About the project
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 graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
Elena Okorochenko, Managing Director of Asia-Pacific Ratings at S&P Global Ratings, is not only a graduate of HSE’s first class of students; she has also contributed to the formation of the university as a whole. In the latest edition of Success Builder, Elena tells us how she only changed companies twice throughout her entire career, as well as how she manages a regional S&P Global division, shares her colleagues’ love for Asian cuisine, and never finds herself in a traffic jam in Singapore because they just don’t exist.
How did life bring you to HSE?
First I had a job that by chance pushed me to study at HSE. I worked on Yaroslav Kuzminov’s team along with Yasin and Radaev, so HSE was created right before my eyes. I started as an assistant secretary, and then I worked in Rustem Nureev’s department and helped create his courses. I had the unbelievable sense that something new was happening – a fresh stream of energy. When HSE started functioning as a fully-fledged university, I became the deputy head of the international division. I went to conferences, met with foreigners, and talked about our very own HSE. Alongside this, I was finishing things up at Moscow State University and started in HSE’s master’s programme. This was the first class of students.
How did you combine your work of creating HSE, studying there, and studying at Moscow State University?
I just started studying at HSE in parallel and was really happy being able to experience the creation of a university that was completely innovative for those times. I saw how people were bursting with ideas and how everything worked out for them; they believed in what they did and created something big ex nihilo. And now in remembering that time, I see how much work has been done to make HSE a school known around the world. A lot of the people who participated in the creation of HSE also completed their master’s at the university, and this was a completely conscious choice.
How is HSE innovative compared to Moscow State?
Literally everything was innovative about HSE. Back then, we were studying Capital and were taught planning and accounting for all rules of the Soviet economy. In spite of everything, I graduated from Moscow State with an honours diploma. Changes took place there as well, but very slowly.
In education the main thing is having a foundation, and the wider it is, the better…
They used the originals to teach us about capitalist economics. We had to go to the library and get books by Paul Samuelson and John Keynes. We’d copy the books that the teacher assigned and learn from these pages. HSE at the time was already three steps ahead because there was this desperate desire to take a leap forward and receive a true education in economics.
So you graduated from HSE, and where did you go work after getting degree?
In 1996 I got a job at the bank Credit Suisse, which was hiring experts quite actively at the time. Russia had an extremely low number of people with an education in economics and a good level of English, so I was lucky. Credit Suisse had an opening for an assistant, and I really wanted to see what it was like to work for an international company, no matter what the job. At the interview they told me that I was too qualified to be an assistant and asked if I had any interest in being a credit analyst. I was hired after three interviews, and to top it all off, I met my future husband there!
It wasn’t a problem giving up a nearly developed academic career for a job as a clerk?
I was a good student at both Moscow State and HSE, and I was offered the opportunity to stay, continue my education, and write my dissertation. Overall I really love teaching and want to return to it at some point. But at the time I wanted to dive into the world of business – it was the 90s after all!
As an experienced teacher, can you talk about how to improve education and mould it to a specialisation early on?
In education the main thing is having a foundation, and the wider it is, the better because this foundation prepares you for any job, even in a somewhat remote field. Maybe Capital didn’t help me in an applied sense, but as for general erudition, it was extremely useful in winning a political argument.
When I moved to Asia I understood how narrow our education in history was. We know little about Asia even though it’s now becoming an economic centre for the world. If there’s ever the opportunity to expand your foundation at the university, be bold in taking on history, culture, macro- and microeconomics, politics, international affairs… Believe me, being able to think broadly and approach a solution from different angles are key elements in building a successful career.
Because of the accelerated pace at which technology and other innovations, including social ones, develop, scientists are making interesting forecasts for the future – the current generation of students will have to change professions three or four times in life, and I mean change dramatically. This is why the most important skill for a professional is not specialising in, say, credit analysis or the law, but being able to adapt, communicate effectively, and respond positively to changes and find something useful in them.
Were two degrees enough or did you have to learn a lot on the job?
I gained more knowledge both at work and in different courses. As for career growth, I gained different skills through coaching, leadership and managerial courses, and trainings, including business ethics in different cultures. When you already have a good knowledge base, then you don’t need a new degree. Courses are enough to supplement your foundation with contemporary knowledge.
For example, I did a five-day course for independent directors. It took more than half a year to prepare for the courses and complete the subsequent exams and essays. Classes truly helped me take the next step in my career when I was ready to take on a serious managerial role. I took INSEAD (International Management in Asia Pacific) courses not that long ago. This helps with managing companies in Asian markets; you have to know the culture of the people you work with in order to make successful deals and establish financial connections. This is a requirement. These shorter courses for managers help you find yourself in a relevant environment, strengthen your connections, and respond to market trends.
