when homeless people occupy an abandoned house.
Prior to agreeing to stay in the apartment Gyulya was offering, I tried to rent a room with more acceptable living conditions. I went for help to a property agency to find a rental. They took my $50, which, given I was making $2.5 per day at the time, was a lot of money for me and they turned out to be a fraud.
I could not risk spending more of my savings on fraudsters so I agreed to stay in Gyulya’s place. I thought I was strong enough to survive that environment.
To bathe myself I needed to buy a plastic bucket and heat the water with fire. A tub in the kitchen, the only place to get water, was clogged and I could not unclog it. Living there was a fairly tough experience. I somehow expected more support from a close family friend. I was living like people you read about in the poorest developing economies.
Russian citizens outside of Moscow needed a special residency permit to legally live and work in Moscow. I did not have this and hence could not find employment. I eventually managed to get a paper that allowed me to be legally in Moscow. Believe it or not, even though I was a Russian citizen I was not allowed to be in Moscow unless I had a permit.
But the permit did not help with my employment prospects. Employers needed a “propiska” with one’s name listed as the owner of an apartment or a house. And I was in no position to buy an apartment. So I left Moscow after a few months and returned to Samara.
Moving out of Russia at that time was not an easy thing for a young woman. I had little money and a music diploma. It was not possible for me to get a visa to developed countries like Canada, Australia or UK without a sponsor. The US was completely out of the question.
Even though I left Russia and had plenty of scary experiences it is important to realize that I do not dislike Russia. I am Russian and I genuinely like and miss Russia. I also did not want to leave because of my family. My sister, parents and brothers are still in Russia. I am actually considering buying a summer home there so I can spend more time with them.
It is just that, at that point in time, very few opportunities existed there. The country was in financial ruin and it was very hard to move forward in life. I had tried to move forward and nothing worked.
After much research I realized it was possible to get a visa to South Africa. I received a 3-month visitor’s visa and arrived in Johannesburg with all the money I had saved, $1,000.
Initially I lived in a tiny room with cockroaches but I was happy, as I knew I was moving up in the world. I offered piano, Russian and singing lessons and provided Russian translation services. This generated enough income to pay for rent and food.
I chose not to try joining the local music institutions or orchestras because I had already decided that music was not for me. Business was my future.
The culture shock was considerable. Before arriving to South Africa, I had never seen an automatic banking machine and never been to a large supermarket. Samara at that time was a large but poor Russian city and we did not have many modern things.
I had also never tried cappuccino. In fact, the only coffee I ever tried prior to South Africa was instant coffee. The first time I tried cappuccino I could not believe that something could taste so good.
I also never had a credit card and did not know how to use online banking. When I was growing up my family and friends’ families stored money in the back of the refrigerator or under the cover of the kitchen table. Those were our bank accounts.
So I was learning fast about Western life, and I was learning English at the same time. My English was not good.
I struggled to find a legitimate job since I knew little about the West, I had no business skills, I did not speak English well, I did not have a car and I had a music diploma from an institute respected in Samara, Russia but unknown in the West.
I also realized that in the West, the word diploma is seen as less prestigious than the word degree, which made my music education even less relevant during my job search.
I tried to get my diploma accredited in South Africa but the South African accreditation body could not find my school in their database. Since it was taking between 5 and 7 months to get a response to just one written query, I suspected this could be a long process that may eventually never succeed.
So I tried to succeed without leveraging my piano background. I had little other choices.
After spending a few hours per day searching for a business job for 8 months, I had some very bad interview experiences that included being locked in a small room in the back-office of a gasoline station during an interview gone horribly wrong.
Just, at that low point in my life, things started improving just a little.
Despite being initially declined for the role, I ended up working as a front desk receptionist at a small manufacturing company that served the defense industry.
Yes, I was even declined for that role at first.
It was a pretty exciting place to be because we served very high profile clients such as the leadership of National Police and Armed Forces around the world. I learned to be very responsible and to work long hours.
After my day job was over, I took over other tasks such as renegotiating purchasing contracts and putting together product catalogs.
I approached that business as if it was my own. Whatever had to be done I did it, often without being asked. Everything from cleaning the office before client visits, to carrying heavy mail from the post office by foot since I did not have a car, to negotiating contracts with suppliers, to designing catalogs. I did it all.
