Trust is a fundamental value in my work as a manager

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 Ruth Wisborg, Executive Vice President in KMD.

What are the qualities of a good team?

A good team is diverse in terms of competencies, gender, age, professionalism and origin. It does not matter if there is a touch of edginess in a team and some people that irritate me, so we are constantly challenging each other vis-à-vis the right solutions.

Of course, this must not pull the team in too many different directions. It is the common goal that must drive us. But diversity creates the best decisions.

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

Trust is a fundamental value in my work as a manager. We have a lot at stake in our management team, and I think people perform best if the management team can create a sense of trust that allows room for doubt, mistakes and common enthusiasm. It is probably a very Scandinavian value, which is also reflected in our social structure. Mutual trust creates a safe base, so people can talk not only about what they succeed in, but also what they do not succeed in.

Acknowledgement is another fundamental value. In my experience, people perform much better if you acknowledge their achievements, abilities and results. It helps keep motivation high and also gives a good indication that they are on the right track. In this context, I pay special attention to middle managers, who are often caught between the expectations and requirements of employees and the expectations of top management. Often, middle managers do not get the external recognition from the outside world, boards, networks etc. that top managers often get. So we need to pay special attention to the role of middle managers and acknowledge their efforts.

What is the most important attribute of a manager?

Presence. It is vital to make yourself available, and that sometimes means putting yourself aside a little. When you do not succeed as a team and as a manager, and face adversity, it is important to put yourself aside and make yourself available to the organisation, giving them a perspective and communicating plans for the future. One summer we lost 2 tenders. As a manager you may well feel like curling up under the desk, analysing and trying to understand why. But the organisation needs to make itself available for conversations, concerns, feedback and ideas for the future. There must be someone who says: “Something negative happened, but now we will do such and such. I believe in you and us.”

This does not mean that you have to be a super person unaffected by adversity – you have to show that – but some situations also require you to put your own personal preferences and concerns aside and lead the organisation forward.

Can anyone become a manager?

Yes, I think so, but I don’t think all people find it attractive. For me, management is a craft based on experience and very much a practical discipline. When I was studying, I read Henry Mintzberg, who has often inspired me. He says management is like learning to swim: “It’s important to understand that leadership is practical. Leadership, like swimming, cannot be learned by reading about it. Teaching people in a classroom and showing them how to wave their arms doesn’t teach them to swim. They need to go into the water.”

Management takes place in real life between people, and is influenced by everything we take with us from our whole lives. There are a lot of disciplines you can learn in terms of strategic management, operations management, performance culture, personnel management and lots more besides. It is also a good idea constantly to educate yourself in the many disciplines that make a good leader. But when you are managing in the real world, experience of facing the many dilemmas involved in the management situation is the most valuable.

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

Management is inevitably related to the projects and the professionals you are leading. I can easily think of management tasks that I would not take on because the field is too distant from mine. ‘Situational management’ is a fundamental concept for me. What does a specific situation require in terms of skills, experience and knowledge? In some tasks it is a good idea to involve an expert. In other tasks, management is more about creating strategic direction and progress, and having precise goals. So, then it is a good idea to surround yourself with experts.

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

I often think of one of my first managers who said: “You have to be careful you don’t sit in my chair or a similar one too fast.” At the time, I thought the person was just worried about the competition, but now I understand that it was experience that made him say it. Now I also pass that advice on to young managers.

I think you have to remember that a management career is not just about advancing in an organisation. I think you should take side roads and detours and preferably also work for some years in a non-management position in the middle of your career. It creates desirable robustness and experience.

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

“Everything’s fine and you have plenty of time.” I think about that especially now that my daughters have finished their education and entering the job market, where they may have to spend 50 years. Don’t think you’ll only become a manager if you get to do it before you turn 40. I was over 50 years before I became part of the top management at KMD. When I was younger, I wanted less demanding jobs, so I had time with my daughters. It’s not a barrier – there’s plenty of time.

Have you met a bad manager in your working life and what defined their poor management?

