Tim Mahoney had one dream while in college: to become a pilot like a good friend’s father, who lived a romantic life traveling the world for Pan Am and experiencing the world through the windshield of a jet.
But Mr. Mahoney’s vision didn’t pan out, in more ways that one. As a rising junior he was prescribed glasses, dashing his best-laid career plans to join the world of commercial aviation.
“I had an hour and a half in my pilot’s log,” Mr. Mahoney told Global Atlanta during an interview in May.
By that point, it was too late to switch away from a major in international studies, which featured a concentration in German language. He’d studied abroad in Vienna for two semesters and then complete two separate short-term stints in Germany.
Little did he know, this educational ingredient would help him find new roads (more on that later) in the auto sector, launching a career that made up for lost altitude with ground speed.
Mr. Mahoney recently retired as chief marketing officer for Chevrolet, also serving simultaneously at the tail end of a more than 30-year automotive career as head of global marketing operations for General Motors.
Along with Hollywood content partnerships and major ad buys for GM, he managed Chevy teams focused on storytelling in North America, as well as South American markets like Brazil, Argentina and Colombia and growing Asian nations like China and South Korea.
By working across the years in major foreign-owned brands like Subaru, Volkswagen and even Porsche‘s North American headquarters in Atlanta, Mr. Mahoney developed his craft, learning how to tell universal human stories in a way that resonates in specific contexts.
“There’s a lot of data that suggests people will forget facts and figures and names and faces and everything else, but a good story they will remember, and it improves the retention significantly. The question is how to do that across cultures,” Mr. Mahoney said.
Managing a team of about 30 people from 13 countries at Chevy, it became an art form.
“We’ve sort of followed the strategy of ‘glocalization,’ which is really having a global strategy but allowing for local relevance and local insight,” he said.
But Mr. Mahoney said the starting point came from his own language study, which gave him the curiosity about how others around the world think, and eventually the confidence to travel abroad and to take that first step across cultural chasms.
Mr. Mahoney served as the keynote speaker of the second annual Global Languages Leadership Luncheon at Georgia State University in May. The event is one of a few premier public programs organized by the Center for Urban Language Teaching and Research, or CULTR, which promotes access to language learning for underserved students, researches new methodologies and makes plain the real-world relevancy of language study for students.
CULTR will host its annual World Languages Day fair Oct. 10, bringing together companies, consulates, chambers and nonprofit organizations to show students from Georgia high schools and universities the kinds of career paths that language proficiency could help them attain.
It’s like cooking — if you cook with one ingredient it’s not interesting, but if you put other things together then you can make amazing results. -Tim Mahoney
Mr. Mahoney believes his German was a modest accelerant early on, but it would have been rocket fuel with if paired with another, perhaps technical, skill.
“Unless you want to go into translation or education, you need to partner it with something, you need to mix it together. It’s like cooking — if you cook with one ingredient it’s not interesting, but if you put other things together then you can make amazing results,” Mr. Mahoney said. “I graduated into a recession with a single degree, so I’m speaking from experience. I would encourage the professors here leading language programs to get real close with their business counterparts.”
That’s what CULTR has been trying to do in the language field, joining with broader efforts in the community. The Atlanta Global Studies Center, a collaborative institute run by Georgia Tech and Georgia State, in November is set to launch the Greater Atlanta Coalition for Global Education and Research, or GAcGEAR, that will bring the state’s international studies resources together to better train and prepare the state’s future workforce.
For Mr. Mahoney, a global mindset is inseparable from success in business across borders, particularly in a world where digital technology and social media enable consumers to engage in endless comparison with the rest of the world.
Buyers base their decisions on emotional, rational and economic connections, but feeling is often the most important, he said, and that’s not always easy to understand.
He pointed to an attempt to launch Chevy’s Find New Roads campaign in China, where the connotation in Mandarin was that the road one was currently traveling was in some way defective. In Germany, the idea of an “SUV fathered by a sports car,” a tag line for the Porsche Cayenne, fell flat.
“The way to a person’s wallet is through their heart, and you have to come in through that entry point,” he said. “As much as is going on in the world, we’re a lot closer as far as afar as our humanness than we want to admit.”
Culture and language are the key to that understanding, and Mr. Mahoney takes solace in the fact that he has become a student of the world — even without a high-flying career.
“It was disappointing in some ways,” he said of missing out on that dream. “I enjoy travel, I enjoy seeing other people, seeing different cultures. That said, I’ve been able do that in another way through the business side of things. But even at 62, I still might think about at least getting that pilot’s license.”
Learn more about CULTR and how to exhibit at World Languages Day here.