Leading a Business this dramatic escalation of a conflict that began 2014 sparked an ongoing war that has led to tens of thousands of deaths and the largest European refugee crisis since World War II. It’s been condemned by 141 countries as an unlawful act of aggression.
As the world marks the one-year anniversary of the invasion, we wanted to understand how businesses in Ukraine have navigated the last year. To that end, we conducted in-depth interviews with a diverse group of 10 Ukrainian managers and executives, representing industries including recruiting, IT, education, venture capital, health and fitness, agriculture, and oil and gas.
We asked them about their experiences leading in the midst of war, the challenges they faced, and the lessons they learned. Their stories — translated and edited for clarity — follow and shed light on several common themes.
When the threat of a Russian invasion became real in early 2022, Ukrainian software development company Ralabs began preparing. It created new HR policies in case employees were drafted, developed a detailed relocation plan for employees across eight different countries, and conducted employee trainings on working abroad, first aid, and how to pack an emergency suitcase. As employees were becoming increasingly stressed (especially when global media began predicting that if a war began, Kyiv would fall in a few days), the company made sure to complement its tactical resources with mental health support, co-founder and COO Roman Rodomansky told us.
Of course, the arrival of war shocked even the most prepared organizations. But our interviewees told us that after the Russian army retreated from Kyiv, they were largely able to adapt to their new reality. When Russian attacks targeted Ukraine’s power infrastructure, they quickly set up new workspaces equipped with generators and satellite internet. When employees had to relocate, employers offered support, training, and resources. To stay afloat while clients disappeared and revenues fell, leaders found creative ways to cut operational costs without laying people off. Many also described how they were able to build on the adaptability and resilience, particularly when it came to distributed work, that their teams had already demonstrated during the pandemic.
Our conversations made it clear that resilient organizations go hand in hand with resilient leaders. Personal resilience enables the quick decision-making, comfort with short planning horizons, and agility necessary to support a team through rapidly evolving challenges. As Yevhen Tytiuk, president of an oil and gas equipment producer, reflected, “To be honest, I’ve had some terrible thoughts. But now, I’m full of enthusiasm. Of course, we haven’t been able to maintain pre-war levels, and we’ve had to adapt a lot. But based on the volumes we have now, I think we’re going to be okay.”
The leaders we interviewed described a variety of coping mechanisms to help them recover from the trauma wrought by the war and fulfill their responsibilities to their employees, from openly sharing their feelings with their teams to carving out time for hobbies and friends to intentionally focusing on humor and optimism.
The leaders we spoke with found a shared sense of purpose in continuing business operations that were supporting the war effort by employing people and paying taxes; in volunteering and donating to medical relief efforts, refugee resettlement programs, and military support funds; and in developing products that could help everyday Ukrainians.
For example, CEO of ed-tech platform GIOS, Nataliia Limonova, shared that she started including a call for donations to a Ukraine relief fund when pitching her business to investors, enabling her to fundraise for her company while building international support for her country. Her emotion was palpable when she described seeing donations from fellow business leaders start to pour in.
GIOS was also one of several Ukrainian companies that chose to offer their products and services to Ukrainians for free. These leaders shared that despite substantial hurdles, a strong sense of purpose helped motivate and unite their people — even in their darkest hours.
The leaders we spoke with also described finding purpose in helping build the country’s future by retaining and developing talent, rebuilding the economy, and fostering new industries to fill the gaps left by parts of Ukraine’s economy, such as the agriculture sector, that have been severely damaged.
The leaders we interviewed consistently emphasized how empathy had become central to their approach, whether by offering financial support to struggling employees, insisting burned-out workers take time off, or simply listening to employees. One executive, who described regularly taking time to listen to his driver talk about his son, who was serving on the front line in Eastern Ukraine, joked that his role was similar to that of that a priest.
At the same time, the leaders we spoke with also noted the limits of empathy. Many reflected that unless they went through a similar experience themselves, they could never fully understand someone who had lost a home or a loved one.
The leaders we interviewed almost universally shared moments of deep gratitude in the midst of tragedy. They described how they would take just a brief pause to acknowledge the positives in their lives, giving them the energy, motivation, and optimism to carry on. Indeed, research has shown that simple expressions of gratitude can reduce stress, improve interpersonal relationships, and even boost physical health.