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Leadership Series

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A Discussion with Telenor's Kristin Skogen Lund

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Boyden’s Leadership Series presents discussions with business and thought leaders from organizations across the globe. The series focuses on topical issues that offer executives, political leaders and the media insight into current trends in business and talent management in the global marketplace.

This issue features Kristin Skogen Lund, Telenor’s Executive Vice President. She discusses the power of mobile services as the great 21st century communications tool, the success of Scandinavian companies and government, how delegating is effective, and the benefits of challenges early in a career. 

Kristin Skogen Lund is Executive VP and Group Director of Telenor. She is responsible for the Group’s operations in the Nordic countries, which include Telenor Norge, Telenor Sverige, Telenor Danmark and Telenor Broadcast. Skogen Lund is a member of the company’s Group Board of Directors.

In addition, she is President of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (the NHO) and a member of the boards of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and Orkla ASA.

Skogen Lund’s past roles include: Managing Director of Aftenposten (2007-2010), Commercial Director of Aftenposten (2004-2007), Head of Group of the Scanpix Scandinavia photo agency (2003-2004) and Managing Director and Editor of the Scandinavia Online web portal (1998-2003). She has also held various management posts at Unilever and as Director of Coca-Cola Sweden.

She holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies and Business Administration from the University of Oregon in the U.S. and an MBA from INSEAD in France.

Discussion with Kristin Skogen Lund

Boyden: You have run Telenor’s Nordic region for nearly a year. How would you describe your world in the telecom sector?

KSL: I would have to compare the telecom sector to the old media world. I think in many ways what the telecom sector is going through right now is what the media sector went through about 10 years ago with the digitalization. There are actually quite a few parallels about making the transition from older business models in the old media world that came from newspapers and the transition into the digital world. I think in telecom you first had a big change from fixed to mobile and now from mobile-based to data-based communications. We are in the midst of a whole ecosystem in radical change. So, in that sense the experience of the media is quite useful.

On the other hand, the telecom world is more profitable than media in many ways, which is more important for financial markets. The media industry is more product-focused and the telecom industry is very much investment and financially-focused, however I believe that we’ll see a clear shift towards a more customer oriented telecom market.

Boyden:  Is it a perfect transition to first lead a major newspaper, the great 20th century communications tool, and then lead a global mobile company, the great 21st century communications tool?

KSL: I was a little surprised when Telenor approached me to take this job. It was a very bold move to take someone from completely outside of the industry directly into a job like this. But it makes sense given the parallels. What I am seeing now in the telecom industry, we have already seen in the media industry.  The media company I worked for, which is part of the Schibsted Group, is well-known for having smartly handled the transition to digital communications. I had an active stake in managing that transition in a highly change-oriented environment.

The other part of the thinking was to see if I could bring to the table new ways of adding something to the organizational culture. How you manage to focus in parallel a very cost-effective, infrastructure-oriented business with the advanced innovation and rapid change you see in this new ecosystem. A third element is that Telenor has a very substantial fixed broadband business as well as a large TV distribution business. Seeing these assets together and not as separate elements is very important because customers are starting to treat these in an interrelated way. And we need to do the same.

Boyden: Do you think women often provide better leadership or have certain skills that are unique?

KSL: I hate to generalize on gender, and I also like to think of myself as not being different just because I am a woman. However, I do believe in diversity and I believe in people that have the self-confidence to challenge the status quo. The main problems are that in some organizations a certain culture or a certain force becomes too dominant, and challenging them becomes very risky or too costly for people to take on. I think that is a very dangerous situation.

My experience - maybe more so from board work - is that women somehow appear to have less at stake as that their self-esteem and social acceptance are not as dependent on their careers. So their psychological risk is a little bit lower. I see that women have a tendency to challenge the status quo a little more and sometimes be a little less political and tactical about their own position.

Boyden:  What has been the biggest surprise in moving into the mobile communications business?

KSL: I was a little surprised that the whole telecom industry has been slow to realize that there are vast changes happening in the whole ecosystem. I think the reason for this is that the industry thought that these changes would materialize 10 years ago. Some companies took risks and lost money because they overestimated how quickly these changes were going to occur. Right now the industry is underestimating the full extent of the changes that are coming from the shift to data-based communication.

On a more positive note, I was really impressed with Telenor and their international business, especially their Asian business. As a Norwegian, I grew up with Telenor and we think of it as a very Norwegian company.  Intellectually we know that Telenor has a big international business but you don’t really comprehend how global that business is until you are inside it. This applies to the telecom industry as well. Six out of seven billion people on Earth are connected to a mobile phone. That is just incredible.

