Friday, 27 April 2007

Adapt, Learn Greek, Know Thyself

Venetia Kousia, Greek director of the head-hunting agency Manpower, unravels some of the mystery of the Greek labour market and explains how to win in it

Most repatriated Greeks and expatriate non-Greeks come to Greece for personal reasons, and turn to the labour market as a second priority. How can they maximise their advantages?

It depends on their priorities. If you are a lifestyle immigrant, scraping boat hulls in Kalamaki and writing poetry might make your day. It's different if you plan to support a family.

If you're in the latter category, it is important to learn Greek, partly in order to see things from the Greek point of view and become integrated, not marginalised. I can't come and say, 'I'm British, so I'll just look for work in St Lawrence.' What will you do when you meet Greek parents? Where can you go apart from St Lawrence? How will you learn from others? I'm not saying you should be a chameleon, but if you're not prepared to integrate you cannot succeed.

The Greek labour market is difficult for Greeks who have studied abroad and foreigners. Why?

It is the different culture. You have to be flexible. You can't just present yourself and say you're an expert. It's also a question of 'What do I want?' Do I want to enter a multinational company because I want to learn, or because I want my resume to say that I was at Toyota or IBM? Even if I wasn't a good employee people won't know.

What's the Greek attitude about working for a large multinational company?

There are various trends. The general social tendency is 'Let's get comfortable'. As times become harder, people have to try harder, but we're a long way from motivating ourselves to be better. Young people say, 'I paid so much for this postgraduate degree, when am I going to make it up?' Well, you can't make the money in two days.

We've seen that young people who've done a great deal of university study discover that a multinational company isn't what they thought it would be, or that their chosen profession isn't what they thought it would be. In Greece, the ambition is to find a permanent post. 

Why are Greeks so successful abroad?

Because they have broader horizons. Abroad people have learned that you put them on a track, so to speak, and they chug along. Whenever they encounter an obstacle, they stop and don't know what to do. The Greek has the opposite reaction. He won't ride on the rail. He goes hither and thither. So, if a Greek goes into a multinational company and actually has a manager good enough to keep him on track, because he has the ability to find solutions to problems, he excels. He is more creative. And whoever is creative lacks something in discipline. I often tell young recruits that the road to freedom runs through discipline and they look at me unable to understand that being tied to impulse is also a kind of bondage. 

What about the work ethic differences between the Greeks who have lived or studied abroad, and those who haven't?
It makes a difference to have worked abroad in a senior position, but it depends on the company and the individual. For instance, I know of some foreign-raised Greeks who went to work in a Greek public bank and were disappointed and left. I don't think the public sector can absorb foreign-trained people. You want to see the results of your work, but you are constantly overruled by the minister. You'll put up with it once or twice, but finally you'll say, 'I can't be a marionette.'

There are good cases, too, of people who were called into Greece to create startups or lead projects, and did so successfully because they didn't come in with arrogance but adapted to the local scene. No one likes arrogance, and the Greeks even less so. The successful people raised up their staff along with them, and I think that is an aspect of leadership.

What is the difference, in terms of work ethic, between Greek men and women?

Greek women, even today, haven't learned to be pushy when it comes to salary. In the UK, for instance, where single women are about 15 percent of the population and are thus main bread earners in their households, they learn to demand higher pay. Here, where women often work for pocket money so they can buy Gucci bags, they aren't. 

Pay is the same for men and women in the lower incomes, where everyone earns basic salary. But in career jobs, women earn less because they see their incomes as supplements to those of their husbands.
Then there is the question of what jobs women take - the less aggressive ones work in HR and PR and CSR. Few fight for the top jobs, which means that when an employer is choosing between ten applicants of whom only two are female, the odds are he'll hire one of the eight males. 

Is it an advantage to be good-looking?

I'm not, and I never found that to be a problem. The eyes have it. The soul ultimately speaks out. And if you're a good-looking flake, people will soon find out. I've heard of managers picking women on the basis of their legs. These things do happen. But they weren't picking a new CEO. They were picking promoters. Whom were they going to pick, ugly women? 

How do you connect the right sorts of people?

First of all, we filter out the lazy applicants.

But no one says they are lazy in their resume.

You can tell from the telephone screening; from their willingness to respond to questions; from how long they have been without work (for instance if a 25-year-old tells you they've been unemployed for a year because they couldn't find work, it's hard to believe it); from their willingness to submit to a three-hour office simulation. If it is summer and we call looking for applicants, many people have gone for a swim, to the cafe and so on. And in many cases people just turn down jobs.

Is there, then, real unemployment?

There is because there are people who don't even have basic skills. The labour market is a pyramid. At the bottom, where people have no skills, supply exceeds demand. Everyone wants to be at the top, where again supply outstrips demand. But in the middle, where companies are looking for competent middle management, there is enormous demand.

Why do we so often see young Greeks at the cafe with their cell phones, car keys and cigarettes, while Albanians paint their houses and pick their crops and often do multiple jobs?

The Greeks made money, didn't invest it and spent it farming out their work. We've decided which jobs we want to do, because we can afford to. A lot of parents have sold land and property to give their children a generous allowance equal to a gross salary of about 650 euros [a month] because they thought - wrongly - that their children shouldn't work. I think that statistically the children of educated, white-collar parents more often go out and work, while blue-collar children go to the cafe. Their parents have a lot of stress and work for their kids and sell off their property in the countryside. But this is coming to an end.

Why are Greek salaries so low compared to the rest of Europe?

I don't know why wage deals are kept so low. Greeks get by with two jobs and a measure of tax evasion (do all private tutors declare their income?). They have a dad bringing olive oil from the village and a mum looking after the kids.

What would you list as competitive advantages in the Greek career labour market?

First, if you try, you will succeed. Second, don't hide behind your degree. If you are asked what your favourite course was, be prepared to say. There is a lack of qualitative staff in the market, who can listen, learn and make a difference. Be yourself, but be flexible. Be confident in who you are but not arrogant, which means know what you cannot change about yourself and improve the things you can. Look to work at companies that share your culture and values. These are things you cannot adapt to. 

In a nutshell

The 5 key ingredients for success:
1. If you try, you will succeed.
2. Don't hide behind your degree.
3. Listen, learn and make a difference.
4. Be yourself, but be flexible. Be confident in who you are but not arrogant.
5. Look to work at companies that share your culture and values.

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