Chat with Ambassador Thomas Pickering Founding Co-Chair of IEA — International Relations, Government, Innovation, Business, Investment, and Policy Top Authority
Enterprises, executives and ICT professionals must think global and work globally to survive and succeed. The biggest impediment is the serious lack of understanding and respect of foreign markets, customs and culture. The non-profit International Economic Alliance or IEA, initiated via the work of Harvard and US Presidents bridges the gaps. Tom Pickering is a founder and his insights are highly valuable to executives, and ICT professionals. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I enjoyed doing it.
Ambassador Thomas Pickering, Ambassador Retired, joined Boeing in 2001 upon his retirement as US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, a position he held since May 1997. He served as Senior Vice President of International Relations as a member of the Executive Council of The Boeing Company until July 1st 2006, where he oversaw the company's international affairs, including those with foreign governments. He has been a Senior Advisor for the company since. In December 2006, he became Vice Chair of Hills & Company, which provides advice and counsel to a number of major US corporations. Ambassador Pickering was briefly President of the Eurasia Foundation, a Washington-based organization that makes small grants and loans in the states of the former Soviet Union.
Pickering holds the personal rank of Career Ambassador, the highest in the US Foreign Service, and has served as US ambassador to the Russian Federation, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Jordan in a diplomatic career spanning five decades. From 1989 to 1993, he served as Ambassador and Representative to the United Nations in New York, and from 1973 to 1974, as Executive Secretary of the Department of State and Special Assistant to Secretaries William P. Rogers and Henry A. Kissinger.
Pickering entered active duty in the U.S. Navy from 1956-1959, and later served in the Naval Reserve to the grade of Lieutenant Commander. Between 1959 and 1961, he was assigned to the Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the State Department and later to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and from 1962 to 1964 in Geneva as political adviser to the U.S. Delegation to the 18-Nation Disarmament Conference.
He earned a Master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, a Bachelor's degree *** laude, with high honors in History from Bowdoin College. Ambassador Pickering was granted both the Distinguished Presidential Award and the State Department's highest award — the Distinguished Service Award. He is a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies and the Council on Foreign Relations. He speaks French, Spanish and Swahili and has some fluency in Arabic, Hebrew and Russian.
To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
What are your top career successes and lessons learned that you feel may be useful to the audience?
"....If you are a Diplomat, listening is probably something you should be doing two thirds of the time. I try to practice that when I'm engaged with folks because in many ways what people have to say and what they want you to hear are often very, very important. But even more important is sometimes what they actually mean underneath all of that isn't exactly what they say. Occasionally I found that they're not really sure what they mean until you have a chance to sit down and ask them a few questions...."
Can you describe your journey leading to your current role as Founding Co-chair of the International Economic Alliance (IEA) and how your prior roles play an integral part in this journey?
"....I had been Ambassador to Russia for a number of months and it became quite clear that a very interesting set of activities were happening at Harvard (which used the business school when it attracted faculty and indeed the Harvard reputation). A number of people in and around Harvard plus some private folks helped to inspire and respond to a Russian desire to be able to meet, work with and develop business contacts that would eventually emerge through into investments in Russia. So Harvard began to sponsor conferences (I went because I was Ambassador to Russia), and that quickly morphed into a situation in which it became clear that many other countries wanted to participate....It has what is purely a historical connection with Harvard and a very useful way to bring to its meetings (which were held annually in New York at the time of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly), a number of key Harvard faculty members who constitute one area of interest to the countries involved, as well as to the corporations who invariably are able to gather two to three hundred people. We have fifty-one countries that have been involved very much in our work...."
If you were to sum it up, why should significant leaders get involved in this work at the International Economic Alliance when there are other venues such as the World Economic Forum or the Economic Forum in Astana?
"....I've been to the World Economic Forum and it's a great talk shop, but you don't have the opportunities that you have at the International Economic Alliance as a leading American corporate executive, to sit down in a private room with a foreign Head of State and talk directly one-on-one about what it is that you're interested in pursuing in that person's country. You gauge, understand and receive commitments and the willingness of that country to open doors to work with you, to support your investment and give you a clear-eyed idea of where that investment may put you in terms of expected returns. This is an enormously useful, targeted, specific set of activities that draws people back because they know and understand that we've had successes....This compresses distances, sparks interest, exchanges information, details the communication, takes the individual entrepreneur and the country leader down the road towards success and we stay with it all the way...."
