Last night Finland Young Professionals network invited me over to give the first key note ever in their events. I decided to share some thoughts and learning experiences about professionalism and how I have approached it along my own professional journey.
Here are my materials as a PDF file:
And here's the summary of the key note:
During the past 12 years or so I have been a CEO in different SME companies. It has been a combination of entrepreneurial career, with occasional terms in bigger companies. Currently I work in the NASDAQ-OMX Listed Soprano Plc as a member of the board of directors, Chief Operating Officer, and CEO of its largest subsidiary; Soprano Brain Alliance.
During the years I have been involved in many firms; including IRC-Galleria (social network for Finland's youth), Web of Trust (security plugin used by 30M+ people), Dopplr (social network for world travellers, since Sept 2009 a part of Nokia), Stardoll (World's leading site for virtual paper dolls, 150M+ customers around the world), and Applifier (world's largest social media cross-promotion advertising network, reaches more than 150M+ active gamers).
In 1999 I founded my first company. I left Nokia (then Nokia Telecommunications) to establish my first firm in the middle of euphoric dot-com boom and a very bullish economy. As a 21 year old CEO I was given the responsibility of about 5M EUR of venture capital money, and an organization of about 40 people. The company was called Taika Technologies and you can read the "war story" of it's founding here from my blog:
The company was a combination of young energetic talent and senior big name expertise. Our vision back in 1999 was that some day the Internet will become a social place, and people will share, chat, discuss just about everything in the Internet. They will even update what we called "presence information", perhaps via SMS, meaning things like "I'm at the beach" or "I just had lunch at restaurant X" etc.. basically we thought up the concept of microblogging (and checking in to locations) years before it happened. Despite the all the talent and the senior power the company still failed.
Taika's failure was a combination of a few things: being ahead of the curve a little bit (social web really didn't pick up until about 2005 or so), and my own leadership mistakes. I was a young CEO with too much negative control in my management style; at the worst this manifested by seeking for mistakes, guilty people, double checking people's work, and generally breathing down on my employees' necks way too much. This is something that very effectively kills the results in any organization. The way of the leader is certainly not the way of control and tight reigns on everybody. I learned that the hard way.
Naturally Taika also fell between the funding gap of the dot-com bubble bursting: many company were capable of closing their first round of funding, and then the 2nd round never came. This is precisely what happened to Taika as well; the potential funding dried up entirely.
I had invested 106 thousand EUR of my own money into the company, and as it went bankrupt in august of 2002, I was then a 24 year old failed entrepreneur / CEO with a lot of money owed to the bank. I had neglected my own health while trying to build up Taika and during & after the bankruptcy lost 30kg of weight in 6 months. I had to move out of my nice company apartment to a crappy place in Espoo, and was generally quite depressed there for a while. I didn't continue my CEO career right away; instead I worked in a major IT corporation as a department head of a business unit with around 50 consultants that we sold to the telecom industry. 6 Months there was enough and I was ready for the CEO career again.
Next I joined Magenta; a company that was in horrible shape. I was doing more losses than it had net sales. Any day it could have gone bankrupt. The investors who owned about 35% of the stock proposed to me that I join the company and try to turn it around. They said "you have just had your first bankruptcy 6 months ago, you know what's it like, the 2nd one won't even hurt". That was the best sales speech ever and I totally went for it.
It took just 6 months to turn Magenta into the positive territory from the deep losses. And at that time (around autumn of 2003) I had my first exit as a bigger public company decided the acquire Magenta.
I learned that when you succeed you gain some insight: you learn a little bit of what works and what you can build on in the future. When you fail it is often educational., but not always; sometimes you just simply fail and it remains a mystery for you.
Some things I do to build up my own professionalism:
1) I read, write and learn all the time. I read economic science, business news, interviews of great people, insightful articles, studies etc. I try to write - just to become better in argumentation, in my own flow of logic and in conveying meaning to other people better. Being understood better.
2) I have mentors. People who are smarter or more experienced, or more connected than I am. I occasionally go to them for reflections, sparring and some advice on really big and complicated things. My advice to you as a young professional would be: seek mentors. Ask people you deeply respect to join you in a learning journey and become your mentor. This will probably pay off along the way.
3) I see success as inspirational, and most of failures as educational. Thus I take risks constantly and I fail fast and frequently. That keeps the rapid iterative cycle of try-and-learn moving and my judgement as a top executive improving all the time.
If you never risk anything you don't really know what your limits are. People who have spent their entire careers just sitting there in their own comfort zones are not promoted to the most senior positions. The existing seniors in board of directors -level often think that such people are not capable in handling the stress and the risky environments that senior executives will have to face.