I never behaved as if this small company deserved any less than the very best from me. I did not act like any role was beneath me.
The salary was not great, only ~$500 a month, but I had a foot into business and I was learning. I recall many days counting coins to decide if I should buy lunch. Some days I could only afford one piece of bread.
I learned not to be intimidated by my junior title and to always drive for results. I took the initiative of renegotiating prices with hundreds of suppliers, and driving the cost-of-goods-sold down by 25%. Within one year I became the owner’s right hand person with a much broader portfolio of responsibilities. He is a really kind and good-natured man.
I learned to respect my ability and believe in myself. I think this really helped me later on in my career.
While working for the manufacturing company, I started my part-time undergraduate degree in commerce and economics at the University of South Africa. I was 25 at the time: one of the world’s oldest undergraduates.
I knew that the only way I would succeed in business is if I had another degree, recognized in the West and in business.
It was sad to think that all my music experience, being an ambassador for the Russian Federation and attending an elite music institute were not going to help me much.
I studied at nights after work and a few hours on weekends, as I worked full time on weekends teaching the piano and translating documents into Russian.
I would study with my dictionary, as I did not understand most of the words. I still remember my first year economics book, with Russian translations written in pencil above almost every word. So reading and learning was very hard and time consuming.
Each task took me at least 3-4 times longer than my peers.
Exams were the worst. It would take me 3-4 times longer than an average person to read the exam. At the end of exams I‘d write, “I am not a native English speaker. Please excuse my mistakes.”
When I received the results of my first exams, I was very surprised. I was initially afraid I would not pass. Instead, I was at the top of the class of about 400 to 600 people.
By chance, I was invited as the guest of a guest attending a dinner sponsored by several companies, including a major international consulting firm. I was not directly invited despite my stellar grades since my undergraduate degree, which I was still to complete, was from a non-target school.
I just so happened to end up sitting next to the local managing partner of the major international consulting firm. We ended up having a conversation about my background. He was very interested in my music background.
This is ironic because my music background had not been useful at all in any prior job searches. I later learned that in consulting my strong music skills were seen as my spike. Consulting was the only industry that deemed this attribute to be my asset.
He asked me about my plans after university and I mentioned to him that my goal was to go into strategy consulting. He invited me to come see him to discuss this further.
I shortly thereafter met him in his office. He offered me a chance to start out at the firm in a junior research role, a non-consulting role with no route to the professional path. I still did not have a degree. I accepted on the spot. This was the best shot I was going to get in life.
There was nothing to think about or negotiate.
Next, I went through a slow and frustrating recruiting process. I had a second interview with another senior partner, which I thought was a formality. Then I did not hear from the firm for a long time. I was very disappointed when nothing happened.
I knew my lack of a degree and age was a problem. Despite being ignored, I persisted and kept following up with the recruiter.
Eventually, the recruiter returned my call and offered me a part-time temporary research role. I don’t remember the details of that job offer but it was so far and away from the research role I had discussed with the managing director, that I declined the offer.
I remember the recruiter telling me on the phone how unqualified I was with my music diploma, and partial commerce degree, for any consulting positions. She mentioned consultants have degrees from outstanding schools and usually join as analysts at the age of 20 to 22.
I wrote to the managing director explaining to him that I was very grateful for the opportunity to join, but I was only offered a temporary part time job and I was looking for a career, not to make some extra money.
I was very polite, respectful and professional, yet very firm about my worth. Moreover, I could not leave my full time job for a temporary part time job. I still had to pay my bills including my tuition fees.
He immediately got back to me, apologized for the recruiter’s behavior, and I was offered a full time permanent position to be the most junior person in the back office research team.
I was still trying to complete my degree.
Becoming a strategy consultant
I was as junior as anyone could be at the firm. Although it is rarely mentioned openly, no one respects the research department, relative to the consultants, and I was the most junior person there.
I did not join the main research team publishing studies and receiving media attention. This was a smaller local internal team producing desktop research to support consultants on projects in that one office. We would mainly review industry reports, summarize trends and produce fact-packs in word documents.
I sat in this tiny open plan office in the far corner of the building.
Consultants who attended the formal induction, an introductory 2 days for all new recruits, would try to avoid me when they found out I was joining this research department. One analyst would not even return my greetings in the hallway once he realized I was part of the research department.
