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Consultant și analist de risc politic, CEO Smartlink, fost Policy Manager la Google Bruxelles

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How to avoid political turbulence: Essential advice for CEOs

Although we are only a decade after the 2008-2009 economic meltdown, today's sentiment is that of the end of an era. True, growth is slowing down and the markets are signaling that a recession could be around the corner. But more importantly, the political evolutions are giving headaches to CEOs and the entire business environment. 
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Navigating this turbulent period requires a return to the first principles and a feeling to the broader trends. For all those CEOs overwhelmed by the messy change we see on the horizon, I will try to offer my take on some essential aspects to consider when venturing into the (very likely) storm. 

Last week, Forbes organized in Singapore the 19th annual Forbes Global CEO Conference, gathering some 400 of the world’s top global CEOs, tycoons, entrepreneurs, investors, and thought leaders (details here). The theme of the conference – transcending the turbulence – is more than an attempt to take stock of what is currently happening in/to the world; it is an exercise in catching up. If some years ago politics (either domestic or international) was considered as an accepted nuisance against the almighty rule of the market, today’s story is about making sense of the relationship and tensions that connect political leaders and voters. Let us take a closer look at three facets of the new game the business world is called to be part of.

Understanding the great power competition. The world order, as we know it, is under threat. Since the election of Donald Trump, multilateralism is contested from within, by the very creator of the post-WWII world order. Slowly, but surely, international cooperation in key areas is breaking down and the uncertainty could lead to suboptimal decisions. The WTO, the epitome of globalization, risks to become paralyzed in the next few months. The power transition involving US and China is already affecting the global economy and things can become even more complicated if/when the attempts to push forward counter-hegemonic institutions in finance and security will accelerate. With all these discussions about misinformation and global value chains, we see steps towards diversification in relation to dominant ideas and production locations.
To make things concrete, the CEOs have to adapt to this reality. It is rather comical to ask for predictability in Romania, for example, when the fundamental principles behind the regional and global economies are under pressure. I advocate for more realism, for stopping to treat things as being “there” as opposed to happening “here”. For complicated regions of the world, for small countries and middle powers, the effects of great power competition can be even more damaging – the menu will become more limited, whereas forced choices risk to be the new normal. If this picture looks too bleak, what I will say is that it is not an unavoidable outcome: all the defenders of multilateralism and open markets should come together, in different for a (be it national, regional or international), to fight for diversification and for rule-based orders and institutions. In addition to searching for opportunities and profits, CEOs should take on a more prominent advocacy role, together with like-minded politicians, academics and civil society activists.
Fighting for different kind of votes. The comeback of politics asks for a better understanding of the tools politics operates with. Our public discourse is flooded with references to populism, inequality, resentment, and fear. The wall between consumers and voters is eroding and politics will spill over into what was seen, in the past, as protected from the whims of the ballot box. It is no-brainer that CEOs will continue to make decisions with an eye on the spreadsheet, but these turbulent times call for more investment in a different type of assets. Some like to talk about branding, but the key step is about building trust and bridges with community, stakeholders, and, more broadly, with voters. When tectonic shifts are threatening the world economy, an anchor of stability can be found by betting on sustainability and inclusiveness and by going local, by going to the roots.

 Building resilience. No plans are perfect, but planning is essential, especially as it can provide the business world with the mindset and the tools that will allow it to live another day. What I am proposing to every future-oriented CEs is the implementation of the 5Is ecosystem path, comprising of the leader, the team, and surrounding environment. And this should also orientate the approach to the challenges that I have highlighted above. So, the 5Is are about: 1. Information, about scanning yourself, your team and the wider world so that you can feel the trends and ride the (good) waves; 2. Initiation, about training to be competitive, about refusing the beaten paths and the conventional wisdom, about embracing rather than avoiding big challenges; 3. Image, about how you would like to be seen and about getting a sense of the emerging concept of competitive storytelling; 4. Influence, about finding your niche and about identifying power voids in a market;  5. Interaction, about ensuring the right combination of cooperation, collaboration, cohabitation, and competition. A take on the 5Is that starts with openness and continues with discipline is what will transform you into a seasoned captain during an imperfect storm.

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