About Success Builder
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
The past year has made us all think about the importance of health and how vulnerable we can suddenly become during a global problem. Natalia Belova, graduate of the Faculty of Management and now Director of Market Management at Rosgosstrakh Zhizn, knows everything about how to ensure your financial health. In this interview with Success Builder, she explains why the best and brightest enrolled at HSE in the 1990s, the ins and outs of working with such a ‘product’ as human life, and how to be a good mom and a Board of Directors member at the same time.
Although everyone understands that management is essential, most incoming university students have no clear understanding of what it actually is. Why did you choose this major?
Most people don’t really understand what is taught in management programmes and where those graduates later work. My choice of a major was a happy accident. It was much more difficult to choose a major when I applied to university 25 years ago than it is now. For example, my teenage son has the opportunity to get career counselling, which will help him choose a profession based on his abilities and interests. But we didn’t have the Internet: we gathered information through word of mouth and made our choice based on the advice of friends or parents.
I come from a small science-oriented town in the Urals where many nuclear physicists live and work. In choosing a future profession, many children there took the well-worn path of following in their parents’ footsteps. Notwithstanding my father’s fascinating stories about the half-life of uranium, I didn’t want to become a physicist. I liked foreign languages and everything related to communication. At the same time, with my strong background in math, I could choose something other than a strict humanities major, something more in the middle. After I had already been admitted to a St. Petersburg technical university based on my performance in an Academic Olympics competition, I learned from my extracurricular teacher that a new, very modern and Western-style economics university had opened in Moscow. I decided to take a chance and try my luck on the unknown: I really wanted to go to HSE, no matter what. I was extremely nervous during my entrance exam because it meant that much to me.
How did your parents react to you taking such a risk? At that time, most people in Russia knew almost nothing about HSE.
In was the 90s, a time of rapid changes. Everyone was ready for something new to come along. I was admitted in 1996 when HSE had four faculties — Economics, Management, Law and Sociology. Mine was only the second class at our faculty and no one had graduated yet, so there was no one to ask about the quality of the education or the prospects it offered. And still, we risked it because HSE at that time was something really cool and daring. It didn’t bother us that dormitory accommodations were not provided. We solved all those kinds of questions ourselves: they seemed so unimportant compared to the boost we expected such an education would provide. And I wasn’t the only one looking for that leg up: many of my classmates at HSE had also won various Academic Olympics, and they had come to study there for the same reason. It was an adventure, and one that I have never regretted, even a little.
What did this adventure look like from the inside: who were your teachers and what did they teach?
It was clear from the very first classes that this was not a purely theoretical education. I have always liked the HSE teachers: they are not just academic luminaries, but also business people who know life outside the classroom and understand exactly what to give students so that they can find their place in that world after graduation. They always supplemented theoretical basics with practical cases. There was a lot of interesting and accessible information given that had real-world applications. The lecturers shared their personal experience with us, with the result that I wanted to get into the business world as soon as possible and experience it for myself.
They gave us a stress test by assigning large and complex tasks. They taught us to think outside the box and to meet deadlines
That toughened us up. Under different circumstances, we would never have become who we are now. We learned important life lessons at HSE, how to think in non-standard ways and overcome difficulties.
Did you figure out what management is, where you wanted to work and in what capacity?
The realization of what I was capable of doing and wanted to do prompted me to study further. I entered the Master’s programme at the same faculty. As a Bachelor’s student, I had already started working, but not because I needed the money. It was more for the sake of professional curiosity and experience. I tried my hand at marketing in a real business setting and government agencies. I had a desire to develop further in a large company that had bigger tasks and more career opportunities. This is why I chose Strategic Management: it resonated perfectly with my desires. My parents persuaded me to go on to graduate school, but at the time, I was leaning toward a career in business, figuring that I could always continue my studies later if I wanted to.
How does Strategic Management translate in terms of career?