Boyden: Are you seeing the gap between the emerging and the developed world in terms of the emerging markets skipping a few steps and going directly to mobile or notebook? Are we underestimating the emerging markets?

KSL: Yes, definitely. Some of the emerging markets are skipping steps. When looking at t timeline between something being developed in our part of the world, and what’s being adopted in the emerging part of the world, that gap is going to become smaller and smaller. We also see that many services and innovations are coming out of emerging markets. For example, in Pakistan, where we have a successful business, we have a considerable mobile banking operation. This did not happen out of the Nordics, because banking was already established here, but it came out of our business in Pakistan because the conditions there are well suited for that path of innovation.

Another example is in the Baltics. This is a region of young nations basically governed by young people. These “digital natives” have a very innovative and holistic approach to their digital infrastructure, which they had to build from scratch. They have built up a very comprehensive electronic infrastructure of e-government, e-voting, e-health, etc. because they did not have an analog legacy in many ways.

Boyden:  While forecasters talk about the U.S. and Europe as a whole with less growth potential, why are Scandinavian companies doing disproportionately better?

KSL: I believe it is because we have very sound government in this region. We are societies that are quite homogeneous and based on very non-hierarchical structures where there is a great deal of understanding within the societies. I think that makes us quite adaptable. We have very consensus-driven solutions on the really big national issues. For example, we just passed a major, substantial pension reform in Norway which was implemented without any protest because we have the possibility of getting business, labor and government together and coming up with sensible, consensus-oriented solutions. And people accept that, trust it, and understand it. That is part of why we have been able to adapt and build this business environment.

In addition, we are high cost markets. This has forced business to become less labor-intensive and more knowledge-based because that is where we can compete. This has created a knowledge advantage for us.

Finally, I think some of it is a bit of luck because part of the Norwegian economy is very raw material-based. Throughout the financial crisis, most raw materials actually went up in price due to high Asian demand. Sweden is a different case because they have a more traditional export-based industry and they got hit quite hard by the financial crisis. However, Sweden’s societal system is quite similar to ours and they were able to adapt and get back on their feet pretty rapidly. Now they are seeing 6% annual growth, which is very good for a mature economy.

Boyden: Telenor has made great commitments to renewable energy. Why is green investment gaining traction so much faster in Scandinavia?

KSL: It is easier to gain consensus on issues like climate in Scandinavia. Climate is one of those meta-issues in our times, and it is easier to gain consensus around those topics in our society. I think it also has to do with our tradition of being raw material-based. As an energy-producing nation, a lot of our industries were built based on our hydropower so there is a strong legacy in terms of what energy provides. We are also a very nature-conscious people, and I think because of that we are very dedicated in our responsibility of taking care of nature. Use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is central to all sectors of society today. However, continued work towards a low-carbon society requires a completely different social organization and new ways of working. In my opinion, climate change represents a unique opportunity for Norway to promote the transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a long-term sustainable knowledge-based economy.

Boyden:  Norwegian companies are known to be trailblazers as collaborators. Is greater collaboration the future of more successful work?

KSL:  I am the President of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise and we have a very strong tradition between employers and labor. We have always had to collaborate to survive. Another reason for our success is size. With a small home market and limited ability to develop a large critical mass in terms of competence and specialties, you need to be smart.

“Trust” is also an essential word here. There is an essential distrust of central government in the U.S. and it is a very different attitude for us Europeans. That is why we have our welfare system. We tax our rich people really hard because we think it is unfair that one person should be richer than others. We have generous welfare support for those unable to work. It is quite different in the U.S. If you cynically measure which economic model has the greatest success, you could argue it is the American model as your economy and per capita income is much higher compared to Europe. On the other hand, you could probably argue that if you measured it by social equality, our model would win.

Boyden: How did the global recession affect Telenor and what measures have you implemented to overcome the obstacles?

KSL: In a way we are lucky because the use of cell phones did not go down that much during the crisis. On the contrary, because of the financial crisis, people started communicating more through mobile technology instead of traveling. The part of our business that was exposed to the enterprise market and our roaming business felt a bit of price pressure.

In addition, the financial crisis hit just as we were making our major expansion into India, which is very capital intensive. This created some problems because the whole capital supply dried out. As a consequence, we did not pay out dividends in 2009, and we also had quite a severe focus on cost to optimize our own cash flow and make our business less dependent on capital markets during that time. I should also mention that Telenor is 53% owned by the Norwegian state, which being an oil economy, has significant resources and can provide a safety net if needed.

Boyden: In many cases, especially in the U.S., some board members were thought to be unengaged during critical times leading up to the financial crisis. What is unique about Scandinavia’s corporate governance structure and have the region’s companies and governments taken special measures?

