Alexander Lebedev is looking pensive as he settles into a chair in his Moscow office. “I’ve been thinking about the theme of our interview and I’ve come to some conclusions,” he says in flawless English. Oh, good. And what are they? Lebedev frowns. “I don’t have a management style and I’m not a good manager.” Hardly the opening Monocle had expected – or hoped for – but very little is predictable in the figure of Alexander Lebedev: ex-politician, businessman, newspaper magnate and one-time KGB spy.
His reception room is bland enough: chintzy curtains, a beige sofa and a few prints of the Kremlin under snow. Then, on a sideboard, something curious: “Oh, yes, those are penis sheaths from New Guinea,” says the owner of UK newspapers the Independent and the Evening Standard, picking up the smallest in a row of slender, decorated gourds. “Wonderful, aren’t they?”
His profile suggests a brash tycoon rather than an amateur anthropologist. Lebedev, 51, is chairman of the board of National Reserve Corporation, one of Russia’s most successful private companies. In March this year Forbes magazine listed him as the 44th richest person in the country with assets of $2.1bn. Yet Lebedev sees himself as a cut above the average oligarch that’s typically seen swigging champagne and mowing down babushkas in a Bugatti Veyron. His clothes, too, are more hipster than billionaire banker: a black shirt with black pencil tie, grey jeans and Converse trainers.
The image of a cultured contrarian, however, must conceal some business nous. Lebedev bought National Reserve Bank, a small Russian outfit, in 1995. Today it is the centrepiece of a large company which sprawls across Europe’s biggest potato producer to commercial airlines, a luxury hotel in Crimea, a property agency and the media holdings, which include Russia’s most biting opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.
His bank survived the country’s financial meltdown in 1998 and he emerged relatively unscathed from the recent global crisis. So what’s the secret? When pressed on his method of managing, Lebedev offers, “In some ways, the more efficient you become as a manager and the higher you go, the less attractive you become to me as a person.
“You have to run your business with a firm hand, which personally I do not like, because I’m afraid that it’s going to spoil me. I’ve seen a lot of rich guys who claimed, probably justifiably, to be good managers, and I couldn’t say I liked them really. They do a lot of rough talking, because you really have to be tough. Especially here [in Russia], where the attitude to hard work has been lost. So people really have to be reprimanded. People have to be under control permanently, have to be reminded that doing their job is obligatory.”
Most important, says Lebedev, is accepting your own limits and “employing people who have a better understanding than you on certain subjects, people who are faithful, who you can rely on. Because when you sit in your shop in the souk in Aleppo you control everything, the only risk is that you sell your spices too cheaply. Once you get bigger, though, you have to delegate.”
As an example, he describes Andrei Samoshin. “He used to be a sniper in Afghanistan protecting Pavel Grachev, the [Soviet] army chief,” Lebedev explains. “A lot of those veterans ended up in the criminal world in the 1990s so he rather surprised me.” The two met in the Tula region in western Russia and served for a few years together as federal MPs from the Fair Russia party. When they left parliament, Lebedev discovered his colleague was an agrarian by training, and took him on as CEO of his grain and potato business. “I’ve only achieved something in agriculture through good managers like Samoshin,” he says. Sometimes, he admits, his intuition lets him down. His German airline, Blue Wings, went bankrupt last year. The reason was simple, Lebedev says. “I chose the wrong people to run it.” (The management team blames him.)
How does he incentivise hard work? “I’m considering bringing in an employee share ownership plan, and there are other bonuses,” he says. Besides an annual New Year’s Eve party, however, he feels little need to meet large groups of employees. “I really can’t imagine myself dealing with hundreds of people on a daily basis,” he says. “I have a feeling I stop thinking. I’m much better in a distanced, strategic role.”
As for his newspapers, the former MP in the pro-Kremlin United Russia party claims not to bother the editors, making only the odd call to enquire about coverage. “I visited the Guardian a couple of times recently and the Independent asked why I hadn’t met them instead,” he says. “I replied, ‘You didn’t invite me.’” Lebedev says he believes passionately that the UK media can heal itself after the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World. Such subterfuge was “illegal and morally wrong”, but he warns against increased state regulation of the press. “Look at state control over the media here,” he says of Russia’s supine TV channels.
In the near future, he hopes to focus his energies on a fund for investigative journalism. One target will be sleaze in Russia. “With Novaya Gazeta I’m already shooting myself not so much in the foot; it’s worse than that, it’s both feet,” Lebedev says. The newspaper’s probing reports are constantly riling state officials who can threaten his business, he says. “But big ideas like this – to expose corruption – are much more important to me than the day to day management. This is my mission, to do something useful.”
What time do you like to be at your desk?
Pretty late. Say around 11. Because I really think a good sleep is necessary to keep in shape. And I need to do some sports, some reflection, meditation and thinking.
Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership, an MBA school or on the job?
An MBA is a good supplement, of course. A good measure of education is always handy. But otherwise it’s a combination of your character, your upbringing and the skills you learn from personal experience. That is, by committing mistakes.
Describe your management style.
Very hands-off. Very non-interfering. Concentrate on finding the right people. Pick the right person and let him do what he wants, rather than picking the wrong person and telling him, “Do that, do that and do that.” Because it never works. I know, I’ve made that mistake. I’m too soft.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
Well, I take all tough decisions by myself. First I listen, I listen, I reflect. But finally I take the decision alone. Luck and intuition play quite a big role.
Do you want to be liked or respected?
Probably respected. I do a lot of things which are a matter of defending a principle. People might not like that but they often respect it.
What does your support team look like?
I need a couple of secretaries to keep contact with the outside world. I don’t have personal advisers. I do have a group of 10 or 12 people whom I put together when I really want to do some brainstorming.
What technology do you carry on a trip?
iPhone and iPad. I don’t use BlackBerrys. But sometimes I like to get away for a couple of weeks with no contact at all. Too much information can get you confused.
Do you read management books?
No, I’m pretty ignorant on that. I’m not very impressed by this American science. I’ve read a book on Warren Buffett by a Russian author. It seems his style couldn’t really be applied in this country.
Run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
I do an hour and a half of yoga every morning. Sometimes I meditate or swim or use an elliptical trainer in the gym. No wine with lunch; it makes you sleepy. I’ve been socialising less, of late.
What would your key management advice be?
I think you need stamina most of all. You have to be able to bang your head against the wall 999 times before you get something right on the 1,000th try.