Do businesspeople make good politicians?

Slovakia’s president shares insights from a career in business, philanthropy, and government

Credit: The Project Twins

Andrej Kiska

Andrej Kiska | Nov 13, 2018

Sections Public Policy

Collections Politics

Andrej Kiska, president of Slovakia, spoke at Chicago Booth in September as part of Booth’s Distinguished Speaker Series. Trained as an engineer, Kiska cofounded and eventually sold several consumer-finance start-up companies before leaving the for-profit business world. In 2006, he started a nonprofit organization, the Good Angel, with the help of his own €1 million personal donation. He won office in the 2012 elections. In a wide-ranging conversation, Kiska addressed contemporary political forces, philanthropy, and the transition from business to politics.

On populism

Nowadays, we have a problem of identities. Take Slovaks, for example: Who are we? A hundred years ago, it was easy; we were Czechoslovakia, there were borders, we had some manufacturers, we had an army, and so on. Now, thanks to globalization, we are losing who we are. Are we Slovaks? Are we Europeans? Who are we? McDonald’s is everywhere; you have the feeling when you go from one country to another that you are always in the same country. Only the landscape is different. The shops, the brand names are all the same. 

In this environment, it’s easy to take up nationalism, to say, “Slovak first!” or “American first!” “We have to protect ourselves. We could be destroyed by immigrants, by whatever.” It’s so easy. Populist politicians work with fear. Real leaders work with the challenge, share their energy with the people, and make them feel it when they say, “We are so successful. We can handle this problem. Don’t worry: we can handle this.”

On moving from business to politics

In business, you cannot survive the way many politicians operate. In business, let’s say you are a manager and want to change something in your company. What do you do? If it’s a priority, you put the best people on the problem, you put money into it, you give the people competencies, and then you meet with them maybe once a week or month and ask, “You have everything, including money and full commitment, so where are the results?” 

In politics, often we say we need, for example, reform in education. How do we accomplish that reform? We know how to do it: we have to make the best people teachers and enact reforms. But in the end, often nothing happens. Although we say reform is a priority, we don’t treat it as a priority; we more often use it as political rhetoric. 

Yes, we need more schools—but if we need them, we have to do something about it. We cannot just talk about it. One advantage coming from business is that you know that things have to get done.

In Slovakia, we have some politicians who came from business, and I think that the important thing is to understand why people do things. For me, being a politician means serving people. It’s not about having power and being able to make decisions about whatever I want. But some people who come from business and become politicians, they are in it to get more power. They have enough money. The US president has enough money, I think. I hope. But if you are from business, and you use all the skills you have in order to serve people, it’s a fantastic combination.

On the European Union

You can see a lot of disintegration, and it’s happening because we do not have real advocates for Brussels. A lot of leaders in Europe, if they have a problem inside their country, they blame everything on Brussels. Whatever is wrong, they put it on Brussels. Whatever is good, they say, “Ah, we did that.” 

No one country, not even the United States, can solve issues such as climate change, migration, and terrorism, or even create solid economic growth, by itself. We have to work together. Unfortunately, too many leaders think about how to be reelected, and if it helps them to blame problems on Brussels—they don’t care that doing so is not good for the people—they will do it.

On personal satisfaction

Some people are rich, and they mostly want to become richer. Experience has taught me the wisdom of the statement, attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, “He who knows he has enough is rich.” You start a business and want to earn $1 million. When you earn that, you should be happy, but you see other people who have $100 million, so you spend another 10 years working hard. When you have $100 million, you are still unhappy because other people have $1 billion. You can spend your life running, running, running after those goals, but you’ll miss out on happiness in the process.

On economic health

The economy is connected to a lot of other priorities. If you want to reform the educational system, for example, you have to get the money from somewhere. You have to attract companies to your country, have them pay taxes and create jobs and revenue. Only then will you have the money you can use to make reforms. 

In our country, we are now the biggest global manufacturer of cars per capita, so we have seen unemployment go down steeply. But if I asked someone from one of the best schools in the US to come work in Slovakia, they would ask me, “So what company should I work for? I invested a lot of time and money in my education and now I want to get a good job.” My son was studying at the University of Virginia, and my daughter at Northeastern in Boston; neither of them is now in Slovakia. I asked them, “Why don’t you come to Slovakia? It’s so beautiful.” And they asked me, “Daddy, what company can I work at with my education?”

Young people want to work for the best companies, including Amazon, Google, Facebook, and McKinsey. That’s another duty of politicians, to create conditions for those companies to come. Give them incentives such as stable taxes and good workers. It’s our duty to create an environment for the best companies to come, and that’s how we can get the best people to come.

On success

All successful people have many failures. I failed so many times. So many projects didn’t work properly. But if you fail and then stand up, you get stronger. You know more. Maybe you’ll fail again, but you have to have a lot of failures to have success.