An Interview with Gillian Tett

Gillian Tett
Gillian Tett

25th February 2016

Gillian Tett is the US Managing Editor of the Financial Times, where her career spans over twenty years. She has covered the Soviet Union and Europe, become Tokyo bureau chief, and held the position of assistant editor.

Q: Who do you think will win the Republican and Democrat presidential nominations, and out of those two, who do you think will become President?
A: I think there’s a high chance that Trump will end up winning the Republican nomination, but is not certain yet; there could be a broken convention. I think that Clinton will win the Democrat nomination. If it is a straight forward race between Clinton and Trump, I think Clinton probably wins, but there’s a huge amount of uncertainty right now. There’s a good chance that we will have a broken Republican convention and that we will have a different candidate altogether.

Q: Do you think it is inevitable that newspapers become solely digital?
A: I don’t think that digital will ever entirely replace newspapers. I think that what you need to do today is look at the newspaper industry a bit like the movie industry. Basically, when you had VHS videos, when you had DVDs, home viewing systems, people said ‘Well, the cinema will die.’ But actually, what happened was that cinema audiences grew to record levels, and people went to the cinema for a different purpose, for a social event. They basically used DVDs, videos, on demand streaming services, to watch movies in a different context. So I think that in the future, if you want news quickly, people will increasingly use digital. For news that you get pleasure by savouring, by reading slowly, print will still have a purpose. It’s really a question of recognising that people consume news in many different ways, and you have to give people what they want, in the right context.

Q: Over time do think that use of virtual currencies will increase or decrease?
A: I think the use of virtual currencies will definitely increase, because technology is becoming dramatically better at a very rapid speed. If you look at what’s happening, say not so much with Bitcoin, but with different digital currencies, what’s very striking that it is unleashing a whole new range of possibilities that people weren’t looking at before. So yes, I think they will increase, but one of the key unknowns is the degree to which they can or cannot protect against cyber fraud. If there is a big cyber hacking incident, which causes serious financial turmoil, that could undermine trust quite significantly.

Q: How do you think China will fare in the future?
A: China has done extraordinarily well over the last few decades by having complete control and top-down guidance and leadership. It’s now having to adapt to a maturing economy, in a process that’s very similar to what Japan went through and other countries have gone through. That’s partly about moving from the exports sector to the services sector, and moving from industry sales to an economy more focused on consumption. It’s also about trying to take a bank-centred financial system that was heavily government controlled, and make it more reliant on capital markets, and essentially more open, liberal and, if you like, more democratic. They’ve started on that process, which is admirable, but it’s a fantastically difficult process to achieve, and it is an open bet as to whether they will do that without causing some type of dramatic upheaval. In Japan, as an example, when they tried to liberalise the stock market and the financial system and have these kinds of changes, it helped to stoke up a huge bubble, which then burst and caused huge damage. What makes the situation doubly difficult in the case of China is that you’ve potentially got deflation, you’ve got an ageing population, and you’ve got a lot of mismatched capacity, so it’s going to be tough.

Q: In the US, how big is the reaction to the UK potentially leaving the European Union?
A: There’s tremendous fascination in the US, and actually in Japan as well, which I’ve just visited. There’s tremendous interest in the whole story of Brexit. By and large, people simply do not understand why on earth the UK wants to leave; it seems completely mad to the Japanese and, to a lesser extent, the US. There’s huge concern that UK would be worse off leaving.

Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: Whichever books unleash your passion and curiosity about the world. I’m not going to give specific titles, but I think when you are young, the main thing you have to do is be willing to explore and be curious. Be curious in as many different directions as possible. I’m a huge fan of Steve Jobs’ maxim, which is you can’t join up the dots in your life looking forwards, you can only do it looking backwards. You’ve got to have lived your life to connect the dots, so explore your passions in as many different directions as you can, and trust that one day in the future, they will connect in a way that makes for a very rich life, and a potentially very successful professional career too.

Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: Number one, have a sense of humour. Life is weird; nothing ever goes to plan. The majority of the most exciting opportunities that I’ve had have been things that occurred almost through serendipity. Whenever I tried to over-plan life, it hasn’t worked out as I expected. But in order to really enjoy the benefits of serendipity, you have to put yourself in a position where amazing chances pop up, and you grab them opportunistically. Other life lessons are always be kind to your colleagues and people below you, because if you are successful and start lording it over people, it always comes back to bite you. And again, be curious.

Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: I learned to have confidence and courage in myself. I was extremely shy as a child; I did not ever expect to get anywhere in life. I came from a background where, really, girls were not expected to have much of a career at all. And so, my expectations about what I would do in life were incredibly low. I would die of embarrassment if I ever had to speak in public, or speak to people I didn’t know. I was very shy, but I started taking tiny steps, which gradually built up my confidence. I believe that becoming a successful, confident person is a bit like climbing a ladder. You look yourself when you’re aged 14, 15, or 16, and say, ‘Wow, I could never be a person who stands on a stage, or goes on television, or runs a company.’ But the point is that you don’t have to go from 0 to 60 in one step, you take lots of little steps, so each time you do something which is challenging, you feel more confident. In my case, it was going on a French exchange when I was 12, and traveling by myself. Then it was going to Luxembourg, then I had a trip somewhere else, so I did some camping and hiking. At each stage I got more confident and independent, and I ended up having a lot of amazing adventures.

Q: Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: I wish I’d spent more time studying maths and science. I think that having a really strong foundation in these subjects is crucial to someone who is in the liberal arts, like I am. So that’s certainly one thing I would have done; I think that’s the main thing. I wish I hadn’t worried so much about what people thought about me. I wish I’d had more confidence in my own ability, and teenage years can be very bitchy, and sort of bleak and stuff like that. If you remember that however horrible the social situation might be, it’s only a very brief moment in time, and looking to the long-term is crucial. So wish I hadn’t worried so much about what people thought about me.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met and why?
A: I’ve met so many extraordinary people over the year, so it’s hard to single out just one person. Sheryl Sandberg fascinates me, because of what she’s done in her life, building a company. Also, Mark Zuckerberg. Ban Ki-moon, the head of the United Nations fascinates me; he has such an interesting story. So, there are a number of American politicians and business leaders I find fascinating. Finally, I always find Christine Lagarde very admirable.

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