Valentina Kislaya. Founder and CEO of Phoenix Leaders
In an era of technology-driven social and economic disruption, leaders face an unprecedented need to adapt their thinking to future risks and unforeseen situations. They have to be technically and emotionally aware and be able to find a common language across different generations and cultures. A space has recently opened up in Cyprus where leaders and those who aspire to become leaders can develop the skills and resilience that they need in today’s dynamic environment. On top of this, the Phoenix Leaders project also offers a new way of networking with like-minded individuals.
Phoenix Leaders is a company founded in 2015 as the centre of excellence for leadership development. Today, on the pages of Premiere Business, a conversation with the project’s Founder – Valentina Kislaya.
Idea and creation
The name of the company, Phoenix Leaders, is very symbolic. Where did it come from and how did the idea of addressing this particular niche arise – after all, there are quite a lot of training companies out there now?
The name of the company directly reflects the birth of its concept. In mythology, the phoenix deliberately dies so that it can be reborn from the ashes. In the past this analogy has also been applied to mothers – they say that a woman dies and is born with every child. It also applies to people who change positions within a company. One day, you are an expert in your field and, the next you find yourself in a situation where you suddenly have to manage a team.
When we moved to Cyprus, our family experienced changes and I began my studies in leadership, where similar concepts of renewal and “change agility” were raised and discussed several times. Having seen a huge number of talented people here, whose ideas were not able to be realised because of the lack of centralisation, I felt compelled to create a place that would help to address the problem.
The Club building itself was chosen with these considerations in mind. Anyone who has grown up in Nicosia will tell you that it is very well known. In the 50s, it was a family home. It was then taken over by the CNA (the Cyprus News Agency), before falling into decay, which was when we bought it. During the restoration project, we sought to preserve as much as possible including the original metalwork, the stairs and the wooden floor, as well as the fountain at the entrance.
Everyone wants to have a place which they can call home and when you constantly travel, at a certain stage, you begin to understand that this does not necessarily have to be a house/hotel/office, but it can also be an atmosphere which offers a place for relaxation and, as well as an opportunity to discuss ideas in total confidentiality. This is the atmosphere that reigns in our Club.
What does the Phoenix Leaders concept mean?
Self-awareness, empathy and expectation management.
To date, the trainings available on the market (and which I participated in myself) have been fairly invariable and usually follow the same format: an “obligatory” PowerPoints accompanied by hand-outs. Then once the training is over, there tends to be no further additional support.
Our concept of training: despite the many changes which society has gone through, the human brain has remained comparatively much more static and we often react to change in the same way as our ancestors did hundreds of years ago. That is why all of the programmes that we provide are sector-agnostic because of their connection to neuroscience and cognitive pyschology. Instead of telling our clients what their employees are experiencing in a changing environment, whether positive or negative, we demonstrate it. For example, we ask them to do simple stretching exercises, which many actually initially refuse to do as it is out of their comfort zone.
The typical reaction to change is self-defence; one person might start to defend the status quo, whilst the other might just be afraid of appearing ridiculous to their colleagues. So, for example, when we – as leaders – ask our employees to install a new HR system and tell them that it will actually be advantageous for them as it provides transparency of the reward system, they have a similar reaction because our brain does not distinguish between “positive” and “negative” stress.
This is a very small part of what we do in our sessions. We also try to make our exercises as realistic as possible and base them on the real experiences of the participants. We want them to experience exactly what they are asking their employees to go through for themselves. When you want something from people you need to understand how it will make them feel. This helps develop self-awareness and empathy, and isn’t just a “let’s all stand and hug in circle” exercise.
The bottom line is that our brain is formed in a certain way and as such any change that we try to make within the company, will be followed by a reaction and this is perfectly normal; everything is very much connected to managing the expectations of your employees.
We have a business psychologist in our team because we’ve found that everyone, more or less, understands how a computer works, but when it comes to the brain, we have very little awareness. At The Club, we don’t adhere to the standard practises usually found in trainings, where everyone sits comfortably on chairs, much of what we teach is designed in a way which creates an experience that is relevant to the challenges participants are currently facing in their roles.