How many companies did you work at while climbing the career ladder?
Not a lot, though I did have a lot of different roles. First I was with Credit Suisse in Moscow, and then they transferred me to London. I then went to Standard & Poor’s (S&P), where I currently work. In 2004 I moved to Asia to head one of S&P’s divisions there. I still focused on Central and Eastern Europe from Singapore since my husband and I initially moved to Singapore for just 2-3 years to work on certain projects. Сингапура, т. к. изначально мы с мужем переезжали в Сингапур всего на 2-3 года на проекты.
You have to know the culture of the people you work with in order to make successful deals and establish financial connections. This is a requirement…
I am now certain that this is one of the best cities on earth. I was offered the position of head of Asian sovereign ratings, and believe it or not I didn’t refuse. Later I headed what is practically the company’s entire analytical block in Asia, but there was nowhere else to go in this area. I moved into a commercial role, initially heading South and Southeast Asia, and now – the entire Asia-Pacific region.
With that possibly being the ceiling, are you thinking about leaving for a different company?
No. Things are really interesting here, and I continue to grow and gain new experiences. At the same time I am familiar with all of S&P’s main processes. This justifies my life – being passionate about my field and truly enjoying work. I have an energetic and passionate team, and I feel fulfilled. A job I love, a family, Singapore – could I really want anything more?
What does the company do, and what are your main responsibilities in your department?
We are called S&P Global. We have four divisions, one of which is S&P Global Ratings, which is my turf. Other divisions include S&P Global Platts, S&P Dow Jones Indices, and S&P Global Market Intelligence. Platts and S&P Dow Jones are known around the world, for example, through the Platts daily price of gas and the S&P 500 Indices. S&P Global Market Intelligence provides data and analysis to bankers and other large clients who might use our research to make decisions on lending, investing, portfolio modelling, etc.
My division, S&P Global Ratings, assigns credit ratings to countries, banks, and corporations. What are these ratings and why do you need them? In this case, a rating is an assessment of the creditworthiness of a bank, country, city, or corporation. That is, it’s an estimate of a debtor’s desire and ability to pay back its debt on time and in full.
Singapore is rated AAA, which is the highest rating and the same as Switzerland. The lowest ranking, literally the ground ranking, is given to companies in default. My job is now not to directly assign ratings (analysts do this, and we have a strong division between those focused on analysis and those focused on sales functions). I help make decisions on which markets for us to enter, which companies to buy, which pricing policy to set, and where to outsource business. Overall I’m in charge of the leadership team for the region.
What does someone’s resume need to look like for you to hire them?
I now have to hire people with significant work experience and an understanding of operational processes. When I hired analysts, everything of course started with the resume. This is key to getting an interview, which is why a boring resume can be disheartening. What do we look at on a resume? If it’s a recent graduate with no experience, then we look at where they interned, what languages they know, and what their interests are. Languages, by the way, are important not only for professional communication, but also for understanding a different culture. Overall, the resume is something that catches our eye and makes us want to invite someone to an interview.
It’s important for me that people get up to speed quickly, are curious, don’t take long to make a decision, and have a burning desire to learn something new. You don’t have to have 20 diplomas in order to work effectively on a team. For that, three qualities will suffice: being able to communicate and express your thoughts well, wanting to move forward and achieve positive results, and being able to support one another. The rest you can learn along the way.
It takes time to train employees – is the company allowed to spend time doing this?
Large companies can do this and they oftentimes take on younger employees while factoring in the time it will take to train them. For me, on average it takes 6-9 months to train an analyst to be able to take on clients, a portfolio, loans, and ratings. And this is considering that the person had already worked in credit analysis before. For those who start at S&P Global from scratch, there is a three-year training programme that they complete on the job.
How are social and psychological problems solved in such a large company?
Asia is a region that is developing and integrating technologies at an insane speed, and we sometimes aren’t able to hire employees fast enough to deal with the growth in clientele. It’s difficult, but on the other hand this is wonderful. We get interesting products and completely innovative solutions. The markets we work in take huge leaps in adapting to technologies. This forces us, a large and experienced company, to think about how we are going to develop our new products.
I think if you’re going to learn a language, learn English and Chinese…
Our company is 150 years old with 50% margin. What else could you want, you might think… But nowadays you have to hurry just to maintain your position. I like this sort of activity. Working in Asia, I am forced to resolve a lot of issues via telephone by talking to America and Europe. This is why when I get home from work, I eat and then closer to midnight, well between 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., I hold talks via telephone. You can only handle this sort of workload when you are super motivated, see prospects for the company’s development, root for the company, and maintain a healthy working mindset on the team.
