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LOS ANGELES—Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright demonstrated her diplomatic skills by offering tips for HR professionals when hiring an executive—as well as proposals for peace in the Middle East—during her keynote address here March 19, 2007, at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Global Forum and Exhibition.
Albright said that, during her government service, she has had the opportunity to engage some of the most powerful men and women in the world, and that, before she met a leader, she would obtain various assessments from people who met with that person before. These methods can be applied when conducting interviews for top corporate positions, she said.
It is essential to get as much information as possible on a potential hire before meeting him or her, and, by necessity, “some of it is in written form.” However, it is important to talk to people who know that person as well. But even if an HR professional does manage to obtain vast amounts of information on a potential managerial hire, “in the end a lot of it does come down to a gut level, and there is no way to not make a mistake,” she said.
On Dec. 5, 1996, President Clinton nominated Albright as the first female secretary of state. After being confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate, she was sworn in to become the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. government. “I loved being secretary of state,” Albright said. After leaving government service, she entered the private sector, where she has “enjoyed the opportunity to meet with people such as [global HR professionals] who deeply are interested in foreign affairs, but from a different perspective.”
“The truth is, my own perspective has changed since I decided to start a business,” she said. “It’s called the Albright Group, and we offer strategic consulting services in social responsibility issues, especially to companies interested in emerging democracies.”
While in government, Albright said, she frequently turned to the business community for advice when making decisions about foreign policy because business people and diplomats have much in common. “Whether you’re a business person or a diplomat, you have to work in a global environment” that requires knowing “when to hold your tongue and when to be blunt,” she said. “And you have to understand that every time you’re wrong you will be held accountable. But, often, when you’re right, the credit for success will stop one pay grade above.”
Business people and diplomats are expected to have the gift of prophecy, Albright said. “It’s not enough to know what is happening today; you have to be able to predict what is happening next week, next month, next year,” she said. “This is true whether you’re managing human resources or managing world affairs.”
Some people are still predicting that the global economy will take off, and some say it will be brought down by instability and anxiety about the future. Some global forecasters fear that divisions about religion and culture will create ever-widening circles of conflict. And others point hopefully to the lack of tension among the leading powers.
“Given all that is going on, I’m often asked if I’m an optimist or a pessimist. I reply: ‘I’m an optimist who worries a lot,’ ” Albright said, adding that her optimism is based on “faith in democracy, free enterprise and the desire of most people to live free.” However, while she has faith in the resilience of the democratic system, she worries about the plague of terrorism, which remains widespread. “I worry about Afghanistan, where a weak government struggles against warlords and the Taliban with no victory in sight,” she said.
In addition, Albright worries “about the dark side of globalization, which hastens the spread of false and deadly ideas, the proliferation of deadly arms, and … spreads the gap between rich and poor both within and among nations.”
Albright is worried that democracy has slowed in some countries where “nationalization, repression and other failed policies from the past” have resurfaced.
But, above all else, Albright said, she worries “about Iraq and the Middle East because of the efforts of violent extremists to exploit chaos in order to advance their cause.” According to U.S. intelligence reports, the invasion of Iraq has increased the danger of international terror, making it essential for Gen. David Patreus and our forces in Iraq to succeed. “Unfortunately our troops have been caught in the middle of a civil war with the impossible mission to try to protect all sides against violence by all sides,” she said.
Nonetheless, she agrees with President Bush that it would be disastrous for the United States to leave Iraq under the present circumstances, but it might also be a disaster for the United States to stay. “If our forces are not in a position to make a difference, we have an overriding duty to bring them home sooner rather than later,” she said. In addition, the problems in Iraq have reached the point where our leaders no longer have any good options. “Whatever we decide to do, we will face great risks and the possibility of deeper disaster, so all we can hope for is to limit the damage,” she said, adding that there are four steps that should be applied in Iraq and broadly across the Middle East. They are:
Concerning an effort to engage Iraq’s neighbors in halting violence, Albright said that during her tenure as secretary of state she was confronted with strife in the Balkans in which each faction inside the region had an ally outside the region from which it received arms and support. The solution was to get all the countries with an interest in the Balkans to work together. Something similar should be tried in Iraq, she said. If such a plan is implemented, the involvement of Iran is significant, she said. It is generally forgotten that Iraq invaded Iran during the 1980s, initiating a war that killed more than 1 million people.
