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  • Writer's pictureDima Syrotkin

Leadership lessons from the Power Plant CEO who met Margaret Thatcher

Viktor Polivaniy has led the Zaporizhzhia thermal power station in Ukraine (former USSR) as CEO for 20 years. The power plant was the highest performing power station in the world, attracting visitors from the UK, the USA, and Japan.

The UK representatives invited Viktor for a visit in England. For the occasion, he was staying at the house of Lord Marshall of Goring, who was then a leader in the UK's energy sector and strong advocate for the use of nuclear power. During the visit, Viktor was invited to meet Margaret Thatcher, whom he recalls being very hands-on and curious to know his secrets!

Viktor is my grandfather; he has always been an inspiration to me, but I only interviewed him 30 years later. Throughout his life, Viktor was regarded as a great leader, in his hometown of Enerhodar, Ukraine. Being a startup entrepreneur, I wanted to find out his leadership recipe. Leadership lessons from the USSR turned out to be more relevant than I could have expected:

1. Set goals.

Viktor leaned into the role of a leader early on. He set goals that he wanted to achieve. He dreamt of becoming a mechanic on the sugar refinery when he was younger than 14 years old.

2. Seek mentors & actually listen to them.

Viktor was lucky to have had great mentors throughout his life. Early on, he was elected as the Secretary (leader) of the Party Committee, which was a high post. At all important events, both the CEO of the power plant and the Secretary of the Party Committee gave speeches. As a Secretary, Viktor was mentored by The Second Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Communist Party (2nd highest position in the organization). The man's experience -he was close to 70 years old!- and his willingness to communicate and have ongoing conversations with the Secretaries allowed for qualitative transmission of knowledge between them. To learn from mentors, Viktor added, you must be able to listen and take shared wisdom to heart.

3. Behave like a leader & inspire by setting the example.

He was taught how a leader must behave: "No one should see you drunk, not even just on the street! If you really need to get drunk, drink underground in the cellar. Never raise your voice, never shout, never swear!", he insisted. Today, authenticity in leadership is appreciated, but moderation is still key. He also talked a lot about leading by example. You should practice what you preach. If you are asking something from your organization, you must be the first to demonstrate the desired behavior.

4. Seek leadership education.

Viktor attended two schools aimed at educating leaders. First, the Higher Party School, for 2 years, and then, the Academy of Social Sciences, for 1.5 years. The education there was holistic. For example, one of the things they were taught was table manners. How to operate three forks, three knives, and three glasses.

5. Make decisions quickly.

A leader must be able to make decisions quickly and without fear. If the leader is fearful or doubtful, the doubt and fear can spread to the whole organization. Only 3-4% of leaders have this quality, in Viktor’s experience.

6. Stand by your decisions.

A leader must stand by their decisions. Keep the course and accept responsibility for mistakes.

7. Trust your direct reports.

It’s important to trust your direct reports and it is crucial for the direct reports to be able to make decisions on their own. A leader must trust, delegate, and occasionally check. Giving more responsibility to your people enables their development, and promotes trust.

8. First impressions matter.

Viktor read all the letters and documents that were brought to him for signing and corrected all the mistakes. Small mistakes can create a bad impression of the whole organization.

9. Find a good secretary.

It’s crucial to have a great secretary. They must know how the responsibilities are divided among the directors and forward requests to the right person, instead of bringing everything to the CEO.

10. Prepare HR reserves.

It’s critical for the organization to prepare HR reserves. There has to be a list of people who are considered for a promotion, and they have to be educated. For example, in his organization, the leaders would give a certain case study problem for the people in the reserve 1-2 times per year. They had to write a report on their proposed solution to a theoretical problem.

11. Reflect.

It’s critical to analyze your decisions and behavior and find the mistakes you’ve made, so you can learn from them.

12. Regret and doubt can follow you no matter how high you get.

Viktor sometimes regrets that he didn’t become the Minister of Energy. He doubts if he would have succeeded.

My grandfather is now an old man, and I only very recently learnt about the story of his career, but I'm very glad to have had the chance to ask him about his experiences, and mostly, that he was willing to share his wisdom with me.


Thanks for sticking with me 'till the end! Except for my other commitments, I am a GrowthClub member who became a co-founder there. GrowthClub is a community of founders with an average of $5K+ MRR where founders exchange growth hacks and build genuine connections in 1-on-1 video calls.

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