This spring it was found out that it takes 56,000 LEGO bricks to build an eight-meter-high model of the Titanic and that after more than half a decade, people still aren’t sick of putting together simple pieces of plastic. Sergey Kozlov, a graduate of ICEF and currently LEGO’s operations director in Seoul, told Success Builder why he likes moving, why the Christiansens’ family business doesn’t fire people, and whether or not he gets to play with LEGO bricks at his desk.
How did you end up interning in Denmark?
For this, you just needed excellent English, and in my case English is what made them approve my application. The company APV Heat Transfer, where I interned in Denmark, was always hiring employees from foreign offices, as well as students with double degrees.
Was this your first experience putting theoretical knowledge into practice?
Before the trip, I had worked a little at an APV dealer’s office in Moscow from summer 2015 until graduating in summer of 2016, but I went to Denmark with the clear intention of learning how to do everything right. Actually, I was somewhat disappointed because the company had a peculiar approach towards training new employees – the contradiction method. That is, they told you how not to do something. This is also learning, but not the most pleasant form. The most valuable thing from the trip was that I learned how to move from country to country easily and adapt quickly, which, as it later turned out, really comes in handy.
Was this job in the field you majored in?
Partially. When I arrived, I had a talk with the coordinator of my internship. He asked what kind of education I had. Economics and management, I said, to which he replied, okay then you’ll spend six months focusing on economics and the next six months working in the management division. But the coordinator decided to quit three days after I came to the office (not because of me, I hope), and I was offered his position. I had to forget about my major, dive headfirst into a routine, and handle everything at once.
How did you adapt to a different culture?
Adapting was hard for me. I went through all the standard stages like a textbook. At first it felt euphoric – I had moved to a European country, which is cool. But reality painfully rubbed my nose in it. For a long time I tried to view everything positively, but I’d regularly tear away and go home because I wasn’t making any friends in Denmark practically. In this sense, northern European cultures are very closed off. There, people have childhood friends and already established communities. It’s really hard for a foreigner to find friends. But I found support in talking with my colleagues at least.
What was the reason you stayed?
The main reason is that my wife is Danish. Towards the end of the internship we had a serious conversation about the possibility of moving somewhere else, but in the end they kept me at the company for another two years. It was interesting because the work wasn’t in my specialisation, and curiosity ended up winning. Then life took a sharp turn.
How did this happen?
The way that the most interesting things in life do – by accident. Things weren’t going great at the company and it was rebought. Everyone gradually started quitting and talking about where to apply. My wife once brought home a newspaper with an advertisement that read something like, an operation needs a manager who knows Eastern European languages and understands business processes. It was assumed that this person would be working with Eastern Europe and Russia. We laughed because the job offered everything that I wasn’t getting at the time and why I had thought so long about leaving. But I still sent my resume, and I was invited to an interview the next day. A day later I left for an interview with the head of LEGO. LEGO? Cool! By the end of the week I went to work with a contract in my hand, and on March 1, 2009 a fun life began for the family. I currently work in Seoul, South Korea, after working at offices in four other countries.
What position did you start at there?
It was a job that involved communicating with all employees involved in client interaction. In English it’s called an order manager. It’s really a mix of service, IT, demand management, logistics, and more.
How do they look for personnel at LEGO?
LEGO has its own philosophy in this respect. Education is always factored in, but it is not the deciding factor. They ask a few subject-oriented questions in order to see if a person knows what they’re talking about or not. The biggest emphasis is always on whether the employee and company are a cultural fit; that is, if the person has the behavioural characteristics and values that will subsequently help the candidate, as well as how suitable the person is for the company’s corporate culture. Managers have guidelines, and HR gives them to everyone who hires personnel. There are recommended interview topics, and cultural questions make up the bulk of them.
My boss and I are now friends, and he told me I was hired because by the middle of my interview he didn’t understand who was interviewing whom. For them it’s important that the person be open, curious, and educated in a broader sense, which is why during the interview they largely want to take a look at your personality traits and hear what your long- and short-term goals are, what your values are, etc. Also, quite a bit of time is often spent on a candidate’s views towards games and childhood. They sometimes pour out some bricks and ask you to build something or talk about how you spend your time with your children, if you have any of course.
As strange as it is, specific subjects didn’t come in handy right away, but only nine years later or so. All subjects related to accounting and finance become important for anyone in a management role. It’s also a plus that accounting at ICEF was British, which is very similar to European but very different from Russian. What’s even more interesting is that if someone had said in 2003 that at some point in my life I’d need econometrics, statistics, and the like, I would not have believed it. But now I think back to the lectures of Oleg Zamkov and Vladimir Chernyak so often that I have even found my old notebooks and use my HSE lectures notes at work. These two disciplines are irreplaceable in the field of consumer goods.
For me LEGO is like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. What does the company actually look like inside?
That’s precisely how it looks. All our offices are full of LEGO bricks, and it’s common to put something together during business meetings. The current product assortment is always brought into the office to occupy your hands during stressful moments. In order to get to my desk I have to go through the kitchen, a play station, massage chairs, and heaps of different bricks.
This doesn’t demotivate employees?