“Today, Iraq is divided and weak, while Iran has more influence than at any time in a century and Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken advantage of the regional turmoil to try to present himself on the world stage,” she said. By insisting on Iran’s right to reprocess nuclear fuel, questioning Israel’s right to exist and challenging the morality of America’s actions, Ahmadinejad tries to solidify his shaky domestic political base, she said.
The Bush administration deserves support for its efforts to persuade Iran to forgo the option of developing nuclear arms, Albright said. Those efforts are laborious, but the combination of economic sanctions and pressure on oil supplies may cause Iran to look for face-saving ways out. However, the administration has accused Iran of arming Shiite militias inside Iraq. The United States is right to protest and present evidence supporting the allegations, but the administration should not do anything to invite a wider war, she said.
Over the long term, the United States would benefit immensely from improved relations with Iran. There are no objective reasons why American and Iranian goals must clash, because the problems between Iran and the United States are ideological and potentially resolvable, according to Albright. “I fear a war would open wounds that would never close at great cost to us and to the world, so America’s focus should be on how to build peace, not how to justify another war,” she said.
She said one of the United States’ major accomplishments of the past half-century has been to gain the acceptance of Israel’s right to exist by virtually every government in the Middle East, including the Palestine Liberation Organization. “With that principle clearly understood, we should do all we can to encourage the creation of a viable Palestinian partner with whom Israel can negotiate,” she said.
Peace will not be achieved easily as long as there are elements within Islam, Christianity and Judaism who believe that war in the Middle East has been foretold by scripture, and that the decisive battle between good and evil will take place within that region, she said. “Armageddon is not a foreign policy,” she said. Those who believe God is directing events might begin by obeying God’s commandments instead of ignoring them. There’s nothing preordained about murder and mayhem in the Middle East.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, it has been natural to focus on the threat posed by terrorism and the drama in the Middle East, but the world elsewhere has not stood still, Albright said. “In fact, it has been engaged in a transformation as profound as any since the industrial revolution,” she said, adding, “this may well be one of those periods that people look back on and say history moved from one era to another.” It is called globalization, but it is nothing more than the acceleration of trends that have been going on for decades. Human resource professionals are exposed to these trends every day. More companies are global in scope, and more business people travel overseas or work overseas on a permanent basis, she said.
Need for Training
That has created a need for more training, not only in job skills, but also in such matters as security, language and culture. One of the major trends is a shift in economic and political power from West to East. As countries such as China and India continue to develop, new challenges will arise, such as finding a way for billions of people to emerge from poverty into a middle-class lifestyle without exhausting resources or destroying the health of our planet, she said.
That requires developed nations to pay a great deal of attention to China, Albright said. At one time, Albright believed that all the Chinese wanted from the United States was an assurance that U.S. policy on Taiwan would not change. Now China’s concerns are economic, she said. China’s growth rate remains among the world’s most impressive, but such growth has generated an enormous appetite for natural resources such as oil, minerals and timber. As a buyer on the world market, China is welcomed by those with resources to sell, leading to an expansion of China’s diplomatic and commercial ties on almost every continent, she said. China’s economic clout has given it the confidence to be more assertive on the world stage.
While China is a rising country, it is also a nervous country, for the expectations of the Chinese are growing, unemployment is high and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, Albright said. There has been a dramatic increase in public protest, and adding to the pressure is that the Summer Olympics will be held in Beijing in 2008, she said. China’s leaders will want to avoid controversy between now and when the games are held, she said.
All of the economic activity known as globalization challenges the U.S. leadership “to establish and maintain rules that enable countries to prosper together instead of at each other’s expense,” Albright said. That will not happen automatically, for it is not likely that governments will make the right choices, and it should not be assumed that the forces of enlightenment and freedom will prevail, she said. “As in Iraq, good intentions can lead to unintended consequences,” she said, adding that “those who feel threatened by globalization can be counted on to make their fears known through nationalism, protectionism and political protest.” Others will see the 21st century as the battle ground for re-fighting the religious wars of the Middle Ages, she said.
For the United States to succeed, it needs to do the best possible job not only expressing its beliefs but also understanding how and why others act as they do, Albright said. The United States has to remain true to democratic principles, “and we have to remember no matter how much we think we know, there’s always a lot more to learn,” she said.
J.J. Smith is manager of SHRM Online’s Global HR Focus Area.
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