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'Be an Integral and Valuable Part of Your Team': Olga Makarova on Working in Business and Teaching

Olga Makarova is a lecturer at the School of Economics and Management, HSE University-St Petersburg. In the 90s, she was one of the lucky people who were good at Economics and foreign languages. Thanks to that, for a long time, she was working as a financial executive for such large companies as AT&T, Gillette CIS, Tele2, Pratt & Whitney. Then she transferred to the education and consulting spheres. Read about how prof Makarova started her career and what the students should make a note of in the article.

'Be an Integral and Valuable Part of Your Team': Olga Makarova on Working in Business and Teaching

HSE University—Saint Petersburg

— You had worked for different large companies for a very long time. Was it hard to join them?

— I was lucky. In 1993, I got my Specialist's degree in International Economic Relations at FINEC, knew two languages and worked as an accountant. It was the first graduation of the programme, there were no such specialists in the market. In 1993, the foreign companies started to enter the Russian market actively, and we flew off the shelves. When I was applying to the university, there wasn't such a demand yet—the economy was still Soviet. I heeded to my parents' opinion, though I did not really want to be an accountant.  

It was scary to seek employment in large companies back then—I even hid from the phone calls. This is because they started offering me the positions of a chief accountant immediately. I had no idea why they were looking for a person who had never kept the books for this position. It turned out to be a trend at that time: the companies tried to hire people who were not 'spoiled' by the Soviet knowledge to teach them from scratch. But it was a big mistake, as you cannot ignore the legislation and rules of the country you enter. For managerial positions, the knowledge and experience are very important, but you should know how to use them flexibly. 

But one day I finally answered the phone and said: 'I will not be a chief accountant'. It was AT&T company. They understood my refusal, but offered me to come for a talk. As a result, I worked there for four years as an assistant of the financial controller for Europe. During the first three months, I was handling all the accounting duties myself.

I am very proud that I did not skip the 'menial job' in my career. It is absolutely necessary: you have to study the mechanism by yourself to understand everything when you climb up. Due to learning about the primary accounting, I was among the first specialists who elicited a problem of using Russian accounting data to prepare the reporting under the GAAP standards and began searching for the methodological solutions.

— What wouldn't you have achieved this success without?

— Without my parents' help at the beginning and like-minded people's support on the way. Students have to start somewhere. There should be people who believe in them and lay the foundation for them. But further, everything depends on how you build your support team. Of course, all the new things require the boldness and the character of a workaholic. It is especially true about the 90-s: the economy was only shaping.

— You worked in the business sphere for more than 15 years. What impressions have you got?

— The work in the business sphere is a powder keg. On the one hand, it is always interesting and very vibrant, on the other hand, it is extremely hard, especially when everything is constantly changing. The person's resource is not limitless, but we had to work at night sometimes and rarely went home before 10:00 pm. The work schedule was very intense: there wasn't enough time for anything except for work. I thought that it was temporary, we would build everything and start working in peace... But it turned out that the dynamics and uncertainty were new normality, and you would never get bored.

There was another revelation: the older we got, the less free time we had. An active person is always occupied with something: it is simply that some people choose a hobby, others choose business. Since I was a child, I have been an engine. I was keen on something all the time: from music and theatre to mountaineering. I combined it with the difficult studies in the English school, then the Physics and Mathematics Lyceum № 239 and after that in the prestigious university. I often lacked sleep, constantly tried something new and moved forward. It is better to say that during my life, my interests have not changed, but enlarged. This diversity made me a complete person.

Business became my new and this time professional interest. A real adventure is to immerse yourself in the specifics of every new company: to learn how the processes and the mechanism in general work. To learn the business is the same as to meet a new person—it mesmerises.

— Then you gradually started engaging in the consulting. How did you perceive the transition to something new?

— The consulting became an organic activity when I left the business for the education sphere. It showed the value of the experience in different companies. Changing the job from time to time has been a trend in our economy for the last 25 years, but it has become a norm only recently.

When I used to change my job once in four years, I felt a little embarrassed, even though I joined a new company, following my team to the new company or by invitation: to save, to implement or develop something. Many of my elderly colleagues worked in the enterprises even for 20 years. But the time redirected me onto another path and gave me a huge experience for the consulting, which became my competitive advantage. Of course, after going through different teams, I gained the main value—the like-minded professionals who I still keep in touch with. 

I think that if you work passionately and responsibly, completely give yourself to your work and trust your colleagues, then it will turn out that your path was right and advantageous.

