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Jonathan Knaus (Western Union): "I Can Never Work in the Environment Where I Couldn’t Laugh in"


Humor, in the opinion of Jonathan Knaus, Regional Vice-President for Eastern Europe ans CIS (On the date of publication, March 2009*), is very valuable in business. Also we speak about honesty and integrity - the values which are extremely important in the changing environment.

1. What are your other strong traits?

I have another feature which is a value of mine and which I think is also very important in the business environment - humor. First, you have to be able to laugh at yourself; second, you have to be able to laugh with others; third, you have to be able to create the right atmosphere. I love the phrase: "When you are very happy, when you are very successful in your life, you feel laughter in your soul". And that emotion of the laughter itself brings out a lot of positive emotions. You can't be angry if you are laughing, you can't be upset about something if somebody's telling you a joke and you're laughing. You have to feel also that sense of energy when somebody is making you laugh. Humor is fantastic! Although it may  sound strange if you say that humor is one of your key values, but at the same time I think, it has always been very important, I can never work in the environment where I couldn't laugh.

2. Why do you think humour is important?  

I love Russian people, I've been here for 18 years, and the Russian sense of humor is incredible: it's very sharp, it's very intelligent, it's very incisive, and at the same time it's quite directed at themselves. If you have the ability to laugh at yourself, you acknowledge that you have certain weaknesses, certain things which you do differently, and the humor actually diffuses the negative sides of the conversation. If you use humor you can look at the situation from the different points of view and that makes two people think about why this particular instance is so humorous for both of them and what actually may be learnt from that particular situation.

3. Could you recall any example?

We were making the presentation and seven Vice Presidents were competing to lead certain teams. There were forty people in the room with the whole team there. And I was the last to come up. Every Vice President said that he was the best one and everybody must work with him, and when I came up I said: "Well, we've talked about hidden traits, and here's my hidden trait". And I started to sing the song "Now or never" everybody to vote for me. And the whole place had just collapsed, but that was the only way for me to release the tension and have some fun..

4. What are other values you consider important being a leader?

The other value I would raise is integrity. Honesty and integrity - in other words doing what you say you are going to do. We see what is happening with different companies, different scandals around the world, not only in the US. The fact that in a crisis situation you find yourself pushed even harder to try to make the results, to try to cut corners, to say "Ok, what will we do to improve our financial reporting, not to show exactly all the bad things that we have in our P&L, our balance sheet or the problems we have in our business?" But at the same time integrity always comes back to haunt you. The fact that you, perhaps, would not present 100% accurate financial results or the change in the way you are dealing with your people, (when you start saying - that now you have a mandatory corporate code or offer a sick leave or vacation for employees), make people very quickly understand that what you are saying is one thing and what you are actually doing is a different thing. I believe integrity is even more important in times of crisis. It's very easy to be honest when things are going well, it is much more difficult to be honest and have integrity when you are faced with difficult situations. If you have a difficult situation and you have been asked a question, you have to answer honestly. And may be you will have to say that you are sorry and cannot discuss the topic right now or even that you do not know the answer.

5. Is it difficult to confess that you do not know something?

It's amazing that business people do not like to say that they don't know something because that seems to be a weakness, ignorance, lack of knowledge or lack of understanding of your business. The fact is however that nobody can know everything, similarly to the fact that nobody has any idea what will happen the day from now, six months from now, where the ruble will be, etc. Still this does not mean that you just sit back saying, "I do not know" all the time. The way of thinking should instead be, "I will do the best I can with the knowledge and mission I have, I will do the best with the tools I have and I will do it with honesty and integrity". So I think the other competency that is very important today is integrity.

6. Should a leader behave using the so called hands-on approach during crisis?

As you say, in times of crisis we have fewer resources, perhaps, even fewer people, a smaller marketing budget, but we want to get more out of the moment we have. Certainly you have less of an error rate that something goes wrong, you have spent a lot of money on the project and you don't have the ability to get your money back. However, in my approach of dealing with people I work with - I tend to move more towards the delegation and empowerment side with the idea that we spend a lot of time initially understanding what the objectives are, getting alignment, making sure we understand what we want to accomplish. And then I do a few check-points with them to see how this particular project has progressed and what is actually happening; and then as long as I get regular updates, I let them do what they need to do. A good example is how we launched a program last year whereby people would go out and visit locations, do a full check-list and test the services of the inner environment. I never wanted to get involved in daily discussions of what has to be on the check-list, what the person has to say, what to look for - that was in the hands of the operations people. They just took the whole project, dealt with it. I did a general overview, approved the budget and we launched the project.

7. Any other insights on the management function in times of crisis?

I would not want to get into the process of micro managing just because there is crisis or just because things become more and more critical for me to accomplish. In the end this can take out all motivation from the people. You can not give a person a project with the promise that he will be running it by himself and then all of a sudden request that he reports back to you on every single detail. By this action you can kill any desire and passion of the individual to deliver the project. It is important to find the right balance and realize to what extent you should be involved in this project, relying on your level of trust for your employees, their knowledge and your understanding of how closely they are aligned to your strategy .It is obvious you have done a great job hiring these people, training them, communicating to them what the objectives of the company are. So I think all you have to do is to maintain the communication, give them your support and motivate them. I don't believe that in times of crisis you should do more micromanagement than you do normally.

8. Could you describe the business model of your company in a very simple way?

The concept of Western Union is spending more time thinking through our innovations, services and products to make sure that we bring everything of this to the market and capitalize on the market opportunities that we have.


*Since 2011, Jonathan Knaus holds the position of Vice President of Western Union Business Solutions (source). 

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Jonathan Knaus Jonathan Knaus
Western Union, Regional Vice President Eastern Europe & CIS
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