Why don't technology companies engage further — what are they missing? Can you give examples of why working internationally at the highest level is important to their bottom line and to their success?
"....A lot of the places where we can help the various companies are brand new markets for them. In many cases they will also look for manufacturing, R & D or research opportunities, or cross investment opportunities in these countries and so on the manufacturing side often you are able to take advantage of lower cost manufacturing, not just for that country's markets, but often for other markets so there are real savings to be made and that's one of the benefits of globalization. We help our business clients and their friends to try to take advantage of these sorts of opportunities as rapidly as we can...."
What do you hope to accomplish this year and how will you measure your success?
"....We think this year we want to be able to move up from the 50 or so countries who are involved and move up from the several hundred companies where we have been involved. We would like to see many of the more successful series of events in mid-September in 2014 than we've been able to have before....I would say clearly we should be looking over the next three years at doubling our activity and certainly we would look at a one third increase in 2014 as a very important goal, one that we could meet but it would be a testing goal and I think that's significant. People don't like to come for things that don't represent wide participation, enthusiasm, strong speakers, strong government participation, strong corporate attendance and so I think we are able to continue to provide that and to strengthen them as we go ahead. That will be some of the hallmarks of our success...."
What would a typical event look like? For example, people show up, there is probably a networking function, open table sessions perhaps, some keynote speakers, etc., could you describe a typical event for the audience?
"....That's right and we rely on all of those techniques and more. Normally we would offer several Harvard Business School notables and we would try to offer very senior American business leaders (I mentioned some of them to you just a moment ago), who would give their perspectives. We would bring in the Heads of State from two or three countries, maybe a Prime Minister or two and they would bring a carefully crafted talk to in effect open the doors of the countries to the potential for US company investment and hopefully open the eyes to the US investor to the possibilities in that country....The open table conversations are very valuable and they often provide special introductions for American businessmen with key foreigners. The discussions at those tables, we know that their interests and aspirations are going to be, if not satisfied, at least provided for...."
Everybody knows of your career and the tremendous contributions that you have made to your country and to the world, and yet it sounds like the International Economic Alliance is one of the crowning jewels in all of the things you have been doing?
"....You are kind to say so and my interest in this has been longstanding beginning with Russia, but the people who make this go are the people who also give it 24/7 kind of attention and activism. I mentioned earlier Van McCormick and his student recruits, his interns, some of the Harvard professors who work very closely with us, the long list and then the opportunities we have to contact that list are the American firms and the growing number of partners. We have an Ambassadors Alliance in which we enlist Ambassadors who are in New York at the UN as well as those who are in Washington looking after their country's interests with respect to the United States....A number of us are pleased obviously to have been in on the early days and continue our work as supporters and advisors...."
Are there things that continue to surprise you today in the work that you do?
"....I think this is a world full of surprises, everything from the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009 and its ramified effects, beginning as it did with the total mishandling and misreporting of the household mortgage market in the United States, but spreading way beyond into critical issues into the future of the banking system, the survival of large companies in the United States and abroad and indeed the survival of such economies as Greece, Portugal and so on which were struggling to stay alive in the midst of these huge changes. Those are quite striking and important and hard to predict and I think we need to pay careful attention to those...."
You have corporations, governments and leaders within the various government organizations, you have financial houses, and so on participating at these events. Is there a place for organizations or federations and other non-profits from different areas at an event like the ones held by the IEA?
"....I think we would not want to have our International Economic Alliance meetings turned into a kind of money-raising session for particular non-governmental organizations, but if they felt they had something useful to contribute and showed that then I think that would spin out naturally into where our work is going...."
We see it in the news all the time that there are Geopolitical and investment challenges worldwide. Are there areas that you want to point out that you think people in the audience should be aware of?
