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"Study Time is Time to Invest in Yourself and Your Future"

Irina Bakareva is a professional in the field of HR. She has extensive professional experience in large international and Russian companies, serving in such roles as coordinator of training and development programmes (1998) and HR Director in companies such as Heineken and Tikkurila. In 2021, Irina joined the HSE University team as a guest lecturer and has taught the course ‘HR Management in International Companies’ for second-year students of the Master’s programme ‘International Business’. In her interview, Irina talks about her experience in HR and her impressions from her classes with HSE University students.

Irina Bakareva

Irina Bakareva
Photo courtesy of Irina Bakareva

You have been working in business for a long time. Why did you decide to try your hand at teaching?

— Both my teaching and managerial experience began at school immediately after graduating from St Petersburg State University. It was at school that I realised that the most important task of education is not the presentation of new material, but the stimulation of students' learning activities and the creation of a motivating educational environment.

After that, I never parted with the topic of training and development, as my business experience began in the management development and training department of a large international company, where new opportunities for professional and personal growth opened up for me. I mastered modern methods of management and adult training at the best international schools: Ashridge, London Business School, and INSEAD. At various times, I received international certifications as a trainer, expert and consultant in organisational development and management, assessor, facilitator, coach according to ICF standards and others.

But my most important ‘teacher’, of course, was my more than twenty years of experience at three large international companies and my participation in projects on the development of corporate values and competencies, personnel assessment, the formation and development of a talent pool, launching internship programmes, etc. Having gone from an ordinary specialist to an HR director, I understand all HR processes because of organisational and personnel development. It has always been an area of particular focus and interest to me, as any company can develop and achieve success as long as its employees develop, achieve success, and realise their potential.

HR departments often provide training for their employees. In your opinion, what is the difference between staff and student training?

— Both of these involve training adults, who, as you know, are primarily motivated to learn what they need and can benefit from. That is why both employee and student training should be practical—they should help people to master independent research work skills, find new solutions and ideas, and enable personal development. Most of the methods and formats of training used in employee training can also be used in student educational programmes.

Of course, teaching students includes the important component of assessment. But today, most companies also have a process for personnel assessment. Its main function is feedback, which helps to identify the strengths and weaknesses of employees and highlights the immediate and long-term goals of work, professional and personal growth. Perhaps it is reasonable to think about how such an evaluation function can be applied to students.

 — In your opinion, what is the main difference between foreign and Russian companies?

— This is a very broad question. Answering it, I would like to focus on two differences: the organisational culture and the role of an HR department in the organisation.

The Spiral Dynamics theory really speaks to me. Its foundations were formulated in the 90s by management consultants Don Beck and Chris Cowan, who, in turn, relied on the work of psychologist Clare W. Graves. According to this theory, ‘people, public institutions, companies and even entire countries go through certain typical stages in their development, and the higher stages from an evolutionary point of view resemble the lower ones in some ways, which allows us to speak of a spiral movement.’ The engine of such development in general and any specific change in the company is the corporate culture, which determines what is good and what is bad in a particular company. In other words, corporate culture is a ‘set of values and priorities shared by the majority of employees. It is these values that determine how an employee thinks, what choice they make in a given situation, what decision they make and how they explain it.' There is a good reason why Peter Drucker's phrase that it is a ‘culture that eats strategy for breakfast’ has become so widely known.

Most international companies strive to create at least a culture of success (achievements, efficiency, determination, urgency, because these lead to outstanding results), or a culture of consent (tolerance, respect, dialogue of cultures, consensus). Very few organisations even move higher in the spiral, creating a culture of synthesis (creativity, global innovation, self-management). The organisational culture of the company is manifested in everything: in the structure, the behaviour of employees, the level of interaction with customers and partners, departments among themselves, methods and forms of training, etc. Many Russian companies have long begun working on the formation of the desired organisational culture, but they often have to start from lower levels of the spiral: a culture of belonging ('we do it because it is customary for us') or a culture of power ('we do it because I say so') and through the culture of rules ('we act this way because these are our rules'). They move up step by step.

As for the role of an HR department, in most international companies, an HR department not only engages in recruitment and personnel administration, but is a true partner of the business. It participates in the development of the vision, strategy and goals of the company, makes important decisions, proposes HR policies and practices that promote the discovery of employees’ potential and increase efficiency, cares about the satisfaction and involvement of staff, and in recent times even about their mental well-being. At the moment, many Russian companies have already made great steps in this direction and their HR departments are already reliable business partners. Other organisations are still at the beginning of this journey, but often in Russian companies, one can still find traditional HR departments with their classic roles.

Previously, universities paid great attention to hard skills, but more and more often we hear that graduates lack soft skills. Why do you think this is?

— From my point of view, this is due to the organisational culture of the company specifically. When hiring employees, modern ‘advanced’ companies want them not only to possess some knowledge in their professional field, but to be able to interact effectively with their colleagues and partners, negotiate, participate in projects, become team leaders, and work on specific business tasks. Today, communication and management skills are necessary not only for managers, but also for ordinary employees, especially if the company promotes and applies modern methods to improve the efficiency of processes (World Сlass Manufacturing, Lean, TPM, etc.). If graduates want to work in such companies and have soft skills, they get a huge competitive advantage over those who lack such skills.

Many young people in Russia look for work abroad or in a foreign company. What motivates this and are these hopes realistic?

— Many young people seek work abroad or for foreign companies out of a desire for higher wages, opportunities for professional and career growth, and international experience. Even though many international companies have left the Russian market over the past year, young people still have opportunities to find employment in foreign companies that continue to operate in Russia or have transferred control to their Russian partners. Moreover, they can try working at companies that are expanding into the Russian market (especially companies from the Asia-Pacific region). Opportunities have decreased, but not completely disappeared.

Why do you think students should understand the basic principles of HR practices?

— The HR function provides businesses with necessary policies, processes, practices, tools, and methods, teaches how to use them, consults, etc, but it is the heads who manage the personnel of their teams, departments, and companies. The knowledge and practical experience obtained during the course ‘HR Management in International Companies’ will help future business heads to develop their managerial skills and prepare to solve specific tasks in the field of personnel management in their future organisations.

This year, you taught the course ‘HR Management in International Companies’ in the Master’s programme ‘International business’ for the first time. What are your impressions of the students?

— Most of the students who chose this discipline impressed me with their involvement, activity, and willingness to quickly team up, find materials on their own and conduct mini-research to complete practical tasks. These are exactly the qualities that employers expect from employees and which will help them find a job and develop in their career.

— What advice would you give to students and graduates?

— I advise you to use study time as time to invest in yourself and your future, never stop developing or be afraid to try new things, get to know yourself and the world around you, test and explore, and never rest on your laurels.

I would recommend that everyone read the article ‘The Spiral Movement’ by Mark Rozin, which I have already mentioned, as well as the books Triggers: Creating Behaviour That Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be and Mojo. How to Get It, How to Keep It, and How to Get It Back if You Lose It by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter. I would advise future leaders to read books on how organisational behaviour and culture affect the business results of companies. For example:

  • Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't by James C. Collins  
  • Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Adam M. Grant
  • Working with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
  • The Leader in You: How to Win Friends, Influence People and Succeed in a Changing World by Dale Carnegie