Interview with Bob Peirce

1. What are the most significant lessons you have learned from your diverse career, in particular your transition from the public to the private sector?

A diverse career is a lesson in itself. I have been lucky to be able to live and work on four continents. I have worked in two governments – Britain and Hong Kong – numerous embassies and departments, and in the private sector with both private and public companies. I think the trick is to stay curious, open-minded and eager to learn and experience new things. Don’t get stuck in a comfort zone. I always wanted to have a number of careers, and that doesn’t happen if you get too comfortable in one.

2. With your extensive background in political, public and foreign affairs and counter-terrorism, how do you assess the state of the world now? What are the biggest issues we need to confront?

There have been huge changes in just four decades since I first became a diplomat. Back in the seventies it looked as though we would have a world of two opposing superpowers and their respective alliances for many years to come. But that changed only a decade later. By the end of the eighties the US reigned supreme. Now the balance has changed again, and we are going into a period where the US is no longer dominant, although it seems likely to remain the top dog for some time to come. China’s continued rise is not in my view inevitable, but whatever happens there will continue to impact us all. Managing a new balance of powers in the world will be a key challenge for diplomacy.

More generally, I am interested in the paradox whereby the world is becoming at the same time both more connected and more fragmented. Connected in the sense that we are both much better informed about each other and also more interdependent, which is generally a good thing (though perhaps not when a debt crisis in Greece hits your pension plan in the United States.) Fragmented in the sense that many people are not part of the connected world and not able to take advantage of the opportunities it offers. Exclusion breeds unrest, terrorism, criminality and a host of other ills. It is in everyone’s interests that we should address the problem now, both overseas (where Africa now offers both good examples of progress as well as some horrendous examples of failing states) or in our own cities (especially the failure of education systems to produce enough people with skills).

3. As member of the Patten commission in 1997 you drafted the paper ” A new beginning”‘ which has formed the basis for policing reform in Northern Ireland following the 1998 peace agreement. It was hailed around the world as a seminal work on policing. How do you now assess the situation in Northern Ireland?

It is far better than it was. The economy has been transformed. Companies have invested. Stores have opened. The restaurant scene is terrific. Tourists visit. Movies are shot there. It is thriving compared with the past. Policing is certainly very different and, I am glad to say, widely admired. But there are still occasional security threats, from a handful of dissidents who rejected the peace process. And more fundamentally there is still a long way to go before the two communities there, and their leaders, come to trust each other. This will take time, perhaps another generation. I look forward to a time when a politician emerges who will have strong support from both communities.

4. As the British Consul-General in LA you did a lot to strengthen cultural and business relations between Britain and the USA. Now as an entrepreneur, business leader and much more, can you share with us some of the skills you believe today’s leaders need to succeed and move forward in their endeavours?

I see leadership as being essentially about change, as opposed to management which is more about order. Ideally a CEO might perhaps be both leader and manager, but not many people have equal ability in both areas. Personally I am more comfortable leading than managing. So one thing you need to do is to pick the right people to support you. They should not be like you, they should bring to the team the qualities and skills that you do not have yourself. The main job of the leader is to anticipate change, to get out ahead of it and position the organization to take advantage of it. To be able to do this, one needs to have that permanently inquisitive mind – always talking to people, asking questions, reading or whatever you do to acquire information. And take time to think. Different people have different techniques. I have always enjoyed small brainstorming meetings more than solitary thought.

5. Out of all your experiences what would be the greatest lesson you would like to share with a group of fellow business leaders or entrepreneurs?

It is really important to believe in what you are doing and to enjoy it – for me that has meant doing something in order to make a difference. That is what took me to Hong Kong when there was great concern about the future after 1997, to the United Nations after the Berlin Wall came down and to Northern Ireland to tackle policing reform. I put myself forward for those jobs because I wanted to be part of those changes, perhaps to give history a bit of a nudge myself. The same thing now draws me to new companies. I like to get excited about what I am doing. I need to believe it can make a difference and that it is not just a job.