About 10 months ago I was invited to take the role of interim CEO in Nordica (the national aviation company of Estonia) and steer it through the reorganization process. I was initially not very keen to leave our freshly established Tea Estate and objectively I knew that stabilizing a distressed company would not be a smooth ride, but in the end, I found enough reasons to accept it. You can find my thoughts from then here.
After leaving my 11-year career in Lux Express behind and starting with our tea farm, I had been approached a few times by different companies, but I turned those offers down without much hesitation. What made this proposal different was that it was short term and in aviation. I started my career and matured as a leader in the airline business. Obviously, it had stayed "special" for me even after all those years I was away from it. Getting the offer to help the national airline was intriguing even though in general I still felt that I wanted to escape the lifestyle of the corporate HQ-s. In the end, what sealed the case was the trivial fact that this proposal was almost an exact fit with our schedule in Georgia - a project lasting less than a year, mostly during the winter months.
Photo: Martin Kirikal
But those months passed quickly and I am now back to the renegade ways again. Last Friday I cleaned my desk in the office and over the weekend packed up all my shirts and jackets again. The few suits (that I did not wear so often anyway) will be waiting for the next occasion in the far corner of my wardrobe. Nobody knows what the future will bring and sometimes the twists can be unexpected. When I first changed my office attire for rubber boots at the end of 2017, I for sure did not expect to jump back to the corporate C-suite just 6 months later. But while I have had absolutely no regrets that I did it the plan for the future is to stay away a bit longer.
WHAT DOESNT KILL YOU MAKES YOU STRONGER
For many reasons, I am happy about those 10 months in Nordica and for sure they will stay with me for long. Without going into details (maybe I will write a book about it one day:)), it is fair to conclude that I was not fully prepared for what was waiting for me. It has been one of the most thought-provoking and emotionally intense 10 months of my life. There were days when I left the office so emotionally exhausted that the only thing I wanted was to be alone and away from all the people, including my own family. There were days I was pissed as hell. And there were days when I left the office laughing out loud because the events during the day had just been so unexpected and sometimes surreal.
But there were many positives that I can take away from those months. Again, I learned a lot and I love learning. It was nice to be back in the aviation - the “sexy business” as it is often called. I also got to know many new people for whom I developed a great deal of respect during those months. And there is a satisfaction from the thought that despite the many challenges and also failures, we still mostly managed to complete the task we had to solve with the team.
I truly hope that Nordica will grow and prosper in the years to come. And I will cheer it from the sidelines.
I’M NOT QUALIFYING FOR THE OLYMPICS OF CORPORATE POLITICS
Looking back, I'm thankful that I was given this chance. But I also have to admit that I never got the feeling that I would like to stay long-term. There were legit reasons why I wanted to take a break from the corporate world in the first place and being back after a short while reminded me of those reasons on a regular basis.
There are always pluses and minuses. I am not expecting the renegade tea farmer life to be easier or less challenging than the big-business CEO life - as a matter of fact, you need to wake up earlier, the days are even longer and it probably pays less. But on the other hand, there are certain aspects that I am having sometimes difficulties to deal with working as a C-level director in a big corporation.
I can be extremely stubborn and single-minded and at times very competitive. But my drive and ambition are rarely centred on my personal gain or status. What pushes me is the dynamics of the team, developing cool new products or services, disrupting the status quo, getting people to say "wow". When I am really into something I become very focused, pushing towards the goal and pushing also others around me. I think that this is probably my biggest strength as a leader and also a major weakness. In my "focused mode" I find the corporate politics, "special interests" and personal power struggles rather frustrating and demotivating as it distracts the team from the main goal. Unfortunately, in every big company those corporate games are not fully avoidable and the higher your rank the bigger part of your time goes to deal with them.
BACK TO GEORGIA!
But whining about the well-known facts of life is stupid and I would like to believe that over the years I have actually learned to deal with "politics" quite well and control my emotions better. Though, being now 40+, I want to try something different. Time will tell if Renegade Tea Estate will become a success story. At the moment it is still just costs and a mountain of optimism that one day our efforts will be rewarded by people who like what we do and how we do it. Despite the difficulties, there are many layers why it is easy for me to relate to this project. The farmer’s life has attracted me since my childhood and the years in the corporate world have not been able to root it out. Also, the concept of redefining the "usual" or changing the paradigms is something that gets me up and going, so the goal to give Georgian tea a new lease of life on the world stage is extremely motivating for me.
But what truly makes me the believer of our Renegade journey is our small team and the goals we have set to ourselves. In general, I believe in a world where there are more entrepreneurs and less salaried "workers", more small teams, held together by common values and personal connections and less huge organizations held together by corporate guidelines and policies.
Being a “small business” entrepreneur, the company is not on the other side of the bargaining table and you don’t count the pluses and minuses. It is just you, your partners, your creativity and dedication. To succeed, you actually need to create real tangible value to others, being skilful at corporate board games is not enough. I like that :)