A few weeks before the pandemic hit, I was hired as the first-ever North American president of Reaktor, the acclaimed Finnish tech agency that recently expanded to the States. I was excited to bring my distinctly American energy to a Scandinavian company. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
Dialing in from Los Angeles, where I was busy preparing to move to New York while sheltering in place, home-schooling three kids, and trying to sell our home for a move back to the East Coast, I was introduced--remotely, of course--to my new colleagues, all 550 of them.
In any other company, such a poorly timed transition would likely have been a recipe for disaster: a new regional president starting smack in the middle of a company-wide transition to remote working is never a good thing. Instead, I quickly found that Reaktor's uniquely Finnish way of structuring an organization, with its open and supportive work environment, made my start as an executive with a new company effortless--and highly educational.
The insights I've gleaned from the Finns--insights I believe are now more relevant than ever--hold important lessons for all leaders. Here are a few things I've learned about leadership during difficult times from my Finnish friends:
1. Weaponizing Fear Is Over
Too many leaders lead with fear. But there's enough fear in the world as it is. People are worried sick about losing their jobs and their health. That can paralyze employees, especially in an organization that's actively run on fear-based leadership.
When I first arrived at Reaktor, I immediately realized I was allowed to make mistakes; that I didn't need to know everything right off the bat. At Reaktor, we let people know they are safe. That, in turn, means everyone is more productive and better able to focus on the work at hand, which provides tremendous value to both our clients and our organization. What many leaders don't realize is that you can be in a position of leadership and still be a decent person; those things are not mutually exclusive. If you focus on people first, the rest will follow.
This year, in particular, has solidified the importance of servant leadership. Most companies have viewed servitude by leaders as wasteful because it doesn't drive up revenue immediately, and to those companies, money comes first. But now there's a new kind of permission, perhaps even a requirement, to above all be a servant leader, to put people first. If leaders lack humbleness and courage in failing to prioritize the needs of their employees, then that means the company's ability to adapt gets stifled too.
We're headed for a collective awakening. People will soon have a lot of choices to make: Do I want to work for a company that prioritizes money and leads by fear? Or do I want something more out of my life's work? This is where fear-based leadership will have a tremendous negative short-term and long-term cost and impact--much greater than the positive impact that servant leadership and being good to your employees ever would.
2. Learn to Ask for Advice
Often when making decisions, especially in fear-based organizations, leaders and employees face the same old question: Do I ask for permission or for forgiveness? Either way can be thorny. But there's also a third and better option, and that's to ask for advice.
When I began at Reaktor, I quickly realized no one needed my permission, but a lot of people wanted my advice. Reaktor is a self-organizing company where autonomous teams operate according to an advice-seeking process. Hard reporting lines do not exist, and instead, employees and teams make decisions on their own, after seeking advice from the people in the company most experienced with or most affected by the matter at hand. While there's a lot of freedom in that autonomy, it also comes with significant responsibility.
This advice process is something I've realized is helpful to anyone on any level, in any organization, but especially someone in a position of leadership. What I've found is that seeking advice allows you to get multiple points of view on an issue (meaning you look less like an idiot when you make your decision). And it means that people are much more likely to express their honest opinions to you as there's less fear involved.
By seeking advice, you can make more informed decisions, ones that take into account all the aspects involved, giving you a broader view of the potential impact. You still have the freedom to make that final decision, but you're also ultimately accountable to the business and the people you've sought advice from.
Seeking advice is particularly useful in accelerating the formation of relationships. That's especially important in remote work. There's a powerful vulnerability at play when you ask someone for their advice. And when people do offer up that advice, it allows you, as a leader, to see them in a new light: to appreciate the type of person they are and see how they think. That, in turn, makes it possible to put their skills to even better use. It works both ways: Seeking advice as a leader allows you to turn what would normally be an inner monologue of how to approach or solve a situation into an outer dialogue, without concerns of being judged.
3. Shared Values Beat Mission Statements
When navigating a complex societal and business environment, like the one we're in right now, new and difficult decisions are bound to come up on a daily basis. That can create fear in leaders and employees alike. Shared guidelines, however, keep everyone on track and the fear in check.
Rather than counting on a mission statement (which often becomes so diffused it can stand for anything, or, conversely, so prescriptive that it ties everyone's hands and sucks the life out of everyone's work), it's better to create and follow a set of shared values. Values inspire accountability much more than a mission statement can, because values are organic. When the staff comes together to write them down, they agree with those values and start putting them to use. It makes recruiting easier, too: When I arrived at Reaktor I knew instantly, because of our shared values, that I was a good fit with the company and that I could thrive in the community here.
It's important to note that values are not for the faint of heart: They're like lifting up a mirror and taking a good, honest look at yourself. And then returning to that same mirror over and over again. Values are a guide for all the work that happens inside an organization, a kind of constant reality check.
Ideally, those values shouldn't be news to anyone: They should grow organically out of the great work that's already being done in the company. Values are like bamboo--strong but flexible--and, when clearly defined, can be even more robust in guiding decisions and the ultimate direction of the business. Values make it easier for leaders to give employees the full autonomy they need to do their work effectively.
4. Move Decision-Making Authority Down the Org Chart
In order to be successful, a company needs independent thinkers, not groupthink. This is also why teams' autonomous decision making is so important. Some companies fear that if decision making isn't centralized then all control will be lost. But the reality is quite the opposite. As long as you've hired the right people with the right values, that increased responsibility in terms of decision making will allow those people to identify and fix problems much faster, and to do more meaningful work.
Clients now prioritize value too, and the best way for a business to provide that value is with tailored solutions. Many companies operate in a cookie-cutter fashion, where the priority is on scaling the product or service as far and wide and fast as possible. That can be a profitable model, and it definitely was before this year. But as consumption falls across the economy, companies have to get better at creating value. That means leadership can't be removed somewhere far away from the actual action--especially when most of the work is done remotely.
Now more than ever, teams and employees have to be given the power to make their own decisions about their own work. That means leaders must let go of their need to control and instead assume a position of servitude. It's the only way to create real impact, both in the company and in the greater society.
5. Everything Is Hyper-Global
Things are starting to contract all over the world, so organizations have to work in a way where we can react to those changes on a global level and direct resources to where they're most needed. That's another way of creating value.
It's not offshoring as much as it's about taking advantage of the talent you already have or the new talent that's available in places you may not have been able to utilize in the past. Global companies that work from a multi-site setup, like ours, can reach a whole new level of cross-disciplinary work and productivity through global thinking. For example, our North American office supports and is supported by all the other regional offices, in Helsinki, Tokyo, Dubai, and Amsterdam. We're all seeking advice from one another, moving decisions closer to where the work happens, and thinking more globally. That mindset matches our clients' thinking too.
Having that worldwide support network means that we're never alone. For me, it has eliminated any fear of starting with a new company and allowed me to get right down to the work itself.
Mark Cibort is President of Reaktor, North America