Trump

Commentary: When the only certainty is uncertainty, focus on things within your control

Who knows what 2017 holds? After all, who would have thought 12 months ago that Britain would be heading out of the EU or Donald Trump would be president-elect of the United States?

By this time next year, Italy could be set for ITEXIT and France might have elected Marine Le Pen as president, putting Paris at loggerheads with Berlin.

Trump, meanwhile, could have triggered a US-China trade war, and the US itself might be in turmoil as he pursues policies for which he does not have a mandate in the popular vote.

You could add any number of recession-inducing scenarios to this toxic mix, from the multiple wars in the Middle East to the possibility of another bank failure. The only thing that seems remotely certain is uncertainty itself.

So, as Tony Soprano would say, what can you do? What hope does a small nation like Wales have when the titans of the global economy are marching around causing havoc?

The last time we had such throat-drying uncertainty was in 2008 when one major bank after another collapsed and it seemed there would be no end to it.

What I learned then - and through the tough years that followed – was that you cannot afford to be so panicked by the big picture that you fail to do the smaller things that are within your power.

The choice is simple: be paralysed by worry or do what you can to give yourself the best chance of mitigating any negative forces that are beyond your control.

Here, for starters, are my five suggestions for how to approach the uncertainties ahead.

First, and most obvious, play to our strengths. Aston Martin’s decision to build its new DBX model at St Athan is testimony to Wales’s engineering skills base. Similar strengths exist in renewable energy, creative industries and financial and professional services, among others. As a country, we should identify our strongest skills and build on them.  The same applies to individual businesses.

Second, we shouldn’t sell ourselves cheap. Competing on price is a mug’s game in a globalised world. It follows from the first point that we should focus on quality and pay salaries that will keep talent in - and attract it to - Wales. Much lower property costs help us, both in terms of living standards and business overheads.

Third, promote, promote, promote. In 2008, some of Freshwater’s clients slashed their marketing spend overnight because they were so desperate to conserve cash. If you have to make cuts - whether in the private sector or government – be smart about it. See how you can make your budget go further. Make sure you use every available channel to get your message across, working good content as hard as possible.

Fourth, dial the diaspora. In troubled times, friends are more precious than ever. By diaspora, I mean not only people with Welsh ancestry living abroad but also the hundreds of thousands of people who have an affinity for Wales because they studied or worked here. Global Welsh, founded four years ago to do this job, is launching a crowd-funding campaign early in the new year to expand its activities. But remember ‘abroad’ includes England, which is why initiatives like Wales Week in London (27 Feb to 10 March) are also important.

Finally, innovation is everything. Investing in developing new ideas seems like a luxury when times are tough, yet it is the lifeline to future prosperity. Besides, innovation is not so much about spending money as engendering a culture in which ideas are encouraged. People at the coalface are more likely to spot ways to improve products and services than ‘clever’ people at the top. Listen to them.

Most of this is common sense and applies even if you think my original premise is fear-mongering.

My aim is not to dampen festive cheer but to suggest that when we all return in the new year our approach should be both resolutely realistic about the challenges ahead and upbeat in our belief we can meet them.

That is known as ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’ – a phrase coined by an Italian (but not Tony Soprano). One for the Christmas quiz.

  

Steve Howell is chief executive of Freshwater UK. This is his monthly column for the Western mail newspaper and Walesonline.

Photo credit: iStock / copyright: Ascarletsails

 


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