Heidi McCormack turned a degree in International Studies and a masters degree earned abroad into a successful 10-year career with General Motors in one of GM’s fastest growing markets – Russia. Fluent in Russian and Spanish, Ms. McCormack is now the Director for New Business Development for GM’s Russian operations. Her responsibilities include strategy development and execution, project oversight, government relations, PR, and legal functions. We recently caught a few minutes of her time to interview her over email about her experiences with and thoughts on working in Russia.
SRAS: My first question might be a bit personal, but one I find very interesting. You are a foreign woman working in a market where women seem to hold few top management positions and where the field for foreigners is, by most accounts, becoming more competitive. Do you believe it has been harder for you to obtain these positions in Russia, being a woman and a foreigner? Do you believe it has made your job harder – or easier?
Heidi McCormack: First off – I believe that there is a significant amount of women in top management in Russia – just to name a few of the companies, Microsoft, United Technologies, obviously GM, Baker McKenzie, CondeNast. I’ve actually been impressed with the amount of women leading organizations here. I am not as familiar with Russian home-grown companies – but I’ll bet that you could do an Internet search and find that there have been many articles about them – but sorry, don’t know any examples off hand.
Definitely, the field for foreigners is becoming more competitive as there is emerging a strong generation of expertly trained and highly professional Russians. So, for me the competition has much more to do with the emerging Russians who are highly skilled and foreigners who have experience in Russia. It also depends on the type of company. International companies like GM rotate people all over the world – so it’s not a matter of sending in foreigners into Russia – but how GM is managing and enhancing its managers in challenging assignments. We have many Russians who are on international management and development assignments outside of Russia. They, like I, are part of an international team which rotates all over the world. In sum, being a woman hasn’t really been an issue at all, but the competition in general is definitely getting fierce.
SRAS: Your BA from Johns Hopkins was in International Studies and you went on to get your degree internationally (in Egypt). I assume, then, that you planned on working internationally and that part of your decision to earn your degree abroad was to make yourself more marketable on the international field by gaining international experience early on. Do you think students who hope to work internationally need to study abroad or earn degrees abroad?
Heidi McCormack: Having grown up in Washington DC, I’ve always been fortunate to be in a very international and multi-cultural environment. This meant that I was bit by the travel bug early and certainly was interested in a career which had an international flavor to it. I think that it is helpful and actually critical for students to study, travel, and experience a region or a culture they are considering having a professional association with. One can only experience so much in the classroom and through study in one’s home country. One has to taste and feel what it is like to not be in one’s home country, essentially to be a guest – this is not for everyone. Also, language mastery is a huge plus on the job and can best be gained from learning and practicing the language in a native country. Studying abroad and/or earning decrees abroad does demonstrate a high degree of interest, commitment and in many cases some degree of mastery of languages – these are all things which should help qualify one for an international career.
SRAS: I also notice from your CV that you landed several internships and worked jobs while studying in the US and abroad in Egypt (and that you still graduated with honors, maladets!). How necessary do you think working internships is to gaining good employment after graduation?
Heidi McCormack: Working internships can be a great way to actually segue way into a permanent job (or cross something off one’s list of possibilities – which is equally important!). Also, internships demonstrate that a candidate has an appetite for participating in and experiencing the work sphere and wouldn’t be totally new to a working environment upon graduation. This, to an employer, can translate into higher chance of success of a new employee being happy and well engaged and to the company having a new employee who can hit the ground running. I would say that internships demonstrate exposure and increase the attractiveness of graduates.
SRAS: How did you find these jobs and internships while abroad? Did you find the process difficult?
Heidi McCormack: A lot of the opportunities resulted from cold calling – which I always found very difficult but it has gotten easier over the years. Sometimes one has to take a deep breath, make sure you have your notes on a paper in front of you, pickup the phone and call. Or in some cases, I was at a lecture or a meeting and just went up, introduced myself, asked for a few minutes of the person’s time and explained what I was interested in and looking for. Fortunately after a while some of the opportunities were pursuing me – and that is always a wonderful position to be in.
SRAS: Your first job after your Master’s Degree involved helping companies in Latin America and Eastern Europe/Russia. This included helping Kmart enter Mexico and assisting in the privatization of Avtovaz, Russia’s largest domestic automobile manufacturer. There are three questions I would ask related to this. First, did you find making the leap from working in the near east to these other regions a tough one? How well did your experience working in Egypt prepare you for the challenges you found working with diverse international companies?
Heidi McCormack: No real problem at all going from east to west, so to speak. And there were more similarities than differences. Doing deals is always time sensitive – so whether one is in LA or Eastern Europe – you still have to get the deal structures understood and agreed upon between the parties, get the lawyers and the accountants signed off, and the agreements signed. What is one over-riding similarity between all “emerging” or high-growth markets is that everyone seems to be on the ball and filled with the same sense of urgency and desire for positive change.
Egypt was an excellent preparation for the rest of my career. The environment required a lot of energy and drive to get things done and leadership to create strategies and visions for the team to follow. These are solid skills which benefit almost all environments and certainly fit in well with international companies.
SRAS: My second question is this: how would you say business in Russia differs from business in Latin America or the Near East? Are there any common problems facing these markets or common opportunities to be found in them?
Heidi McCormack: I’d say that there are many more common challenges and opportunities than differences. As I said before, in high growth markets – you can feel the energy and drive. No one is waiting around for anyone – the race is on to get there first, before competitors. Similar challenges include not having all the laws and legal structures in place as compared to more developed markets like the EU, in general. Bureaucracy is also a common complaint in many markets as well.
SRAS: Third, after all this experience, you decided to stay in Russia, eventually landing high-level positions with GM. Why did you decide to work in Russia as opposed to other markets?
Heidi McCormack: Having been exposed to a variety of markets and situations – it was clear to me that Russia, being the huge country it is, had the biggest prospects for growth and development. I wanted to be part of that growth.
SRAS: And when did you first start studying Russian? How important was knowing the language in landing your job and how important has been in succeeding in your job?
Heidi McCormack: I started studying Russian in 1990 with a 6 week Berlitz course in NY. I’d done a fair amount of studying early on by myself. Knowing a language, even if only verbally, is a huge asset to ones’ effectiveness. Language was not required by GM – but it was a big plus. The same applies to how I have been able to function in my 10 years at GM. Language mastery has enabled a much higher level of effectiveness and communication.
SRAS: Lastly, I notice on your resume that you’ve been lecturing on business issues related to Russia. I’m curious, has this lecturing been in Russia or elsewhere? If in Russia, how would you rate the students you’ve lectured? Have you found them to be the type that you would want working for your company? Or would you say that Russian business education still has a way to go before it can produce solid graduates?
Heidi McCormack: I have lectured both in Russia and abroad, and, yes, have lectured to Russian business school students, and YES, definitely they were the kind of minds that any company would want to have working on their team. What was interesting about these students and their study is that the program they were in, required that students work for several years before they could attend the program. So, they were all bringing into the class discussions their active work situations and experiences. This was great and they had a very developed sense of business environments and issues. Personally, I strongly recommend such a progression as to work after or during undergraduate school, then to work full time for a few years before continuing higher graduate education.