“People in themselves are such an important part of change because people are illogical. We’re illogical and we can innovate outside the box.”
Hi Ebba! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today, we really admire your teaching style, the passion you bring is admirable! We can’t wait to learn more about you, and your thoughts on leadership.
To begin, could you tell us a bit about your background?
Sure! I was adopted and came to Lund in the 1970s, a very homogenous city with a lot of ‘know it all’s’. I grew tired of it quite quickly and decided to move to Scotland in the 90s. I did my Master’s in management and organization, attending English literature and linguistics in parallel, and specialized in French 19th century literature, systems in transformation, human behaviour, organization, and utilization of creative abilities. Both of which are things found in literature and companies. I have always welcomed the unexpected, combining things that on the surface, don’t really go together but, actually have many similarities in the end. This has set the tone and paved the path for my career. It has created a harmonious balance between creativity, literature, and start-ups.
After my degree, I moved to Paris to work at a strategy consultant agency. But soon I was back in Stockholm, a city where it was happening in the 90s and I dove into the start-up world. It was a fun time where I did a lot of things I was good at. But I felt under-stimulated. As soon as I get good at something, I move on. So, I asked myself; where do I know the least but can learn the most? Ericsson.
At Ericsson, I worked with innovation and development in inter-functional teams. It involved a lot of teamwork and problem-solving. Intrapreneurship at its best. Then it’s been a little bit of everything. I’ve been a consultant within strategic and systematic change, founded my own company, wrote a book on stress, and then back to Ericsson. In 2008 I started my Ph.D. within Intrapreneurship, the ‘box paradox’, on how to work outside the box when you’re in it. During my Ph.D., I started to lecture, not my biggest talent in the beginning, but hopefully, something I’ve become better at. In 2017 I finished my Ph.D., and since then I’ve been a leadership consultant working with the framework I came up with in my dissertation, VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity). Finally, I am now at KTH.
How did you come in contact with SSES?
I came in contact with SSES quite early on being a student in the Execution course at the Stockholm School of Economics. For me, SSES can always be moving and developing in a very coordinated way. Cooperation and intentions are my things. It is through cooperation where we will create sustainability, no matter the definition of it. No matter what system that requires cooperation, being a person, city, or a country.
Tell us about your research, what was the result? How do you get people to innovate outside the box when they are a part of a system?
I worked with an ancient concept, which I came to call VUCA, and that’s the power of three. This means that if you want to create the change you have to work with three different processes. The first one is destruction; some things have to die to make room for something new. It can be how we handle customer relationships, our processes, the branding, or how we connect. The second one is anchoring. It might sound counterproductive to anchor when you want to move forward. But we need to anchor into the past to give people context and an understanding of why things look like they do. It creates a base to push away from. Anchoring downwards then? That means understanding what we are doing right here and right now. The third process is innovation, to create and do new things. What I’ve found is that these three processes need to be fairly even, like the spokes on the wheel of a bike. If they aren’t then nothing will move. Too much destruction you throw everything out, too much anchoring you get stuck, and too much innovation things become scary and illogical.
When it comes to intrapreneurship, you can’t just blaze forward. If you want to make real change you have to do everything, try everything, to understand how the company works in all different aspects. Then you’re able to put together systems and processes that work. It all has to be paired with the great leadership of course. But people in themselves are such an important part of change because people are illogical. We’re illogical and we can innovate outside the box.
What do you do if a company is stuck in the past? How do you make the three spokes even?
Nowadays when I come into companies that are stuck in the past, I usually see that it’s because it’s viewed as ‘ugly’ or ‘bad’ to value the traditions or history. You’re supposed to be tech-savvy and find all digitalization and AI fascinating. The phrase ‘this is how we always did things and it has worked before’ is banned. Then you have the other group who are frustrated and want to move forward faster. Things need to be levelled out, creating a solid foundation for people to stand on. The best way to do that is to have a conversation about the company’s history, where we come from, and what we have done. It creates a sense of pride and understanding among the group. Then you can put the history aside completely and get people to think creatively about the future, which you can do through workshopping. I like to work with opposites and opposition, it more or less forces you to take on a new way of thinking. Then work on all fronts at the same time and understand where the opportunity of change lies. Finally, you have to work with management. They have to be on board! Otherwise, the process will be confusing and unfruitful for everyone involved.
How do you characterize a bad leader?
A bad leader is someone who’s preoccupied more with themselves and their image than they are with their employees or the business in itself. Someone who puts their interest at the centre of attention. A bad leader doesn’t listen, and they’re stuck in their way of thinking, they’re afraid of experimenting and failing. A bad leader is afraid of having conflicts and letting people have conflicts. They don’t have peoples’ backs when things are failing but they’re there to take the limelight when things are going well. A bad leader is someone who sees people as machines who shouldn’t ask for help. A bad leader is someone who doesn’t leave room for being human. I’ve worked with a lot of leaders who are afraid of people knowing they’re human. They think that people will view them differently, calling them out as a fraud, if they act like humans and not perfectly performing machines.
Is that a common thing, leaders scared that they will get called a ‘fraud’, would you agree?
I think that people, in general, are afraid of being who they are. Bringing their whole self to work or any situation. It might be a consequence of our time, we’re able to present ourselves as perfect on social media all the time which creates a lot of pressure. Luckily, I never really had that problem. Being adopted I never fit in in any kind of situation growing up and I had to learn early on that if I can’t be the best Swede or the best Korean, I can at least be myself. Then people might like that person or not. Things might go good or bad. But that doesn’t matter in the end. In general, people need to chill.
In your opinion, what traits make someone a great leader?
A good leader has to sense the context and explain it. A good leader needs to be an active part of every department. Spending time with the marketing team, the sales team, or the people building the products. Without knowing how the employees view the company or their part in it, one will never understand their perspective or opinions. Then knowing the different perspectives, you can make informed choices. Good leadership is to appreciate experimentation, leading when the timing is needed and to coordinate change.
Other than that, it’s important to have a human perspective. Let people be human. A good leader makes their employees feel like they’re part of something bigger, creating a sense of belonging and team spirit. That is becoming more and more difficult as practices and work environments are becoming more digital, and the number of face-to-face meetings is declining. Psychological safety is so important when it comes to the well-being of your teams, which, without as many face to face interactions can be hard to put into practice. There will inevitably be obstacles to overcome, this is a healthy part of life, however, as a good leader, it’s our responsibility to build a safe, inclusive and communicative culture, where employees feel that their happiness and sense of security in the workplace is valued by their employers.