Interview with Dr. Christopher Hartwell, President of the Management Board of CASE
Conducted by: Klaudia Wolniewicz-Slomka, CASE Economist
What was your main motivation behind applying for the position of CASE president?
Having done my PhD at the Warsaw School of Economics, having worked with Leszek Balcerowicz as my advisor, and having been coming to Poland since 1996, I naturally knew CASE. I was working in Russia at a research institute at the time, and when the post came up, I felt like it was a natural fit. Also, my grandmother originally came from Poland (or rather, the bits of Poland that are now western Ukraine), and so it felt like a homecoming. Finally, I’m never one to shy away from a challenge, which CASE was facing at the time.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while managing CASE?
Several, actually. When I arrived, CASE had gone through a tough period, with so many of the first generation of CASE experts coming through, growing up, and moving out. Rebuilding CASE with the next generation was the key challenge. Additionally, being an independent think tank, we continually are on the search for sustainability, an issue which is perpetual. Both of these issues have been very challenging.
What was the toughest decision you had to make while being a president?
Personnel decisions are the toughest, as you are looking to create a coherent and cohesive team that can work well together but also work autonomously. Many times, we’ve just had personnel who did not fit, and it is very tough to let someone know that. I mean, you’re dealing with someone’s livelihood and their future, but my responsibility is to build CASE into the best think tank it can be. It does not make the decision any easier though.
What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?
That is a tough question — there are easy ones, like my latest book for Cambridge University Press, which I am immensely proud of, and whatever my latest research is that is published. But I think the fact that CASE is such a bastion of the policy community, that it has reached the heights of being a well-respected global think tank, one at the top of its game, is my biggest accomplishment. Of course, it’s not something that I alone accomplished, and so much credit has to go to CASE staff for their tremendous efforts. I like to think that I played a small role in this success, but we are all in this together.
What did you like most about being the president of CASE? And what was your least favorite thing?
What I liked most: forging international collaboration, having our research out there and making an impact, and of course, the people I worked with. What I liked least: the fundraising takes its toll after a while, too much travel, and the constant hectic pace. I have described CASE as a lunatic asylum, which in many ways is true if you don’t know what running a non-profit is like. If you are looking at us from the outside without knowing what hoops we have to jump through for donors and the gyrations we have to undertake to find funding, it would look like we’re just gesticulating wildly. Those gesticulations get tiring after a while.
What was the most valuable lesson you have learned while at CASE?
It is important to have a client orientation but also know when to be able to push back. It’s not something that can be taught, you have to know how to read the situation. It’s amazing how so much of business and even running a non-profit comes down to psychology and interpersonal communication.
As CASE President, you get to do a lot of public speaking. Do you always prepare in advance or like to improvise? Do you have any tips on how to get better at public speaking?
When you get to a certain level of expertise, it is crucial that you can speak extemporaneously. Some events, especially where I’m commenting on other’s research, need more preparation, and if I’m giving a formal presentation, I try to stay within the confines of a PowerPoint. If you want to get better at public speaking, like everything, you need to practice. And listen to yourself. If you hear the “ummms” and “ahhhhs” your audience will too.
What kind of skills do you think are crucial in order to effectively manage a think tank?
Humor above all. Persistence. Ability to absorb rejection (good for any academic, really). Pragmatic optimism, in the sense that things will get better but you have to make them so. And the ability to talk to anyone in a room, including people you disagree with so much that you have an objection to them breathing. A corollary to this is being able to agree with everyone in a room, even when they have mutually contradictory beliefs. If you can search for areas of agreement rather than discord, you can run a think tank. Cognitive dissonance is something that think tank presidents need to be able to suppress.
Previously, you worked in Moscow School of Management — SKOLKOVO and you also advised to governments and the private sector on economic policy issues in Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Poland, Russia, among others. As you have been working in the region for a while, have you noticed any similarities/differences between the countries you worked in?
Post-Soviet is a state of mind, especially since many countries I’ve worked in are barely (or not at all) post-Soviet. The most common attitude encountered east of Berlin is the cultural sense of adherence to laws/regulations coupled with a disdain for customers. Americans have a “can do” attitude, that if there is a problem we roll up our sleeves and try many different ways to fix it. And Poles have that attitude for personal problems (car doesn’t start, radiator is broken), but the minute people raised under communism get behind a desk and have some power over someone, that attitude disappears. It becomes a “can’t do” attitude, sorry, the regulations say this, no, we can’t waive that fee, no we cannot look into that, sorry we didn’t provide a service, pay us the full amount of the contract anyway. There’s a fatalism in Slavic countries (and Russian-occupied ones) that translates into “what can you do?” And thus the tiniest bit of assistance that could be rendered is immediately discounted, even if the marginal cost of trying something is negligible. That is the most frustrating thing in working in the transition sphere, the entrenched social attitudes.
Being an American, was it difficult to get used to working in Poland, in a different cultural reality?
No, subject to what I just said, but life is all about setting expectations correctly. Coming to Poland from Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, etc. makes the petty annoyances here manageable. If you come to Poland expecting Germany, well, of course, you don’t get it. But if you come expecting Russia, you don’t get that either.
What do you like (and hate) most about living in Poland?
I like that Warsaw is a small city, not overbearing but still with creature comforts. I dislike the language barrier, which is trying sometimes, and the absolutely terrible customer service of large companies (which I already alluded to). The telecoms companies are the worst, especially Play, but the banks are also fairly horrible.
When you are not running CASE, what do you like to do in your free time?
What’s free time?
Who is, in your opinion, the greatest economists ever?
Hayek and von Mises have had the most important personal impact, but other economists can be great in their own way. Milton Friedman put economic concepts into plain terms, while Gary Becker showed how economics is a way of thinking, a set of tools to be used for analysis. Daron Acemoglu is incredibly important, along with James Robinson, for bringing institutions into the mainstream, but Douglass North predated them and has an even bigger influence. And for sheer ability to be interesting, Russ Roberts from George Mason University has no parallel.