However, you shouldn't go from one job to another once in several months either. It is very important to choose your profession and values thoughtfully without throwing away the gathered experience. If a person takes an interest in everything and sees it as an advantage, it is great, they will be able to implement it in the future. You shouldn't devalue your experience and knowledge just because you do not find the business interesting anymore. It is not flexibility, but irresponsibility.

— How can a student get a job in the consulting sphere? What options are there?

— You can get a job in a small consulting company. There, as in any other small business, you can manifest yourself and work independently and creatively from the beginning... If you are lucky. But you can hardly reckon on any large-scale projects and consistency. There is no guarantee that you will be able to find a competent supervisor. If you are looking for immensity and consistent experience, it is better to join the Russian branches of the former Big Four or other big companies. They have a vast experience and enough professionals who you can learn a lot from. But first of all, you have to become a good executor. 

The advantages of working in a big company are that you learn to understand the large-scale business, become a part of a big mechanism and you will have a certain level of stability. Of course, it is boring in the early stages, but useful. For example, at Gillette, where they offered me a managerial position, I had a lot of executive work: we constantly prepared the reports, balanced something and analysed. We did not create anything new for sure. As a matter of fact, the task was to ensure uninterrupted operation of the system and its development. But there I learnt a lot of instructions and rules about how everything should work in a big company and effectively grow at the same time. You cannot learn this in a small company.

— Since 2008, you have been teaching and been able to watch different approaches to the education in various universities. Why is HSE University close to you?

— HSE University puts an emphasis on the work with real cases and companies' business activities. Therefore, the university overcomes the problem of students getting exclusively theoretical knowledge from the textbooks. It is important that our students do not graduate just with a diploma and a great amount of theory in their heads, but with the skills to analyse any company and offer a realistic strategy for its development. This is not an easy task, but the graduates will have higher chances to get into more interesting projects in the companies if they have a better understanding of how things work in practice.

During the classes, we often discuss the situations of the real companies. I like giving the tasks where they should choose an existing company, find the information about it and reports, then they should explain what is going on with this company, how it looks from the economic perspective and what the prospects are.

I am also happy when the students ask me questions. Sometimes they add: 'I have a silly question'. But I believe that there is no such thing as a silly question. If a person is interested and ready for a discussion, we already have an interesting conversation. Now, by the third and fourth years of the studies, our Bachelor's students have so much knowledge that they can easily communicate not just with the lecturers, but hold a professional dialogue with the business representatives. The Master's students have the work experience in addition!

I really enjoy learning from the students—when the curious find some interesting facts, articles or questions about economics and business, companies' news. It is great to discuss all these materials with them later as it is hard to follow all the business news by yourself, but in this case, there are lots of people. We try to figure out how to apply the gained knowledge to this news.

— What can help a student to advance in the career if their concentration is Economics?

— You should start with an interesting and promising job. An economic mindset is in demand everywhere. But don't try to get a leading position, first combine it with something simpler—you will get more experience this way. For instance, you can offer such an option: 'I will be the project head, but at the same time, I will keep the part of the record or accounts of the company. Or I will take part in implementing an IT-system.' I personally have implemented a lot of registration-analytical systems because it was necessary. This experience always helps to understand better and build the business which you work with. 

Do not stay off the unpaid internships—especially if it is an offer of a big and prestigious company. At the beginning of your career, you have to manifest yourself and gain some experience. There is a film 'The Pursuit of Happyness' starring Will Smith—it is exactly about it. The main character had a family and financial problems, but he agreed to undertake an unpaid internship in a famous brokerage company for his dream job and worked like crazy. After going through all the hardships, he became a popular businessman and a very rich person. You can repeat his success story!

But the most important thing is to be useful to your team and the company's management. If you see what the company needs and are ready to do it, then you will certainly be appreciated. You can start with a small and simple task with which you can easily get some help. When you settle down and are able to see a complex problem, you can offer your chief executives a way to solve it and participate in it. If you are active and supportive all the time, it will be easy to climb to the top. But you should be ready to work tirelessly. 

Besides, remember that you cannot get to the top by yourself: you have to be a part of the staff and be responsible for the team you have created. Knowing how to establish a relationship with the colleagues and find the like-minded people is a very important skill. You should be empathic and ready to listen to the others. It is impossible—even if you are the most qualified and competent person—to develop in the business single-handedly. Dream analytically, work passionately, communicate empathically, take responsibility—and you will be happy because of the acquaintance with yourself!