Follow your intuition and heart

Series of articles on management: In all companies and organizations, large and small, the management discipline takes up a lot of space and has a significant impact on an organization's performance as well as employee well-being, motivation, and development. In this series of articles, we focus on KMD's top management. In this interview, we meet Merete Søby, Executive Vice President in KMD.

What are the qualities of a good team?

A good team is diverse in terms of gender, age and background. The broader the discussions we have in our teams, the better we are at succeeding in what we do.

Very consistent teams think too uniformly and do not have a sufficiently complex view of things. We must dare to disagree, dare to have different points of view. When developing new software for the market, it is very important to have good, nuanced discussions.

There is no doubt that teams that are broadly composed work best. Our ambition and guideline is that we do not become too similar in the groups we work in.

What are the most important management skills when it comes to getting results from your team?

When you have put together a good team with the right skills, it is basically about giving them the freedom to make decisions and act on their own. If it is a sales team, they must be empowered to negotiate and close deals with customers, while a development team must have the power to create the direction and prioritise tasks so that we meet the needs of the customers in the best possible way.

When employees have freedom and influence, they grow as people and take more responsibility. This is reflected in their encounters with customers and business partners.

Of course, it is also about making it acceptable to fail. And things can go in different directions, but it is much better than everyone constantly having to go back and ask for permission. Nothing good comes of that.

But, of course, we must agree on the big picture and the direction in which we are heading. Otherwise, it is difficult to be together in a large organisation. I also spent a lot of time on this when I first joined KMD. We must create a culture that defines values.

Is creating direction the most important task for a manager?

I think followership is one of the most important things to me. Now I am the manager of other managers, and for me it is important to be able to see that their employees are behind them. A manager must communicate the strategy well and create meaning and relevance for everyone. All functions and employees in a company are important for us to succeed. If you have strong followership, it means you have managed to translate the strategy so that everyone feels that they are contributing and feel valued.

Employees must also believe in their manager. It is partly about integrity. We have to do what we say, for example. As a manager you must set a good example and walk the talk.

I am involved in areas where we would like to create change - but at the same time I am very aware of giving the team the support needed to solve the tasks together by themselves. And if you can help the team, facing the music when things go wrong – and they do occasionally – then it’s also a way to get the values in place and create unity.

Can anyone become a manager, or are some people more suited to it than others?

I don’t think all people want to become managers. That’s a good thing, because we also need the specialists and those who dedicate themselves to specific areas. A good team consists of specialists and generalists as well as some who help ensure that we head in the right direction.

How did you become a manager?

I did not really aspire to it, and I also said no at first. I was an account manager and loved my job. In the accounts I supervised, we had some large virtual teams, where I helped orchestrate our efforts and get people going in the same direction. Someone a little further up in the system had discovered that I was good at attracting people who wanted to work on my teams and for my clients. They asked if I would take more responsibility and take on a bigger department. So, it was primarily my passion for the job at the time that made me a manager.

Can you manage a field, in which you yourself are not an expert?

Yes, I think so. But, of course, you must understand the field and the complexity of it. A lot of my employees are developers and I don’t know their job in detail. I would not be able to do what they do myself. But I understand it and can put it into practice.

I originally started in Maersk Air and then went into the IT industry. They are two very different product, but my competency is to create and communicate the interaction between the customers, the partners, the company and the market. To be able to see the possibilities and illustrate the values to the individuals.

What is the most important piece of advice you ever received from a manager?

“I’m sure you can solve that. You know the answer yourself, follow your intuition and heart.” I became a manager when I was in my mid-20s and remember being very frustrated with some of the issues I was dealing with. I was allowed to offload my frustrations on my boss, who told me that I knew the answers to the problems myself. He said he had my back and trusted me to do the things I had considered.

He could have solved it, but what about next time? And how would people view me as a manager if he had to solve my challenges? You’re doing each other a disservice if you don’t believe in each other and have each other’s backs. Even when you make wrong decisions and things go wrong. At the end of the day, nobody knows what the right decisions are every time.

If you could give one piece of advice to yourself as a young manager, what would it be?

Hold on to yourself and your values, even when it is hard at times. Be yourself. I had a manager years ago whose values I did not share. I lost my passion and desire, and I could feel that it wasn’t the right path. I told myself it was going to be fine, but of course it wasn’t. You must be true to yourself and act accordingly.

You just mentioned a manager whose values you did not share. Have you ever encountered poor management? If so, what was it that made it poor?

Preconception. If you are in a management group and the decisions have been made in advance, why are you sitting there? If there is too much bias, then it is poison for a business. We are all biased on a certain level, but we need to be open in the discussions we have. I try to do that as best as I can.

But, of course, the more pressured you are, the harder it is. If we are ahead on the budget and things are just running smoothly, it is easy to have open discussions – but when we are under pressure, we really have to remind ourselves of that. But of course, we also have to act. We can’t just sit and discuss. That doesn’t work either.

What’s the hardest thing about being a manager?

You must remember to be a manager for everyone, and do the right thing for the majority, not for the individual. It sometimes means there are people who have to be placed on the bench. For example, if you want to change a culture and do not have the right culture bearers – or someone who simply opposes the things you want to do – then you have to adjust the team. It is neither pleasant nor easy to interfere so brutally in people’s lives and careers in that way.

My philosophy has always been that the focus is on the ball and not on the player. It is about where the ball is going. If players play with different tactics, then it can be difficult to score goals. And if we have agreed on a new tactic and someone keeps playing according to the old tactics, then it is necessary to put them on the bench, if we are to succeed as a team. Even if it is tough on the individual player who gets sidelined.

It can also be difficult for an individual to adapt. If you’ve been successful with a tactic in the past, you’re inclined to repeat that tactic. Therefore, at some point, I also left a job to test myself in a new environment. It is important for employees to reinvent themselves. After all, the world does not stand still.

What else are you doing to reinvent yourself?

It is important that you are continuously challenged on new issues. Every two or three years, I give myself a shot of intellectual vitamins. I have been to Harvard a few times and most recently to IMD.

There I am in a new context with someone I do not know, solving difficult tasks together. I also try to draw inspiration from the outside on real issues in the company: for example, from some skilled consultants, suppliers or customers who come up with new tools and perspectives. We may know a lot of it already, but when you get outside input, there can be a positive ripple effect. What works differs from person to person, but it works for me.

Has management changed since you first became a manager?

There is more understanding of work/life balance – which is good. It creates better results over time.

I remember the time when we could take the mail home with us on our mobile phones. I think it was great that I could take my mail with me everywhere. But that has changed. If we are to think innovatively, we sometimes need to check out. If we continue in the same vein all the time, then we end up in a rut and get tired. We need to have some other stuff outside work to work well.

I check out myself by being very active and being with my family. I cherish my time from the end of the afternoon until sometime into the evening, when I briefly check the mail again. It is important for me to recharge by being with people from my private life.

What do you think will be important for management in the years to come?

The company must have a greater purpose than profit, and we must contribute positively to the globe with our imprint in the world.

I have been employed by a Japanese company before, and KMD is Japanese owned. I like the holistic approach that Japanese companies have. We must not only generate a return for the owners, but we must also have a positive impact on society. I have also found that the holistic approach is clearly progressing and is becoming more important day by day.

It is also an area I prioritsise and believe in in the business area I am responsible for at KMD. We may be a little ahead of the demand for some of it, but I think it’s important. For example, we must not only be climate neutral as a company, we must also make a positive difference for ourselves and our customers through the solutions we offer.