It leads to a position as a top manager, of course. But if you look deeper, in terms of managerial qualities, then a specialist at this level acquires system analysis skills, which leads to decisions that benefit the company. The Master’s degree programme enabled me to go deeper into the subjects I had studied earlier, to develop new research and analytical skills that were specially sharpened for practical use in business. The strategic focus successfully combined my interest in math with the project work and the data I received and analyzed in the industry. I studied the competition, drew conclusions and drew up a company strategy. Things that I had previously understood only in theory became an actual tool in my hands.
In the insurance field, what is valued more in terms of management — experience or education?
When I conduct an interview, I look at the whole person. A solid grounding in math is necessary. It provides a framework for thinking so that the person can plunge into the business world possessing logical thinking skills and the ability to find their way around. But product development, product management and marketing are more specialized things that require practice. I also note whether the candidate has experience working in other fields. It’s good when he or she can go beyond the usual way of thinking, looks for more interesting solutions and takes a real interest in the tasks that will have to be solved. I like to give such people a chance to do something in practice and give them an objective, especially an ambitious one.
My area of activity in the company is very creative. We deal with constant changes within the organization, work on improving the entire business structure, come up with new motivations and goals. That’s why the people around me have to be flexible and open to experimentation. I’m glad that universities and HSE are at the forefront of this movement and devote a lot of attention to personal development. Large firms also offer their employees various programmes for developing soft skills. However, I know from first-hand experience that without the right mindset, without communication skills and the ability to work in a team, as well as the ability to finish what you start, it is extremely difficult to be an effective worker. Students who are future specialist need to give this just as much attention as the main classes in their major.
Why did you choose the insurance industry? Did it allow you to establish yourself and grow as a specialist?
My coming to ROSNO was, in a sense, a combination of circumstance that has defined my life. On the recommendation of my teacher, Efim Galitsky, I wrote my thesis on marketing and was given an internship at the ROSNO insurance company. It was one of the market leaders at the time and a trendsetter in the insurance field. The best insurance specialists passed through the ROSNO school and this left an imprint on the company’s corporate culture. Employees wanted to reform and improve the market, and many young managers and marketing specialists were willing to tackle the most daunting tasks. We believed we could do anything, and we were given carte blanche. Of course, the most important thing for a specialist is to be able to do work that is also interesting.
Work occupies the greater part of your life, and so the only way to be happy is to work at what you like and to do it well
Thanks to the fact that I wound up in such a company and team, the work was very inspiring and things worked out well. I learned the insurance business first by doing various types of research as a marketing intern. Within three years, I became the head of my department and moved on to regional projects. After that, I switched to life insurance, which was a whole new area for me. There I worked in sales support and, later, product development.
What is involved in the life insurance line? I suspect that it has a particular significance in Russia, given the level of medical care here.
Life insurance is not new to Russia. It was common during the Soviet era in connection with the official State Insurance company. Almost all Soviet citizens had savings policies, such as those for children. This was essentially life insurance because children would grow up and receive a monetary gift from their parents or grandparents. The insurance industry experienced some disruptions in the 90s, and it wasn’t until the 2000s that regulators took note of the condition of the market. They decided to give life insurance a green light as a separate line of business. This became a kind of renaissance for insurance.
Life insurance is very developed in the West, and it is the most rapidly developing part of the insurance industry in this country now. I sincerely love working with such a ‘product’ as human life, also because I am contributing to a socially oriented business. We create the conditions for people to receive support at the most critical moments of their lives. Whether it is an illness, the loss of loved ones, a wedding or students choosing a university — the person has financial protection.
Personal financial planning is becoming increasingly important these days. It means setting the right goals and having certain constants in life so that you aren’t just bouncing around, but know where you’re headed. Less and less do you hear someone say, ‘A pension?! I won’t live long enough to receive one!’ It isn’t necessary anymore to prove that the quality of life is improving and that people are living longer. People are becoming more aware, responsible for themselves and their loved ones.