"....I think that Northeast Asia in general is some place that people are continuing to look at (Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan). I think that West Asia, the area which has developed a strong commitment to stability, to markets and to attraction to investment for economic development purposes is important. I think South Asia is important, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh in particular. Africa is growing and perhaps continentally speaking one of the largest continuous long term growth rates in history. I think similarly Latin America got to a much higher state of development with growth over the past two decades. All areas are moving but the ones I mentioned are worthy of particular importance...."
This is probably a sensitive area to talk about, but are there areas of controversy in the areas that you work and what are your views on them?
"....We have seen real change taking place in the Middle East where we still don't know the clear result so that in some ways put a damper on activity and development and we don't want to walk away from that....In Russia a climate that varies now is perhaps more of a down side than an upside and this is a very large market. I think in China the obvious role of the government in almost every aspect of Chinese life (some of it now in a much larger role than it used to be). It's important in India, there are some places where the government is weak and unable to provide security and support in a way that an investor would want to have....All around there are these kinds of local developments we have to be up to date with and follow as well as the general growth factors available in describing the country's economy and developing progress...."
I’m going to put out the three topic areas to which you can provide commentary in any way. The topic areas are: The availability of free content on the internet and your views on that in terms of IP and digital rights and so on....Crowdfunding....Digital currencies. You may wish to comment on any of those areas or not at all.
"....With respect to open media, of course this is a new driver. It's a regular source of valuable information. Sometimes you have to be careful as much of it is driven by futurists one way or another and much of it is loaded into a framework which is kept alive by advertising, but advertising has its own influence....I think that the topics you mentioned including IPR, the failure to recognize and honor patent rights and copyrights and things of that sort, are failings that are fairly widespread. As you know the US government had for a long period of time been urging its colleagues and foreign countries all around the world to straighten up and get rights, join some of the international conventions, observe them and do the things that make a lot of sense. The bitcoin phenomenon is very interesting because it's part an investment in a concept that has value, it's almost a derivative and at the same time it is a currency available to be spent in some limited areas at the present time...."
Do you see some policy changes that should occur in the US in the next two years? What would you like to see internationally?
"....I think by their nature, small wealthy city states do better than large ratified countries with vast populations and obviously a great deal of diversity. Secondly, for the United States which has in fact stayed alive by its innovation and its encouragement of innovation much of our most recent innovation has come through migration and we need to pay attention to that. The third point I would make is that fundamentally we need to pay a great deal more attention than we have been to primary, secondary and higher education in the United States....Innovation alone is not necessarily, in my view, the total measure of success, there are things like smart management, the adoption of lean manufacturing techniques, the ability to inspire and empower a workforce, the ability to generate from within almost organically new and superior ways of carrying out your business, whether it's in audits and finance to manufacturing line work the tool support mechanism or the movement and use of contributing parts or the design process to ensure that maintenance is superb and less costly than it has been in the past...."
On the policy side is there just one policy change you'd like to see (and not just restricted to technology), it could be in anything, for example, better healthcare, better international relations or whatever?
"....I'd like to see a lot, because I see education as such a vital resource for a country that I'd like to see us continuing to move education to the top of the list...."
From your extensive speaking, travels, and work, please share some stories (amusing, surprising, unexpected or amazing).
"....It turned out that the steward on the Air Force plane had given me somebody else's coat. This coat felt a slightly different texture than my suit, but it wasn't a terribly ill match except that it just didn't fit, it was very badly sized.......The Russian Foreign Minister was a very old friend and I took a nice stroll around the sloping ramp at the top of the building, and then we were called to walk several blocks to the Brandenburg Gate to have our picture taken and I was able to hide behind the other Foreign Ministers (probably my appropriate place in protocol). Then we climbed on a bus and went to a very nice palace. In the meantime I got on my cellphone (I wasn't able to contact the Embassy in Berlin because for some reason the phone didn't work), but I could get my office in the United States). I quickly told them what the problem was and said you've got to find my coat and that I needed it by this particular place by this particular time because by then we were going to be on cameras and photos sitting around a table working together. Sure enough they were able to do that...."
If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....What's going to happen in the next 3 years in the world economy and where is the economy going?....What are the crucial technologies that we should be paying attention to that will help shape and move us in the days ahead?....In working in developing countries, particularly big ones, what are the kinds of rules you should follow as a prudent investor?...."
Thomas, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.