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IMD’s Orchestrating Winning Performance welcomes Kofi Annan

The former UN leader calls for pressure on politicians to anticipate change
June 2016

New systems of governance are required to not only meet, but anticipate, the needs of a changing world. That was one of the messages Kofi Annan, the 7th Secretary General of the United Nations and Chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation gave to business leaders at IMD’s Orchestrating Winning Performance program. For the business leaders attending, Annan pointed out that the private sector has an important role to play in energizing politicians into action.

Coming only four days after the Brexit, and in the thick of the US election campaign, Annan stood back from current events with the wisdom of an experienced diplomat, saying that the signs are on the walls, but no one is reading them. There is a pernicious disenchantment because people feel that they have been failed by their institutions, including the UN.

“What is happening in the UK is not an accident and what is happening in the US reflects a malaise with the status quo.”

Getting politicians to listen

The UN, he reminded, was created to address the geopolitical realities of 1945. “The world has changed and the UN needs to move on.” Annan does not attempt to hide his own frustration at not having been able, during his 10-year tenure from 1997 to 2006 (he stayed on for a second five-year term by popular demand), to transform the UN’s structure of governance.

“Subsidies and privileges are the most difficult things to give up.” The UN Council is composed of five members with a right of veto, so it follows that the UN Council is not going to vote itself out of its own privileges. With 193 members, Annan is convinced that the Council is no longer representative. “Rather than destructive competition, we need to think in terms of participation,” he explained.

During his entire career as appointed peace-maker, Annan, the Ghanaian-born 2001 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has relied on civil society. Without the grass-roots forces of women and men who believe that change is possible, and necessary, resistances, including subsidies and privileges, will remain. Annan believes in the importance of empowerment to bring about reform.

He also understood early on that he needed to reach out to the private sector. “There was no way we could do it all alone. It became very clear to me that we needed to expand our capacities to implement our goals; we needed the private sector’s support in innovation and research.”

Annan is also convinced that the private sector can help contain corruption. “It’s easy to corrupt when governments dominate. Each time you need a paper, a hand comes up!” One of the best ways to fight the global phenomenon of corruption, he suggested, is to eliminate the red tape, which is more likely to happen in competitive conditions.

On the other hand, he warns that companies are not thinking in the long term, which is the key to anticipating change. “You have to convince your shareholders, and yourself, that quarterly returns have outlived their day.”

“You need to think long term and you need to get politicians to listen,” he suggested. “We all need to make noise to keep items high on the agenda.”

Post-UN career

The hour-long session was conducted by IMD Professor Mike Wade, who, after discussing the 1999 Global Compact Initiative and the 2000 Millennium Development Goals, both programs of which Annan is understandably proud, guided the speaker into revealing what he has done since he left the UN.

“Retirement is hard work, so don’t rush into it,” he first replied with a gentle sense of humor. In 2007, Annan was called to Kenya to help with the electoral crisis, planned to be there for ten days, stayed for six weeks and remained involved for five years until the next election. “My staff called me a prisoner of war.”

The Kofi Annan Foundation, based on the principles of peace and reconciliation, was founded during that time to help keep important issues on the political agenda, such as systems of election and making Africa agriculturally more self-sufficient. These issues need leadership, Annan reflected, adding: “It’s not easy to be a leader today. When news was delivered by boat, there was plenty of time to reflect. Now information arrives in a constant flow and decisions are meant to be taken instantly.”

He admitted to a sense of failure regarding the Syrian conflict, when as joint envoy for the Arab League and United Nations in 2012, an agreement to form a transitional government with full executive authority was never signed. “I lost my support on my way to Damascus,” he regretted, pointing out that unless the permanent members of the UN and the regional authorities make it a common cause, “It could take an entire generation to resolve.”

Invaluable advice

Annan then addressed the IMD’s executive education participants directly. “You are at an interesting stage in your lives. At mid-career, some of you will take a different direction, some will drop out. It is important, as you move forward, to understand yourself and to know what you enjoy doing and why. You have to listen to your inner compass, but also learn to think in the long term.”

He also shared some of his own strategies of success. Learn to listen carefully, he said. “Listen to what is said, but also to what is not said.” People can sometimes talk themselves into a solution.

Refuse to be provoked into taking action. “Don’t feel that you have to do things immediately. Take the time to gather at least 60% to 65% of the information, before making a decision.”

And don’t be afraid of failure. “If a decision is not right, pull it back.”

Get a good night’s sleep. “You need to know when you’re tired, otherwise you can make serious mistakes.” He admitted that he cannot function with less than 7 to 8 hours sleep a night.

Most importantly, he said, make sure that people are engaged. Understand and make use of today’s communication tools. “Leaders have to have good judgment to know how to reach out.”

To end, referring to the situation of Europe following the Brexit vote, he reminded the audience that, remarkably, “the impact of peace never came up. The EU has been a triumph that no one thinks about. It is important for the other 27 nations to remain,” he hopefully concluded.

Learn more about IMD’s Orchestrating Winning Performance program, offered November 2016 in Singapore.