Where we work the freedom of choice is welcomed. We are all responsible for a certain aspect of work, and we determine what this aspect is. We don’t have fixed workdays, and if I want to work from home then I work from home. And no one will see if you step away to the play station in the middle of the day. The main thing is to get your work done. We are measured not by hours, but by results. The company works out its HR processes very clearly and rigidly, and they allow me, as a manager, to easily determine how productive my team is and provide them with feedback.
What is required of employees, and how is the success of these requirements measured? What is the overall hierarchy like at the company?
There are 10 levels at the company, and there are always just 10 steps between your ordinary factory worker and the company president. Once a year each employee is given certain goals for the year, and over half of these objectives are overall company goals. As a rule though, the higher up you are in the hierarchy the less individual goals you have and the large your contribution is towards the common cause. These common goals are more commercial – sales, profit, etc. Every manager is assessed based on how satisfied employees are with their work. They measure client satisfaction as well, and these metrics are used to determine the size of the incentive bonus – from 5% to 50%.
We use a practice called the People Review Process, which is when we evaluate all employees using effective behavioural parameters. This is a special test that determines an employee’s potential. This is how we see who is talented, who can think globally, and who has already outgrown their current responsibilities. This is a good way of allowing people who want to build a career to grow.
Is it possible for students to intern at LEGO?
Of course. We often take on student interns and work with universities because LEGO is a company that above all works for the younger generation. Kindergartens and schools do field trips to our office too. For example, here in Seoul students from the graduating class come and we hold a career day when we let them try out different work responsibilities in different departments. This helps them make a conscious career choice.
What sort of educational programmes exist within the company?
The company has a number of courses that are required of everyone – courses focused on understanding the company’s philosophy and ethics. Then there are at-will courses for which your manager can approve funding. There’s a wide selection, ranging from personal development to computer courses. For example, I’m currently training a girl from my team to be my replacement. The director of the office has hired a coach to train her in the most important way, which is from a psychological standpoint. This is the most difficult part of a career and it’s something that no other establishments train you on formally.
Did you go through any management training, an MBA maybe?
I’m constantly learning. I completed my MBA in 2014, and it was more of an emotional impulse than a business necessity. You learn surrounded by people who already understand what they’re talking about because it all concerns specific commercial concepts. An MBA programme puts a strong emphasis on leadership qualities and understanding the dynamics of working on a team. In this sense a business education is invaluable. I try to take seminars and courses at least once a year to stay sharp.
Are there LEGO building classes for employees?
Instead of a course, the company founders believe that anything you build will be great. This is our philosophy. We try to promote the ability to build not what’s necessary, but what you want. South Koreans have major problems with this, given that they fixate on formalized learning and people even ask if there are courses to teach your child how to play with LEGOs. We only have one answer: give the kid a box of bricks and walk away.
How is LEGO digitizing? Nothing can avoid this, even older things that seem to work.
The field of robotics has now become a key area for the company. For example, South Korea has a new law this year that coding is a required subject in elementary school, and children are introduced to basic coding at age four or five. My oldest daughter is in second grade, and the use of basic coding languages is a normal part of their curriculum, which is why new requirements have emerged for the development of all gaming infrastructure, and we somehow need to build our own policy around innovations while maintaining the LEGO-branded product. The company also has a separate segment responsible for sales through electronic channels. This is a different business model and involves different staff competencies. Electronic marketing on social media and online platforms is also a separate division, and having a presence there is no longer just the cherry on top, but a bare minimum. For example, we now have engagers on staff; these are people who interact with clients on social networks. There are also different digital partnerships, in particular our project with Samsung.
This process hasn’t turned out to be tragic for employees who are no longer needed?
You have to understand that our company is not public, but family-owned. Both management and the individual divisions pay a lot of attention to the staff’s well-being. People at LEGO are not fired, they are retrained and then they move forward. Additionally, managers and the company as a whole are passionate about the cube as a physical object of play, and this is how it will be so long as the ‘monarchy’ reigns at the company.
There have been incidents, but they are not connected so much with LEGO directly as with our partners – for example Shell in 2014. But overall LEGO, like any self-respecting European company, is socially responsible.
In 2017 we became the only toy manufacturer to maximally lower CO2 emissions. LEGO has invested huge amounts of funds to buying wind turbines, which are located in the North and Baltic Seas, and the company is trying to compensate for the losses we bring the world as much as possible. We produce more renewable energy than we consume.
Additionally, three years ago the company began a programme to search for a new material for bricks, and literally over the coming months we are getting new bricks made not from oil-based plastic, but from bio-based raw materials. This project is being carried out in partnership with a number of environmental organisations, and it is expected that by 2035 we will switch fully to renewable sources. Our office in Seoul has 50 people and occupies around 1,000 square meters of space, but it uses the same amount of electricity as your average apartment in Moscow. Everything has been optimised, and all packaging has long been produced from recycled cardboard.
What do your prospects look like? You haven’t gotten sick of moving?
My current position is Operations Director, and I’m responsible for forecasting demand, overseeing logistics, working with clients, and taking care of day-to-day operations. You’d think you’d be able to grow, but in my functional branch I’ve already reached the top, which is why I’m currently in a retraining program to pursue a different path towards general management – that is, managing the entire local office and not just a separate branch of it. I don’t even think about moving really; it might be hard the first, second, or third time, but it doesn’t matter after five or six. My spouse and I even like our nomadic life, and for the kids this is an interesting experience, and it’s an opportunity to see the world and get acquainted with different cultures.Interview on HSE portal >>