Yet, I was happy because I was in. I knew I just had to showcase my abilities and I believed I would find a professional strategy career path to partnership.
Two weeks after joining I tracked down a partner who was helping a large multinational financial services company enter the Eastern European market. Knowledge of the Russian language and culture was the one advantage I had to leverage and I was going to use it.
I asked him if I could help him on this project, after my normal working hours and in my free time. Since I would work for free and he need not worry about having to talk to the research unit partner to pull me away from my current commitments, this made it easier for him. He agreed.
I worked at this during every free waking moment I had and was eventually leading big parts of analyses due to another consultant on the study falling behind on his work because of over-commitments from his side.
And I did a great job on the analyses, making the partner look good. A few weeks later he made me an offer to join his team full time. I was already running key parts and he could not risk me being moved away from his study.
I moved from being a junior analyst in the research unit to becoming a business analyst on the strategy study.
This project grew to become a pivotal study for me and the firm. And the analyst who started ignoring me after induction was reporting to me just a few months later. I was promoted from analyst just 12 months after joining the firm and then promoted again to a more senior role in 5 months, at which point I was at the same level as consultants joining with an MBA.
So I was promoted twice in 5 months and 3 times in 17 months if you count the transition from researcher to business analyst. In fact, after I was promoted I was on track to make project leader within a year or maximum two years given the success I was having on my studies.
This really taught me the importance of just getting the job done. This became a pattern for me. I would routinely be placed on tough studies and aim to do the best possible work. That is all I worried about. I rarely socialized and almost never networked. I mostly worked and that was my reputation.
I was probably one of world’s few consultants without a degree – I was still studying part-time. Luckily I still had my music diploma. That helped a little when people, especially clients, asked about my background.
Finding time to study was difficult. I would leave home at 5am, drive to the office to beat the traffic and study in the parking lot for 2 hours before going in. I usually worked late, sometimes until 2am in the morning so most of my studying took place during those very early mornings in the parking lot and on weekends, when I could carve out some time away from my project work.
What made it harder was my commitment to have a distinction in every exam. Ultimately, I managed to graduate with a distinction in every exam. I also received some personal letters from professors and department heads thanking me for my commitment and contributions. But it was a journey of blood and sweat.
The Eastern European financial services project was now gaining lots of momentum and was very important to the firm and senior partners. We went on a “road show” in Russia and South Africa to meet with potential investors and strategic partners, on behalf of the client. These included the former finance minister of Russia, CEOs and senior executives of major banks and other prominent leaders in Russia, the UK, Australia and South Africa.
Eventually, it was time to meet the client’s CEO. The CEO was one of the wealthiest men in Africa and the UK, an owner of multiple companies in various countries and a close friend of Nelson Mandela. They were so close that Nelson Mandela lived with the CEO at some point in his life.
The CEO invited us, and his entire executive team, to his hotel to discuss the project.
During that day, the CEO spent a lot of time with me. He, and his wife, invited me to come over for dinner while none of my colleagues were invited, and it was clear he wanted to build the professional relationship further.
I think he appreciated that I approached a conversation from the angle of what was important for him, and addressed his key concerns and the apprehensions of his team. I tried to be extremely professional and place the firm and client first.
I was 26 years old and I was at a point in my life where I wanted to be professionally.
Being a Woman in Business
The first time I delivered an important client presentation, I did very well. This was for a multinational financial services company trying to enter Eastern Europe.
When we walked in for this board presentation, the board of directors were unfriendly towards us. The board did not really think we were doing a great job and were openly skeptical of the advice we were providing the CEO and his management team.
One director, just before the presentation started, asked us, “How do you know the female market will want to spend money to buy our product, which would be considered a luxury good in Russia?”
The room went very quiet. Given the nature of the question and tone, no one knew how to respond. We were a little taken aback by the immediate and blunt questioning. Given the silence, I took a risk. I looked at the board member who asked the question and said, “Have you seen my bag?” and I lifted my Burberry bag up. Everyone started laughing. That broke the ice and that was it. The atmosphere in the room completely changed.
The lesson here is not to become offended, hostile or try to educate the client. Not everything is personal and you need to lighten the mood. Rational answers do not always work. So I left my ego at the door and just tried to build a bridge to the client.