If to look at human life from the standpoint of management, then everyone is a strategist, concerning financial planning as well. Each person must set the course of their life and learn how to manage their budget effectively. This is new, in a sense, for us Russians. The problem in Russia is not with medicine, but with habits in relations to health and personal finances. Unfortunately, most people don’t think about having a financial cushion, although the ‘formula’ for that is very simple: you should spend less than you earn and regularly invest the rest in, say, your future retirement savings. Life insurance helps you deal with your personal finances and manage them correctly to achieve your goals at a certain stage of your life.
As Stolypin said, we live in a country where, in 10 years, everything changes, but after 200 years, nothing is different, so it is understandable that people are not very interested in long-term planning.
The country and the world have changed a lot, but many people think: why bother with savings if there’s inflation and crises and everything will collapse again? If that’s the case, we should just sit still and wait for the crises to come. But nobody lives that way, do they? Everyone wants to be healthy and happy. But time is running out and we don’t achieve our goals. So good life insurance salesmen and financial consultants are very professional people who have a deep understanding of socio-economic phenomena and see how they play out over time. They understand investment options and know tax regulations.
It’s no simple task to find the right solution because each person is different. The type of insurance depends on the person’s values and goals, on the situation with their family and parents. Does he or she have a lot of debt? A regular income? And so on.
A good financial consultant should be something of a psychologist
A good financial consultant knows how to ask the right questions and listen to the client to solve his particular task, make a step-by-step action plan and choose the right financial instruments. Consultation with such a specialist helps you look at your life from the outside and understand your values if they are not very obvious. It is interesting and rewarding work that fulfils a social mission — to make the maximum number of people financially literate and teach them to plan for the future without fearing anything.
How has the pandemic affected the insurance business?
We have seen an incredible surge in attention to the value of human life. Unfortunately, most people spent the past year in a constant state of fear. They were afraid of getting sick, not surviving, losing their loved ones. It makes sense that the demand for life and health insurance has grown. And it was important for our business to answer that need.
According to a joint study by Rosgosstrakh Zhizn and the Invitro medical company, more than half of Russians spent more on their health in 2020. For example, one in four bought medicines underwent a paid medical exam or diagnosis or took a blood or other medical test. During the pandemic, people have taken greater care of their well-being, and for many families, spending on therapeutic and wellness procedures has become a definite part of the budget.
One of our newest developments at Rosgosstrakh Zhizn is an insurance program covering the need for rehabilitation after a serious illness. This includes COVID-19 because the disease often requires a long and difficult recovery period, and no such rehabilitation programmes are widely available from medical institutions. We launched this project with our medical partners at the right time, and it turned out to be a very popular and high-quality product. In the two months it has been available, more than 20,000 people across Russia, including, of course, our company’s employees, have purchased this policy for themselves and their loved ones.
Have gender stereotypes ever hindered your career advancement?
It seems to me that if a woman focuses on her career and does not devote herself to motherhood, she faces no restrictions at all. But even in my case, as the mother of three children, I have not encountered any infringement of women’s rights at work. At the same time, I am the only woman on our company’s Board of Directors, but unlike Western companies, Russian firms do not impose a gender balance artificially.
The percentage of women in top management has become very high over the last 10 years in Russia, and I often see this at conferences and negotiations. A great many women now run small businesses, while men still more often run large corporations.
I admit that it isn’t easy to be a mother and a manager at the same time — and to do both at the level they deserve. There should be a balance in life. I was never in a hurry to climb the career ladder: I rose from one position to the next very naturally. What’s more, I had to give up on the idea of being perfect. Sometimes, you consciously have to sacrifice something to focus on whatever is the higher priority for you, and to have the time to do it well.
You have gained unique skills and experience over the years. Have you tried teaching?
I tried giving lectures in the business environment, in the company. And starting last year, I have been involved in various projects at my alma mater. And this year I joined the Academic Council of the HSE Marketing and Market Analytics Programme. We have already held several meetings and I find it truly interesting. I have not become an HSE mentor yet, but I might take on that challenge soon. When I returned to university, I felt very inspired to share my knowledge and experience — and I still have a lot to learn myself from different people. Remembering what I was like at the university, I understand how important teachers are for students, especially with their life experience.