How many languages do you know? You mentioned that language is important as a way of understanding a different culture.
I speak English fluently, and I also know German, French, and Chinese, though the last of these isn’t easy and I’ve been studying it for 10 years already.
I think if you’re going to learn a language, learn English and Chinese because China and Asia as a whole are really pulling economics and geopolitics towards themselves. I think it’s important to get close to a culture that’s hard to understand, and it’s language that gives you an understanding of the mentality and traditions of a country. But on the other hand, I think that we are moving towards a time when only specialists in Asia and culture will study language, while an advanced Google Translate will be enough for simple conversation.
What makes Asian culture unique, and how can you integrate into it without too much trouble?
I have been in Singapore for 14 years already, and I travel all over Asia. Firstly, there is no such thing as ‘Asian’ culture – all cultures in this part of the world are different. People from Thailand are different from those from Indonesia. The Japanese are from a completely different planet, and even Malaysians are different from people from Indonesia even though they speak a very similar language. Indians are different, and the Chinese are unique in their ‘by-oneself’ worldview. And even within China there are a ton – dozens – of individual cultures and dialects.
This all creates an interesting problem set. For example, when you have someone from India manage a team that largely consists of people from Southeast Asia, you have to think long and hard – will they be able to work with such different approaches towards teamwork, a hierarchy, time? When a Japanese person says ‘maybe,’ they mean ‘no.’ They just can’t let themselves say ‘no.’ When in front of their boss, no one will speak first; the boss has to speak first, and then might ask their subordinates to voice their opinion.
When you hold a conference call with people from different cultures, you have to factor in all of their qualities and ask one person for his or her opinion while holding back with another. You have to cut one person’s answer in half, while elevating another’s. This works of course when you’re in a single culture as well. It’s just more clearly pronounced and potentially painful if you’re working with different cultures at the same time and don’t understand their individual characteristics.
I would advise students to intern or work in Asia, as it’s the fastest growing market. Working abroad gives you a huge advantage when finding a job, at least at multinational companies.
I highly recommend starting with Geert Hofstede’s website. He is the author of the 6 Cultural Dimentions, in which he compares cultures with one another and shows the reason behind contradictions among them. Say you go work in a completely different country and in an environment where you might accidentally offend, misunderstand, or underestimate someone.
I can land at Singapore’s airport at seven o’clock in the evening, get through passport control, pick up my luggage, and in 25 minutes I’m already opening the door to my home on the beach…
After I went abroad to work, it wasn’t easy, but a breakthrough happens after two or three years. You become cosmopolitan. I understood this definition to be someone who can look at his or her own culture from the outside. And then you start to look at other cultures completely objectively as well.
What do you like about Singapore?
It’s the centre of Asia, and it’s really convenient to work in Singapore geographically speaking. Seven hours to Japan, seven hours to Melbourne, five to India, 1.5 to Thailand, etc. I take business trips twice a month, and in my opinion infrastructure in Singapore is at a very high level. I can land at Singapore’s airport at seven o’clock in the evening, get through passport control, pick up my luggage, and in 25 minutes (it takes exactly 25 minutes to travel by highway) I’m already opening the door to my home on the beach. In total, it takes 40 minutes to get home from the time I land. This sort of quick service, efficiency, and organisation is unheard of.
Singapore has amazing roads and junctions. Singapore’s engineers have thought of a paid roadway system to enter the city, and this clears the city of traffic jams during rush hour. There are terrific education and healthcare systems here, and Singapore is one of the safest cities in the world with the lowest crime rate. It’s also summer year round at 24-32 degrees, the food is frighteningly delicious, and the people are friendly.
Maybe a little more detail about food in Singapore?
Singaporeans love two things – shopping and food. That’s why cuisine for them is an art that is very internal and even intimate. They take a gentle approach towards food. I start work at 8:00, and by 9:00 I’m already hearing talk about lunch – where to go, what new dish to try, where a new restaurant opened. It’s literally a food cult, and this is reflected in the quality of the restaurants, supermarkets, and the products themselves. I think this is what makes Singaporeans so calm and positive. They don’t actually have their own cuisine and instead have something more international, and this ensures that all dishes are of the highest quality. I also love Singapore for its parks and cheerful people, as well as for my wonderful home on the sea. Because of all this, I love my work more and more every day. Come visit and see it with your own eyes!