This was another moment when I realized that sincerity and honesty was my genuine approach to building strong relationships with CEOs and senior executives. I found it easy to do because I had nothing to hide. By making my flaws a central part of my personality, I never worried about my image.
Also, people respect you when you respect yourself. That was another important lesson I learned very early.
I was proud of my achievements because generally a business analyst, that was my title at the time, was not allowed to present to the board of directors of a major client.
I went on to deliver the first part of the presentation, which was the largest and most important part. I spoke about the opportunity, the industry outlook, incumbents and the female market segment we recommended the client to initially target.
Thereafter, the project leader took over to talk about the financial implications and the partner finalized the presentation.
The two partners who attended the meeting were thrilled. It was a very successful presentation. On the way back, in the car, one partner said that I am a great asset to the firm. The other partner said, quietly but I could still hear it, “Yes, with a great ass.”
The project leader was sitting with me in the back seat. The next day he asked if he could speak with me. He took me to a conference room and closed the door. He looked at me for a while and then said, “You need to take action. What the partner said about you was unacceptable. If someone said this about my wife, I would be very angry.”
I smiled and said to him that I appreciate that he is looking out for me but I like that partner and I will not take action because it will be bad for his career. Everyone makes mistakes. I am sure he did not mean to offend me.
I went on to work with that partner for the duration of my career at the firm. He brought me along as the only presenter to key meetings with high-level executives and supported me throughout my career with the firm. He was always professional. When I resigned, he wrote me a recommendation letter that many people told me was the best recommendation letter they had ever seen.
I had not gotten upset. I knew it was not personal. And my ability to not take to heart the occasional sexist comments that others may find offensive helped me focus on what mattered, results on projects. At the end of they day, the most important thing is that you deliver. If clients and leadership love you, you will rise in consulting.
I had made lots of mistakes too and was thankful others had not overreacted to them. It is important to think about the big picture and not throw a tantrum for every perceived slight.
There are also times when being a female gives us an advantage. I could get away with being incredibly honest since it appears to be easier to accept such feedback from a female. This is how I built my leadership style of being polite, friendly, hard working and never misleading. If I gladly accepted the advantages, I should not cry bloody murder about minor disadvantages.
Yes, some people discriminated against me, but other people preferred to work with me versus male colleagues. Later, when I became a banker, there were numerous times when clients would ignore the more senior banker on the team during meetings and would openly favor me. I think they liked that I was honest. I would never ever imply something that was not true.
Even when it could get me into trouble, I would not lie.
I think in life you have to play the cards you are given. Being a minority has its advantages and we should use it.
The Ivey MBA Experience
While I loved South Africa, I also realized that to move ahead I needed an MBA. I also wanted to work in a major Western economy and study at a major school.
I went to Canada and tried out some start-up ideas while still trying to wrap up my undergraduate degree. One business did quite well and after several pivots ended up thriving.
As soon as I finished my last five undergraduate exams in November 2010, I was eligible to apply for an MBA. I could not apply until I had the degree because it is a requirement to have an undergraduate degree.
I tried to write the online trial-version of the GMAT on the day of my last exam and scored around 350-360. The score was not a total surprise since I did not have a very strong math background and my English was weaker than average.
After 6 weeks of solid practice over December and January I nearly doubled my GMAT score. Colleagues tell me that, according to GMAT, I had the biggest improvement ever recorded over a 6-7 week period.
I do not know if this is true but since I was starting off a base of 350 it’s not something about which I feel especially proud.
I also started my applications to business schools while studying for GMAT and I was working full time at another consulting firm. So I had a huge workload with too little time.
Having been in consulting, I wanted to study at a school with a case-based model. The case method made a lot of sense to me because it forces you to get involved and to pay extreme attention so you can contribute and do well. It also forces you to make fast decisions with limited information and defend your decisions.
I also wanted it to be a one-year program. I had started too late in life to unnecessarily lose 2 years. I was now 29 years old.
Only Harvard, Darden, Richard Ivey and IESE Navarra offered 100% case-based courses. Yet, only Ivey offered a one-year program and I was not keen to live in Europe given the economic situation. Learning English was hard enough so learning Spanish did not seem appealing to me. I was still learning English. So I applied to Ivey.
I applied to several other business schools just to be sure of getting in since I was applying during the final rounds for most schools. Most schools offered me extremely generous scholarships but Ivey offered only a small scholarship for academic excellence since I applied so late that major scholarships had already been awarded. I still selected Ivey and joined the program in April 2011.
