Innovation requires decisive leaders...and accountability - Interview with AmCham Prezident Milan Šlapák

The AmCham Board of Directors appointed Milan Slapak of RSBC to another term as president. He will continue to prioritize innovation policy, including the adoption of Big Bet investment that could transform the country into a global center for key sustainable technologies. He will be joined on AmCham’s executive committee by Martin Skrehota of Carrier (focus on Macro Intel and Manufacturing), Ondrej Krajicek of Y Soft (Innovation, Brno, and US Market), Jaroslava Rezlerova of Manpower (Human Resources), and Vaclav Novotny of Aspironix (Health Care). Milan discussed his priorities in the following interview.

You have now spent one year on the job as president…

“And what a year. The end of a pandemic- we hope. The start of a ground war in Ukraine and the sudden shutdown of business in Russia. An energy crisis which is still not over. A continued change in the climate that is resulting in unpredictable and costly weather patterns. The need to discover new technologies and build new products to make the economy more sustainable. The introduction of a huge package of incentives by the EU to make the economy more digital and more green. The economy and our businesses can always go in different directions depending on what decisions we make, but all of these external conditions add an exponential effect that previous generations of business leaders did not have to face.”

You have been insisting that both business and governments need to take more risks to be successful.

Yes. Risk is not a negative thing. It is a reality. We can fear that reality or we can view it as an opportunity. There is always a danger out there that can swamp our business. The question is whether we not only are ready for that danger, but have thought about how we can use that danger for our benefit. To often, I think businesses and politicians want to ignore the risks and avoid making decisions, or they want to build massive defense against the risk that raises their costs and lowers their ability to invest in opportunities. That creates in own set of risks. And you can argue that in crisis, when external change can be large and very sudden, that set of risks may be more dangerous.

You and other members have been meeting with government about the letter of innovation AmCham drafted in December. What is your read on their reaction?

To be honest, we were not expecting any reaction. Our letter essentially said that you cannot stop being a “montovni” economy unless you are willing to take more risks with your economic policy. We were not expecting anyone in the government to be happy about that. But the government has to understand they cannot just tell business to be innovative. We have a very risk-averse political culture. The first instinct of politicians and the media is to demonize whoever makes a decision that goes wrong. They blame them for the failure. They suggest the decision was corrupt. That generates two strong cultures within the government. First, an unwillingness to decide or take responsibility for a policy. Second, the fear of doing anything that may fail. As anyone who has done major research and development can tell you, innovation requires decisive leaders who hold themselves and everyone else accountable, and the understanding that you might fail multiple times before you succeed. Innovation is doing something that has not been done before. There is a reason why it has not been done before. The greater the innovation, the greater the degree of difficulty. If we want to be an innovative economy, we have to develop an innovative culture that extends into our political culture.

What can AmCham do to help that happen?

Try, and try again. What has been gratifying over the past year is that the letter on innovation provoked some good discussions, and we have found some people in universities and the government who may have different approaches, but the same aims. When we wrote the letter, we framed “big bets” as major public and private investments in developing sustainable technologies. But we need other types of “big bets”. We need universities to make big bets in education. We need the public to make “big bets” that more foreign engineers living here will result in more prosperity. And the biggest bet we need to make is to believe we have the capability to compete at the highest technological level with anyone and then create the policies necessary to compete at that level. That is what we want to try to achieve this year. 

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