KSL: I can’t really see that there has been a change in governance as a result of the financial crisis. However, there has been an overhaul of financial regulation which had been in place at the time of the crisis and also we have a fairly good government system to guarantee bank deposits.

One particular aspect of Norway’s board governance is that we have a quota law, initiated in 2003 and enforced from 2006 onwards, which mandates boards to be comprised 40% women. I don’t think you can argue that that had any particular effect on the crisis itself. With a sound business environment, we were able to quickly adapt and put in sensible countermeasures with what was happening in the markets.

Boyden: Early in your career, you headed Coca-Cola in Sweden. A good number of CEOs and senior executives from banking to technology began working at major global beverage companies. Is this a coincidence or do these companies offer extraordinary training and preparation for future leaders?

KSL: I don’t know if I can generalize but I am certainly grateful to Coca-Cola for their professionalism in developing leaders within the company. Once they have trust in you, they really throw you out in deep water. I had four jobs in the three years while I was at Coca-Cola. I started out as a Marketing Director and then became a Sales and Marketing Director. Finally I ended up heading Coca-Cola in Sweden. Before I was sent to Sweden, Coca-Cola put me through a management course in Atlanta, which I think was a turning point in my career. I think many young women struggle with lack of self-confidence, and my career went faster than my self-confidence was able to keep pace with. I spent a lot of unnecessary energy dealing with my own insecurities, but that management course really knocked those insecurities out of me. The course made a difference in how I perceived my abilities and how I used them, instead of me trying to excuse myself.

Boyden:  How would you describe your management style?

KSL: Other people would describe me as being very open and trustful, much more so than my colleagues are used to. I delegate a lot and I really believe in empowerment. I also believe very much in what I call inquisitive style. I try to approach things by asking questions and retrieving information that I can then piece together and make sense of.  I never go into situations thinking I have the answer and I am also very careful not to voice my opinion very early in the process because once I voice my opinion I am going to close down a lot of other thought processes and that hinders progress on alternative ideas. By this approach I can come in at the end and provide a basic conclusion based on the information or ideas we have generated. I also try not to take myself too seriously. I try to laugh a lot and joke a little bit and ease things up. I believe that if I can create the context for people to feel confident and relaxed things will go better.

Boyden:  What do you look for when recruiting executives?

KSL: I look for strong personalities that can fit in the team. I try to find people that will complement me and the other members of the team. I am a believer in diversity. I also depend on people who are autonomous, can go by their own machine, have their own ideas and will challenge me.

Boyden: If you were giving career advice to a young manager for any industry, what would you say?

KSL: I think the greatest thing you can have in life is self-esteem. I believe that in order to build self-confidence it is very important that you follow your values and interests, which can give you the greatest chance of success. I do not think you can be 20 years old and plan where are you going to be in 10 years from now. Rather, I believe every single day you have to optimize what you are doing and do your best, but also make sure that you are thriving in it. That is the best thing you can do for your career because if you do that, you will succeed.  One thing will lead to the other and you will have great opportunities.   

Boyden:  Your brother is CEO of AGR oil services, your husband is one of Norway’s top lawyers and your mother was a prominent politician. So does success feed success?  

KSL: I think in my case what I got from home was very important. I was very influenced by my father and I grew up with parents and older siblings who were always very encouraging.  Not so much that they forced an ambition on me, but by their own example they always explicitly instructed me to believe that I could do much more than I thought I was able to do. And in terms of gender, my father told me when I was 16 or 17 that he thought I should go to Officer’s School in the military, which was an unusual thing for a woman to do. I ended up not going but I asked him why. He said because I believe that is the best management training you can get. He told me: “You are a leader.” Imagine a father telling his girl that at the age of 16.

My husband has also been incredibly supportive. My main advice to women is to carefully pick your husband. The good thing is that my husband is a successful person himself and has never been threatened by my success. Whenever I have been at key decision points, he has always said “of course, you should do that” and “of course, you are going to make it just fine.” I know that on certain occasions it would not have taken him more than a single doubtful second to change my mind or make me doubt a choice, but he has always been very affirmative. This means that the choices I have made are not necessarily the result of my ambition but of our common priorities, which has made it much easier to make life work. We made those choices together.   

Boyden: What has been your approach when making a tough choice in your career or life?

KSL: I always have this inner urge to take on challenges. It makes things interesting. I believe that you should not always optimize the curve that you are already on. Sometimes in life you simply need to shift the curve.

We would like to thank Kaare Bringa of Boyden Oslo for making this edition of Boyden’s Leadership Series possible.

The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of Boyden; only those of Ms. Skogen Lund.