I selected the Ivey Business School because I wanted to work and live in Canada. The school had a reputation for producing most CEOs, bankers and consultants in Canada and it seemed natural to join such a leadership factory.
The case method turned out to be the right fit for me, as I predicted. I really enjoyed it. The most valuable outcome of going through a case-based MBA was honing of my decision-making skills.
As we got to the end of a case, professors would often ask students to vote on what they would do. We had to make quick and important decisions with limited information. I often held a minority view, sometimes I was just one of 2-3 people out of the class of about 60 people with this view. And yet I cannot remember one time I was wrong. This made me feel more confident about my business judgment.
My main worry going in was that my emerging markets background would not give me insights about Western business issues. Yet, that did not seem to be an obstacle for me.
At the beginning of the MBA my finance professor said, “We understand that it is humanly impossible to read everything we assign.” I decided that maybe it is humanly impossible for the average person, but I am not willing to settle for being average. I committed to reading and studying everything they assigned.
I was determined to make the most of that year and to learn as much as possible.
My English was still not as strong as that of an average MBA so this commitment was difficult. But I managed to stick to it. I read every case, book and article assigned to me. I never cut corners.
I, naturally, barely had a social life and probably attended three social events the entire year. I rarely networked and focused on grades and major leadership roles.
I was spending basically all my money on this degree and I did not want to waste it. There was a point during my MBA when all I had left in my bank account was $76. So I had to make sure I would get everything I could out of that MBA.
While at Ivey I was president of the public sector club and editor-in-chief of the public sector journal. The idea behind that club was to help MBAs understand the thinking and strategy behind how governments, and government owned organizations, could become more successful.
I was inspired by my interactions with the South African government, one of the friendliest and effective governments with whom I ever interacted. Many people are surprised when I say this but when you consider the daunting challenges they face and their incredibly limited resources, what they achieve is remarkable.
I also saw the power and tremendous positive influence some government run companies had and this made me interested in public sector best practices and how governments could improve.
I was very much interested in the leadership side: What does it take for a CEO to run a major company with limited capital and unlimited demands from citizens?
The biggest lesson I learned from my involvement in leading the public sector club is that leadership has to be done in a sustainable way. Because when I left, everything in the club died.
This is because MBA students do not want to join and nurture clubs that are focused on research and thought-leadership like a journal. They want jobs and will join clubs that will help them get jobs. I also found it hard to get support from the club committees. In many cases I just went ahead and did things due to the slow bureaucracy.
Sometimes in life you just have to do what you believe is right even if it makes others unhappy.
That is a lesson I learned from my grandfather.
Despite my still relatively poor English and having to translate hundreds of cases, I graduated with distinction in every subject and on the dean’s list. I was happy to have done so much in just one year. It made everything seem worthwhile. I remain a very proud Ivey alum and highly recommend the school.
It was hard to figure out where to go after my MBA. I was drawn back towards consulting because I loved my previous work.
Once again, a chance encounter changed things for me. I was leaving a class and my finance professor inquired where I was going after graduation. I said that I was planning to return to consulting at my original firm. He said that I should go into banking. He said that I have the mind to succeed there.
I respected this finance professor immensely. He was a really strong teacher, the head of the finance department, and an amazing person who cared about his work and his students. I thought to myself that when I was in consulting I enjoyed working on banking studies the most and maybe an MBA is a bridge to try out banking to see if there is a fit.
I interviewed with several banks. I remember in one interview with one of the largest banks in Canada the interviewer kept asking me if bank x, her bank, was my first choice. She kept coming back to this question because I would only say it was “one of my top choices.” I could not say it was my top choice because it was not true. I ended up not getting that role but that seemed fine to me.
I felt that getting this job was not more important than protecting my integrity. Marvin Bower taught us that there is no reason to have values if you are not willing to make sacrifices to uphold them.
I selected a rival bank and a role within corporate finance because of the Vice-President who interviewed me. I was drawn to work with him because he appeared to be, and he truly is, an authentic leader who meant well and who saw great potential in me.
I was offered the job during the very first interview, which was unusual and I accepted it, withdrawing from all my other interviews before even seeing the counter offers.
