On Media, Career Shifts and Extending Your Runway
A visionary public policy expert or an experienced private sphere executive consultant? A businessman, a journalist, a teacher or an entrepreneur? All of the above. I am pleased to introduce you to Tomáš Klvaňa. Tomáš is known to his international corporate clients as a senior international management consultant and a leadership coach. He has worked with pharmaceutical, finance as well as defense companies. To his students, he is a visiting professor at the Stern School of Business at the New York University in Prague. He was a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and he holds a PhD. from the University of Minnesota.
In the Czech Republic, he is known for being a former spokesman and a policy adviser for Václav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic, and Special Czech Government Envoy for Communications of the Missile Defense Program, a US-Czech-Polish project which brought him to work with the US Congress, Pentagon, State Department, and the White House.
In the world of think-tanks, he is known as a co-founder of the Aspen Institute Prague and a member of its International Advisory Board.
To Czech readers, he is known as an author of three books. His first book, a fiction called “Marina” was published in 2011. Two books discussing current trends in politics and society had spectacular timing; the second book called “The Trump Phenomenon – White Men’s Last Rebellion” was published just shortly before Donald Trump won the US election in November 2016 and his last book “Perhaps Even a Dictator Will Show Up. Why Are We Losing Freedom and Nobody Cares” was published in 2017, before the Czech presidential elections. Spoiler alert…Tomáš Klvaňa has admitted himself that he does not know how to write books with happy endings.
How do you interview someone whom you regard as a colleague and a senior esteemed professional? Tomáš made it easy. Not only did he send his impressive CV but also his corporate and individual executive coaching offer. Reading through his authors and researchers gave me a clue about how his approach, knowledge, and experience exceed the boundaries of conventional thinking in the Czech Republic. Although we both are Czech patriots, we decided to make the interview in English, considering the primary target group of the Czech and Slovak Leaders Magazine readers.
Tomáš, your professional bio corresponds to the future trend that people will change their career course more frequently. You have managed at least three big shifts and still have many career years ahead. If you were to introduce yourself as of 2020, who are you?
That is a very good question. I divide my time between business, teaching, and media. I regard my commentaries for the Czech TV and the Czech Radio being a part of my academic involvement. Timewise, I spend most of the time on business consulting of companies mostly abroad. But again, there is a link to my academic involvement. I teach for the Stern School of Business program the subject called “Organizational Communication and Strategic Stakeholder Engagement” which mirrors the scope of my consulting work that I started already in 2004.
In the Czech Republic, you are known as the spokesman of President Václav Klaus and then being the Special Envoy for the Missile Defense Program. To use a parallel, besides shifting from a public sphere to a private one, you also moved from the spotlight more to the shadow. Media with flashlights are said to be addictive. Don’t you miss it?
I will challenge your question as I do not think that business is in shadow. I concentrate on the companies positioning vis à vis their stakeholders. Companies have to be smart about how they shape their public persona. And all these actions happen in public. If you are asking me about my engagement in politics, that is over. As to media, I do commentaries for Czech TV and Czech Radio. In fact, media has not been my main area of engagement for more than 10 years. However, I agree with you about media being addictive. On the other hand, we can see a very sad trend all over the world of media becoming poorer and poorer. Poorer not only in terms of money but also of quality. This is even more true in the Czech Republic when compared to larger language areas, such as the German or English ones. Media limited to the Czech market will never be able to grow significantly, advertisement revenues have gone down, readership likewise. 18 years ago, when I was the deputy-editor of Hospodářské noviny (Economic Daily Newspaper), our daily circulation was about 80 000 copies and our international section consisted of 18 journalists, including foreign correspondents abroad. Today, they sell 30 000 copies and four people cover international events from Prague, as there is no budget for travelling. Most media outlets cannot afford any expertise which results in a decline in quality.
Let me ask you about your second shift, the one from influencing the strategy of the state to influencing corporate strategies. I am aware of the fact that many corporations are more powerful than nation-states. However, can you compare and contrast your current role with your mission to establish the Missile Defense Program in the Czech Republic, which was geopolitically influencing not only the Central and Eastern European region but also the trans-Atlantic alliance as a whole?
I remember my radar mission very fondly, although it was really difficult, and we did not manage to make the case successful. The radar was already unpopular when I started to work on the issue and remained that way when my contract expired. However, it was a great experience, and great learning. I felt the radar was a case that needed to be done. If there was a similar case today, I would jump right on. Therefore, I do not consider it a failure, but I know that a lot of people do. I am not going to argue about that. I realized already in 2007, that the wave of the populism, that currently engulfs politics everywhere, had begun. People were not honoring facts, they just were creating own reality and so public debate ended up being rather unhealthy. With the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, the trend had spread to Western Europe and later also to the US. Maybe unconsciously, I started to shift to business and consulting. I realized that it is in the business sphere that real things impacting our lives are happening. Entrepreneurship, creativity and the general way that business relates to our society are the issues that will change our lives. I found the business sphere very satisfying, full of creative and positive people. Unfortunately, I cannot make the same statement about politics
One could interpret your change from media and politics to business as a manifest of another frequent phenomenon today, which is a mid-career crisis. However, in your case, it was rather a return to your roots.