Our trainings are divided into modules, there is a module on self-awareness and there is a module on critical thinking because a large percentage of the feedback we received from top management was related to the fact that people who are promoted within a company and asked to make rather difficult decisions within the framework of this new position are not always prepared for this ‘step-up’, and their approach to data collection and analysis is not up to scratch. The third module is more focused on teamwork and team dynamics.
What is the main difference between Phoenix Leaders’ programmes and existing programmes?
The Club acts as a platform for our Members to network in an intimate and confidential setting as well as providing Members with the opportunity to meet international speakers in a relaxed atmosphere.
Another key area which we focus on is structured leadership training programmes. For example, our most recent training programme, “Shift Mind to Shift Gears”, explored the concept of “growth mindset”, which is still relatively unknown in Cyprus and which focuses on how we perceive changes in our lives and how, through conscious choice, we can train ourselves to perceive them in a completely different way.
The main difference between ‘growth mindset and ‘fixed mindset’ is that in the first case, you improve yourself, without focusing on your competition too much; while in the second, you constantly compare yourself to someone. When your internal focus changes, you give yourself opportunities to grow into a better version of yourself, and subsequently the perception of change becomes much more positive. In our experience, this module really resonates with HR directors. We also ensure that our programmes are aligned with the changes occurring in the professional industries, so it is more about using iPads than PowerPoint
Who are your programmes targeted towards? Is there something for middle managers?
Initially, the programmes were targeted towards members of the senior management team and, of course, HR directors. We have subsequently developed training programmes for middle managers, which is a key focus for us at the moment as this is the level within the business that can often be referred to as the “permafrost”.
Do you think that everyone possesses leadership qualities and that they just need to be revealed and discovered or is it still not inherent in all people?
When I was in leadership training, we were presented with a very interesting model: there are different types of leaders- those that lead from the front, those who lead from behind and those that lead from the sides. So, you just need to understand the type of person you are dealing with to understand his or her leadership capabilities.
What seminars and events enjoy the greatest attention of your club members?
In general, I would say that all of the activities that we organise here have been extremely popular to date. When we had a soft launch in February, the former Chief of the British intelligence services MI6 spoke at The Club, where he delivered a fascinating talk on leadership in critical situations. Prof. Costas Markides, a renowned professor of Economics at the London Business School, also visited us recently. In January, we are looking forward to welcoming Jules Chappell, the UK’s youngest ever ambassador who is currently working with the Mayor of London. Our most recent discussion focused on encouraging continual dialogue within a multi-generational workplace and was led by British Airways’ Chief Learning Officer, Nigel Jeremy. In general, I would say that all of the activities that we organise here have been extremely popular to date.
Do you have representatives from the Russian business community?
We do not focus on any particular demographic. For us, it is important that the membership base represents a cross-section of the Cypriot business community. When we invite people to our events, it is essential that they are interested in communicating with each other and we provide them with a diverse group of people to network with. I would say that this is a club for the Cypriot business community as a whole.
As a person who does not live in Cyprus, you probably notice the changes occurring more acutely when you come to the island. How do you see Cyprus in 10 years?
Whilst we were developing the concept of The Club, our market research showed that Cypriots, who study in the UK and the USA, are beginning to return home earlier than they did several years ago. They see Cyprus as a starting point for their business. I hope that, in 10 years, this trend will continue and that they will start coming even earlier, especially considering the efforts of the Cypriot Government to attract international business from different sectors of the economy. Cyprus’ geographical location is very convenient for doing business with a favourable tax regime; the future really is bright and the island has all the prerequisites to become a prosperous country.
What is your mission?
I’m probably an idealist, but I believe that it is impossible to be a member of society without giving back. Otherwise you become just like that relative who only calls when they need something. It is difficult to make society respect you if you arrive, take what you can and then leave. So, we are not talking about a sprint, we are talking about a marathon. Connecting forward-thinking people and making them discuss the issues at hand takes time which we have.