4) I ask, give and analyze feedback all the time. At least once or twice a year I take a full round of 360 feedback from everybody I mostly work with. Last time I did this around the summer, and received feedback from almost 50 people. This is a very valuable tool as a leader, and you can improve and learn so much from feedback. How bosses, colleagues and coworkers, and subordinates see and experience your interaction and behaviour is a vastly important thing.
5) I find rare views, rare insights and points of view that are contrarian. As an executive or top professional this is your job. You cannot just "do the same thing because it has always been done this way". That's bullshit. You need to seek different views, brilliant insight that changes the game entirely, and new thinking that replaces the old. I try to engage in this as much as I can myself; but also seek this trait in others. Listen to people who are contrarians and who have proven to be right when everybody else was wrong (and against them).
One of the most valuable things as a young professional you can do; is to check your own thinking. You should seek ways to move from problem solving and deductive thinking into problem defining and divergent thinking. The latter is far more valuable for top professionals and top executives. The latter is also more valuable for you employer; as it generates more business value.
Our school system has thought us to do the job of a pocket calculator. We are always instructed to solve problems. Find the one true and correct answer. We do this by deductive thinking; we start with a range of possible solutions, and work our whey through them, deducting them off, until the one correct answer is left.
This method is an awful lot like bloodletting: a medieval practice of letting blood of of people's veins. They thought it was useful and a good cure for many medical conditions, while in fact it was only dangerous and harmful. Universities in central Europe thought bloodletting for a long time, and decades after it had already been proven to be dangerous they still continued to teach it. Part of what we all learn in school is bloodletting: methods that we know are not working, are not valuable, but still they teach us to do the job of pocket calculators time and time again.
Often the first time when a student is really asked to define a problem instead of just solving it is when the student does his/her PhD thesis. Then the creation of a new problem is necessary. The creation of new science, a new point of view. But often enough not before that at all.
There's a test that Sir Ken Robinson and others have done to people of various ages: the paperclip test. Pen + paper, no time limit, and the assignment is to write down as many uses for a paperclip that the person can think about. People often come up with 15. However one group of people, 98% of them, always comes up with more than 200. It's kindergarten kids. They answer magnificent things about paperclips: using them as an ingredient in baking (not edible maybe, but perhaps brilliant for food-art?), or paperclips made out of love, paperclips the size of the galaxy etc. All valid answers. This is no longer deductive thinking and just solving the problem. This is divergent thinking, defining new problems and expanding the possible variety of answers and the possible different interpretations of the question; what is a paperclip after all? People in elementary school get about 75 answers, people in high school about 35, and by the time we graduate from the university we are left with the 15. Something in the school system takes away our ability to be creative, divergent thinkers, and to define new problems. As a professional: don't lose that ability. Cultivate it, exercise it. Here's a good video of Sir Ken Robinson about this in a broader perspective, he also mentions the paperclip test briefly there:
Some schools teach valuable skills regarding this; the medical schools teach how to make a diagnosis. This is an abstract process that requires the ability to consider various sources of quantitative and qualitative data and draw conclusions based on a variety of factors.
The military also teaches techniques to think on your feet and quickly formulate a new plan of action in the middle of chaos. Make a new problem definition in a situation where everything just blew to hell. This can be a very useful skill for a top professional.
I have an Executive MBA degree with the highest academic grades of my year. And yet still I think academic qualifications aren't necessarily that reliable as a sign of competence. Due to the bloodletting. Perhaps more useful competences would instead be;
i) competence in interpreting meaning, meaning in abstract situations and in the middle of chaotic (or lacking) data, unclear circumstances etc.
ii) the competence in relations: both human relations, but also in relations of factors: causality, correlation, complex big systems; if one part changes what other parts will that affect and how? a top professional can grasp the big picture and understand it.
iii) competence in change; managing it, leading it, surviving it, tolerating it, embracing it.
iv) competence in action: being capable of acting in the middle of uncertainty, sense amid madness, wits amidst folly.
As one last thing: the highest correlation of excellent results is by far leadership and company culture. Any top manager or top professional would make affecting culture and leadership a quite high priority because of this. If you are just an asshole with directive-negative approach to leading people your results will be mediocre at best and there's a serious risk that you will not ever become a top professional.
I work with a 4-field: goal-oriented interaction. Human interaction in one axis, and clear goals and objectives in the other. A culture that truly achieves results can only exist in the top right corner. And when chaos, difficult times, and uncertainty hits the company; then that culture starts to slowly drag itself towards death. The higher you have managed to build it up during peaceful times, the more uncertainly and chaos it can tolerate. The definition of leadership is goal-oriented interaction.
Thanks again! And all feedback regarding this is much welcomed!