I can see a certain connecting thread in all my activities. I studied journalism and being the student generation of the Velvet Revolution, I started the student broadcasting and publishing the Students’ Newspaper back then. In the United States, I studied communication theory in international relations. All of these topics are connected to the importance of information in the public sphere. As the cliché says, we live in the information age and knowledge economy, which links my journalism, academic career and public policy experience. I find my current business consulting and coaching very fulfilling. As I work with many clients in South-East Asia, I see that region as a very promising, being on the rise but also facing many challenging issues. This only confirms my notion about things truly happening in the business sphere.
The third shift in your career is connected to global issues and entrepreneurship. When I reviewed your list of authors and experts, I must admit that six out of seven are not very well known in the Czech Republic.
I do not work in the Czech Republic, except for some large international companies. Apart from the US, I have developed my expertise in London, Hamburg and Brussels. The most interesting findings with regard to coaching and leadership are now happening in neuroscience, cognitive psychology and adult development. Based on real insights, as people get older, they can acquire new skills and become better performers. This fact was not known 30 years ago. That connects theoretical insight to how companies work in practice. Together with Michael Netzley from Singapore, we co-founded a start-up called Extend My Runway. We aim to help executives to prolong their active professional lives beyond the age of 65 or 70 years of age. We connect psychology and neuroscience. We work closely with the University of Texas which has a leading neuroscience department concentrating on brain health, we follow the findings of nutritionists and physical fitness experts. We consult companies that are facing multi-tier generation teams. In Europe, we talk about four generations in the workplace. Soon, we will have five generational teams. People live longer, they are more healthy, they can work until a later age. South Korea and Japan are examples of aging generations, without significant immigration and so they are facing a lack of suitable work-force. It is estimated that in Singapore, in 2030, there will be 1 000 000 high- level jobs vacant and no employees available. Extended retirement represents a solution. However, in Asia, due to cultural limitations, it is not easy to work in these multigenerational teams. All this being said about Asia, will eventually happen here, in Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, in the Czech Republic, the age diversity is not as pronounced, due to the historical circumstances. The oldest people in international companies are now in their late fifties, the founder generation that came after the fall of communism. But we do have here the cultural and national diversity. Some of the formulas that apply to generational diversity, particularly with regards to psychology and emotional intelligence, apply also to cultural and national diversity.
And now the issue of millennials is coming to the forefront. Millennials behave very similarly across cultures. What you find in Asia is not very much different from what you find here or in the US.
Millennials, being the first global generation, have become also the most polarizing generation so far. What is your opinion?
I am more positive about them, but I understand why many people of my generation are impatient with them (laugh). You need to talk to them and relate to them differently. I see that people in the Czech Republic or the Czech staffed companies tend to complain about them, as not being willing to work long hours or as wanting career growth really fast, but they have to understand the millennials’ perspective. And let us also admit that they are our children, so if we are not happy, it is also our problem. I enjoy that millennials are active, self-confident and open to discussion. They do expect feed- back, while we were told to listen and even “shut-up”.
The next generation is the Z generation. It is too early to make any substantial observations, however, you claim that the youngest generation deserves our attention and we should listen to them.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about a sandwich theory in an article for Asian Management Insights. If companies want to become truly influential, they should talk to two groups of stakeholders. These are senior experts on one side and young people, on the other side. Young people have time to search for information about companies and thus the young ones play an important role in shaping companies’ public profiles and corporate brands. The Z generation is much more activist than millennials. You can see their concern and ability to mobilize around global issues, climate change being an example.
Based on our conversation, I think that you are an example of a perpetual visionary who is well ahead of time. Both books you published were quite visionary and discussing topics that now seem to be a mainstream agenda or discourse.
I do hope that with my business, concentrating on age diversity, leadership, and strategic communication, I am answering the relevant needs as of today. The book 100 Year Life, published by Lynda Gratton in 2016, talks about us rethinking our careers. We will have several engagements, instead of life-long employment and we will have to look at our career like an investment portfolio. We will concentrate on several things that will interest us and we will find them meaningful. Like with investment, one never knows which one is going to be the most important. As the nature of the business changes, so will we. The electronic age rewards those who move first.