I have. I’ve also been a bad manager in certain situations. I think few people want to be a bad manager, so openness and communication are the best weapons against mismanagement. Speak out when your manager isn’t good — most people want to learn. Good leadership is created by interaction between managers and employees. Of course, it is the manager’s responsibility, but most managers will be better if they get a good, constructive response from the employees.

I don’t actually remember examples of poor management. I think I’m good at moving forward, focusing on the positives and trying to understand bad managers and the circumstances that make them bad in that particular situation.

What’s the best thing about being a manager?

The opportunity to create change. You do that better in a team. I’ve always had ambitions beyond what I can achieve in 37 hours, so it’s good to be able to attain more together as a team.

What’s the hardest thing about being a manager?

The hardest part about being a leader is the situations where you disappoint or don’t succeed as a team. When that happens, I think a lot about what could have been done differently, and I am very aware of the responsibility I have for the company and the many employees and their families and loved ones. After all, our working lives have a huge influence, not only on our own lives, but also on our families, friends and surroundings.

Has management changed since you first became a manager?

Yes in a lot of areas, but there are two things in particular I’ve been aware of.

One is the communication flow, where today you get information from everywhere and do not gather it in the same way as when I was a young manager. You also can’t count on reaching out to everyone at the same time when you’re using emails, Slack, Yammer, teams and many other channels and working at different times.

The second is that much higher flexibility is needed. The workplace is no longer just the physical workplace and working hours are not fixed. Employees expect a much higher degree of flexibility, not only in working life, but also in their lives in general, where both genders take responsibility for the children’s upbringing, further educate themselves, fulfil personal ambitions and take breaks from working life. As managers, we must embrace this and create a good framework for this.

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

The ability to create communities. I think it’s going to be a discipline that’s going play a greater role in the task of leadership. We must take responsibility for, and prioritise creating shared value communities, professional communities and result communities: communities in which the individual can develop. A Christmas party and a Friday bar are not enough. Our approach to the work force is becoming increasingly diverse, so it is important to facilitate professional, developing communities that can contribute to retaining and developing employees.

How has the MeToo wave changed your view of management?

Discussion is not new to me as I have worked in a male-dominated industry for almost my entire career, and I have often been the only female manager. But it has increased my awareness of how gender impacts our discussions and how it can be biased. There is still some way to go, but my attention is now more focused on cracking down, if I hear someone mention others by virtue of their gender rather than competence. Early in my career, I was advised to try to remove the gender dimension from my reflections on my own leadership. It was good advice that has helped me to focus on creating results at all times, and on the task I have and the opportunities I have to create success.

How do we ensure a higher gender and age diversity in the KMD management team?

It is our duty as managers to make sure it happens. After all, it is hopeless if you do not see all talents and write off a certain group from the start. But I also think that everyone who wants to try their hand at management should raise their hand and say they would like to have a go at it in different roles.

How can the current gender equality in Group Management act as a guiding light in the business?

Some of our insights show that if a man has a female manager, he is more likely to hire more women. That way we can see it growing. While we at top management level in KMD have a good level of diversity when it comes to gender, age and background, we still have work to do at our VP level. That must be a goal for us. Management is fun and challenging and I hope that both women and men, young and old, would like to try their hand at it.

What is your most important goal as a manager if we are talking exclusively about employees?

I hope that employees and managers in my organisation trust me as a manager and get a sense of openness, presence and involvement. I firmly believe that employees should feel confident that we take care of both the strategic and business development of the company so that we can continue to be successful, while at the same time caring about their development, working conditions and daily life. You cannot manage without making mistakes, but you can create openness and insight so that, together with managers and employees, you can limit the effect of the mistakes that are made.

We’ve just been through a big organisational change in my part of the business, and I said we’d definitely made a mistake somewhere and asked employees to let me know if there are things that didn’t make sense or whether more communication was needed.

I hope they appreciate that openness and willingness to listen. Then, of course, there may be nuances and perspectives that make things the way they are. God management is created in collaboration between a manager and employees, but at the end of the day the responsibility is mine.