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Difficult times require more thinking

If there is one thing that the last two and a half years have shown me is that the future is unpredictable.

The first time I heard about the virus we now know as Covid-19, my sister pointed out that it might not be a good time to travel to China. This was in early January and my trip was scheduled for the middle of February.

A few weeks later the course was rescheduled for New York City. I went to New York the first week of March to teach on the course but found it had been postponed indefinitely as the company that we were training had imposed a global travel ban while I was on the plane.

Since then the virus has killed more than 6.4 million people, disrupted the lives of billions of people and caused an economic crisis that has set back the world’s sustainable development goals and further impacted people all over the world.

As the world’s economy came back to life, severe shortages occurred across the global supply chain further upsetting industries and people’s lives.

If that wasn’t enough, On February 4th, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine killing thousands of civilians and soldiers as well as displacing millions of people. The war has also caused a sharp rise in energy prices around the world as well as a global food shortage.

My MBA students and the Sr. Managers I am regularly in contact with are justifiably concerned about the impact that all of this will have on the job market and their careers.

A Russian student in his late 30s who was completing IESE’s Global Executive MBA, for example, wondered what value an MBA from a school in the West would have in Russia in the years following the invasion given the degree of sanctions imposed on the country.

Everything is connected

These events are just another reminder that everything is connected and that our lives and and livelihoods can be impacted by events and situations that most of us do not fully understand or expect to happen.

During the pandemic, for example, demand for consumer electronics shot up while demand for a number of other products including new cars dropped to almost nothing. One result of this was that microchip manufacturers shifted production to match demand and then had no capacity to spare when the market came back crippling the car companies.

What this means for thinking about your career is it is no longer possible to look at a specific job, company or even an industry in isolation.

Twenty years ago, I was the Global Practice Leader for one of the large headhunting company’s automotive industry practice. My partners and considered ourselves experts in the global automotive industry and placed hundreds of executives at the world’s car companies and their suppliers.

In those days we could look at the evolution of the global automotive business and more or less predict what would happen based on the overall level of economic activity as well as the actions of the companies in the business and the governments that regulated them.

These days what happens in automotive, or any other business, is impacted by a wide variety of technological, political, environmental and even geopolitical issues that introduce an almost overwhelming degree of complexity.

China is key

For millennia, China considered itself the center of civilization. Between 1839 and 1949, however, China was left behind by the industrial revolution, invaded twice by the English during what were called the Opium Wars and later by Japanese. All of this led to the Chinese Civil war which eventually ended witht he victory of the communists and the retreat of the nationalist forces to the island of Formosa where they established the nation of Taiwan.

The Chinese call this period the “Century of Humiliation” and to a large degree the legacy of Deng Xiaoping and his successors, including China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has been to bring China back to its rightful place in the world.

One aspect of this is the almost unlimited connections between China and the rest of the world. Going back to Covid 19, the World Health Organization issued its first situation report on January 20th, 2020. At that time, they had data on 278 cases in China, 2 in Thailand, 1 in Japan, and 1 in South Korea. 48 days later, WHO reports more than 100,000 cases in 101 countries.

Besides the spread of the virus, the economic impact is already being felt due to China’s weight in the global economy. In constant dollars, China represented 18.4 %. of the global economy in 2021 according to the World Bank when measured in current US$.

This was simply not true just a few years ago. In 2000, for example, just over 600,000 cars were built in China and the country was not really of interest to our clients in Europe, the U.S., and Japan. In contrast, last year China was the leading automotive manufactuer in the world and built over 21 million cars – far more than the 13 million or so that were built in the United States.

China’s future, however, is highly dependent on the leadership of Mr. Xi and might be tied up with the futre of Taiwan. This week, for example, the Speaker of the House in the U.S., Nancy Pelosi, made a very public trip to Taiwan producing a strong reaction by China including military exercises designed to show that it could successfully invade the island if it chose to do.

The connection between these two examples is that Taiwan is home to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation which produces about half of the world’s microchips.

Time to think about the future

Whether it is industry disruption, a viral outbreak, unexpected political issues or even geopolitical tensions and war, the fact is that things do happen in the world which affect the future of specific spaces and the women and men who work in them.

For me, this si the main reason why all of us need to think about our careers in a dynamic way rather than assume that tomorrow will be similar to today.

I have tried to explain how to do that one compact book titled Learning to Fly. The book is being published by Anthem Books and will be available on multiple outlets on September 13th.

This web site has highlights form the book as well as many of its core concepts.

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