I never worried about completing the other interviews to compare salary offers. I was always judging the people and the opportunity. This is something I always do.
Banking turned out to be very process-driven and working with the senior banker who hired me, as well as with his outstanding deputy, was the only highlight of my time in banking. I learned much about financial analyses etc, but I missed being creative in solving clients’ problems. I had good relationships with my colleagues and clients but I did not enjoy the work.
Despite this, I did well in banking. I was promoted just 6 months after joining. However, when the senior banker who hired me left the bank to join a competitor, I knew it was time to return to management consulting, which I did just few months after he left.
Leaving banking was not as difficult as my first entry into consulting as a junior research analyst in the back office. At that time I had no degree and nothing much to offer besides my work ethic.
I now had 2 degrees and had consistently graduated with distinction. I had been promoted far ahead of peers in both consulting and banking, and had served as the editor of a journal.
I had a strong record with little to prove.
Shortly before I left banking, my earlier work for the Public Sector Review was starting to get more traction, especially my ideas on leadership issues. This was surprising since I never promoted the work or discussed it much after I left.
I generally tried to stay away from publishing things. However, it seemed that several professors remembered my work. I was invited to publish a paper that became the cover feature piece of the Ivey Business Journal. That led to more opportunities in strategy.
Yet, after banking I joined the consulting practice within an accounting firm. Similar to my previous experience, I was referred by a partner. I went through 4 interviews and joined that firm at the management level.
This was a bit uncomfortable since all my colleagues from my MBA class who were at the firm were a level or two below me. No one was at my level. I was never sure how to handle this during interactions with my classmates, so I was very polite but kept conversations short and focused on getting the work done.
I felt I needed to work harder to prove I deserved the larger title.
The firm was understaffed and I was assigned to a major project on my first day. Because of my banking background, I was assigned to the financial services team. My clients were major banks and other financial institutions.
My new role was far removed from my prior strategy consulting work, so while I genuinely enjoyed the culture and company of my colleagues, I missed working on more hard-hitting executive issues. You know, the issues that kept CEOs up at night.
At one point I was staffed on two projects at the same time since firm did not have sufficient resources.
This turned out to be a particularly stressful period, despite phenomenal leadership and support from project director who was running both projects. Due to years of prolonged stress and long work hours my immune system became particularly weak at this time. I have never actually taken a vacation, beyond just a few days off, in my entire life since I left Russia. Given how far behind I started, and with so many disadvantages, I generally worked through weekends, Christmases and so on to catch up. I still do that since the fear of failure is ingrained in my personality.
At this time, I became very ill. I had to take time away for treatments and it was a very difficult period for me. A part of my body was paralyzed, and I needed to recover fast or it could remain paralyzed forever.
It was the worst Christmas I ever had.
Although I managed to almost completely recover, due to the side effects of the treatment, my hair started falling off. I joked with people that unless the side effects ended soon, I would start wearing wigs and they would see a new hairstyle every week until my hair regrows.
The hair loss now mostly stopped and they are starting to regrow.
I responded to this situation by deciding I wanted to do more important things and actually work on issues that matter. It was a similar wake up call to the one I had at age 16. Both times there was a very big possibility that my life was over and both times I realized I was on the wrong path.
Some people work less after a health scare, but I did the opposite. I went looking for a more impactful role because when I got sick I realized that if my life would end there it would be a waste. I felt I was on the wrong path. I was not on the path that would help me evolve into a person I intended to be or which would allow me do my life’s work.
I admire Firmsconsulting for being a pioneer. Empowering anyone who is willing to become an outstanding strategist and business leader is a powerful way to change the world.
An ability to think and communicate in a strategic, logical and clear way is a skill that sets people towards a path that they would never have otherwise had. Yet these skills are not readily available because former strategy partners don’t tend to dedicate their lives to passing along these skills. They usually dedicate their lives to advising a privileged few.
Most firms talk about making a difference, but when it comes down to everyday action you see them do the opposite. So this idea of making a deep impact resonated with me.
I wanted to be part of this opportunity to help people build life-changing skills and realize their potential. I also realized that knowing my story and background, people will feel more confident to fight to get a life they want. If I could lift myself out of poverty and overcome the obstacles I had to overcome, so can most people.
The impact of the work was my main reason for joining. I was still at a point in my life where I not only could work very hard, but I actually wanted to do so.
