March 4, 2021

John Hughes is a senior vice president at Albright Stonebridge Group, a Washington, D.C.-based global business strategy firm led by Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. secretary of state. At ASG, Hughes advises clients on market entry and expansion, government affairs, and managing regulatory issues, with a focus on Europe and Eurasia, as well as on sanctions issues.

Before he joined ASG, Hughes was the deputy director in the Office of Sanctions Policy and Implementation in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

The following interview, part of a series conducted by Ahmad Jamal Wattoo MPA ’21, has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why did you choose the Master of International Affairs program at Columbia SIPA?

I specifically chose SIPA for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to be in New York. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue a career really focused on government and related issues, or to stick with the private sector like I’d been doing before. I figured that being in New York would give me both of these opportunities. Second, SIPA offered broader options, especially in terms of course flexibility, and a much more diverse and international student body than its peer schools. For all these reasons, I chose SIPA—and was not disappointed.

Which courses specifically would you recommend? Are there any courses that you really liked or professors you’d like to mention?

The good thing about SIPA is that I made my own concentration. I didn’t really want to take six courses in any particular discipline. There are also so many courses at Columbia—at the Business School, the Law School, and elsewhere—that I think students should take advantage of. It is very rare to get such a breadth of opportunities. More than specific classes, I would recommend focusing on what interests you and how you think you can leverage those interests in the job market, as opposed to worrying too much about checking every box within a specific concentration.

What type of work does ASG do? Is it a political risk consulting firm or a commercial diplomacy firm?

At Albright Stonebridge Group we call ourselves commercial diplomats. What we do is on-the-ground advocacy on behalf of our clients. We work in about 125 countries around the world and we engage foreign governments and other stakeholders within a given country or given region with the hope of finding win-win solutions on behalf of our clients, the governments, and other stakeholders involved. That forms the core of our work. And I think it’s different from what some other political risk firms do, which is more on the analysis side. 

That’s the question I would ask students—are you more interested in the analysis side of things, or the engagement side of things? If so, there are a lot of opportunities at banks and hedge funds, at boutique advisory firms like the Eurasia Group, and at organizations like the CIA and others. If you are more interested in executing on what the clients need, then that’s a different type of work around strategy development and engagement. Whatever path you choose, they’re both very interesting.

Thank you for explaining that distinction. What projects are you currently working on at ASG?

In my role at the firm as a senior vice president, I manage several of our global client relationships. We work on behalf of the private sector, nonprofits, and foundations around the world. I sit within our Europe and Eurasia practice and within that, I tend to focus a lot on Russia and the former Soviet Union. I work with my colleagues around the world to make sure that the clients have what they need in whatever market where they’re operating. 

I also have a second hat as an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, where I work on projects related to sanctions, export controls, and broader coercive economic measures, given my background in government.

Given that you’re working a lot with Europe and Eurasia specifically, what are some trends that you perceive are affecting government affairs in those regions?

One is a trend toward more authoritarianism and tighter regulations. You see this in regulations on social media, on financial transactions, and on a lot of other things as well, where governments are doing their best to control information flows and crack down on how companies can operate. You see that in the former Soviet Union, in Turkey, but really across the world.

At the same time, you see a move—within Europe, for example—toward more regulations and trying to better regulate the flow of personal data to ensure people’s individual rights. You see this sort of tug between wanting to safeguard people’s rights and even cracking down on companies in some ways, while also trying to create more investment opportunities, to welcome investment in many of these places. So it’s a very interesting landscape. And I think that we’re moving towards a trend of more regulation, not less, which will make this field increasingly interesting and challenging.

What is the best lesson which you have learned so far in ASG?

Try to learn as much as you can about what you’re trying to do. I see this as a consultant all the time—I’m never going to know as much as my clients about their business, right? I do know more than them about government affairs and in engaging with foreign governments. But I always try to remember that my job is not to explain their business to them. My job is to explain the environment where they’re operating and give them good advice. 

Number two is understanding your limitations. Where can you draw upon others to help? One thing I’ve learned is that the best way to operate in the work environment is to always draw on the resources you have around you. There’s lots of people who are there to help, the more that you can sort of work as a force multiplier, and figuring out where to draw from other’s strengths.

If you were to attribute your success to one personality trait, what would it be and why?

The international affairs field as a subset is not a huge field; it’s very specialized. The question is how do you differentiate yourself? You need to have something that people look to you for. But don’t specialize too much! Because if you specialize too much in one area, it’s probably not going to be as marketable.

You can become an analyst at some government agency and just do that all day, every day. But if you want to broaden beyond that, I think it’s useful to not go too deep and have that one thing that gets you to the next level.