That does not mean that joining FC was an easy decision or it was easy to make the transition. It was very tough to make the transition since the standards are so high and the pace is so fast. This is a firm that never ever sets revenue targets. The discussion revolves around big issues that need to be solved and how we can best solve them.
It is expected that by having the best answer to the toughest problems, we will be rewarded. The reward is the by-product of this pursuit of the best answers to our clients’ problems. There is a relentless focus on working harder to find better and more efficient solutions. Yet, the long hours and effort is worthwhile given the impact we want to make.
Like every other role I took on, I simply rolled up my sleeves and did the work. I earned my stripes the hard way. I got things done.
Old ways of mentoring leaders are outdated. They are too elitist. They do not appeal to millennials or a more digitally interconnected world. I knew I needed to develop a new approach to get better results.
I, therefore, lead the High-Performance Leadership Initiative and the Corporate Finance practice. For the former, my job is to ensure leaders are able to get up in the morning and have the energy, skills, desire and abilities to get the job done.
It is really that simple. I operate on a simple philosophy. The leader must know the steps required on Monday morning at 8am and be in an optimal state to execute those steps. I also take the lessons of what makes leaders succeed and teach this to our Executive Program clients via Firmsconsulting TV.
As consultants we tend to assume the executive team will take the strategy and make it work. Well, the problem is you can have a successful company with a successful strategy and a burnout leadership team. No one seems to worry about whether or not the CEO is enjoying the experience and growing as a leader. That is my job.
Such crucial things as prioritizing, setting goals, figuring out what is your life’s work, building relationships, sleeping well, eating well, managing stress, communicating, setting deadlines etc., are often ignored by leaders. We assume they will be done correctly, but when they are not, there is no mechanism to effectively deal with it.
During my career I saw many executives having heart attacks, strokes and battling other stress induced health issues. I also noticed the majority of them appeared 10 to 20 years older than their biological age due to demands of the job. Sustainable leadership is a subject that is usually incorrectly addressed or not addressed at all.
The starting point of sustainable leadership is not whether the strategy is sustainable. The starting point is whether or not the leader’s lifestyle is physically and emotionally sustainable and conducive to his or her development and well-being.
I always ask executives if they are living the life they want to live. If the answer is “No”, then how is this sustainable? How is this beneficial for the company or for the individual?
While I apply all the strategy analyses principles we teach, my role is a lot about listening. Consultants tend to tell. Motivation is different. I need to listen, reframe what is said and get the leader to see the way out.
If I just analyzed the problem and left a fancy report, it would not lead to the executive doing anything differently. I am successful when the client takes action and that action leads to a better result.
We teach a concept called authentic leadership. We find that most leaders take too much time to create the perception of perfection. They do not want to appear weak, lacking in skills or lacking in knowledge. What we find in our work is that those leaders create a barrier around them to hide these flaws. However, the act of creating a barrier results in them being cut off from sub-ordinates and employees.
They become distant.
The bigger problem is that by hiding the weakness they can never use it to connect with or motivate employees, suppliers or clients. This connection is counter-intuitive but can occur because what may look like a flaw to them is actually a great strength when used appropriately.
By hiding a flaw they also never have the freedom to fix it, due to the danger of it becoming known to all. Over time, this can become debilitating and stifling. It can wreck careers.
You can see authentic leadership through my biography. I am not ashamed of my past and the path I took. Women, in particular, believe that discussing their experiences means they are flawed. It is not a weakness to clinically analyze one’s journey. It was not my fault I was born poor and assaulted. I will not be defined by those experiences. I have no regrets.
This is whom I am and I am proud of where I have arrived. I made some mistakes and could have done some things differently, but I believe everything I have experienced can be leveraged to help leaders succeed in business and in life.
Succeeding in business is self-explanatory. By succeeding in life I mean leading a life that is happy, fulfilling, full of joy and vitality.
The life where you don’t wake up one day realizing your children and spouse hate you for neglecting them or that parts of your body are not moving and you appear to have a stroke due to prolonged physical exhaustion and stress, or that you wasted your life building someone else’s dreams and neglected to build yours.
We get in life what we have courage to ask for. And I am here to support you in summoning the courage to ask for the life you want to live, deserve to live and are entitled to live, and then help you get it.
If I could do it, you can do it.