Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Lars Bjork (chief executive of QlikTech, a data software company), says he has thought about hiring a simplicity officer to view its operations, to “come in with fresh eyes and see whether this really is the smartest way to do something.”
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Order Is Great. It’s Bureaucracy That’s Stifling
Bryant: Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss or manager?
Bjork: It was in 1984. I had the opportunity to work in construction in New York, coming right out of undergrad. I was sick and tired of school at the time. I didn’t want to study anymore. My uncle had built one of the largest construction companies in the world, so he got me a job on the Throgs Neck Bridge in New York as an assistant supervisor on site.
I was 22, and the men were double my age and tough. And I think the only way I could go about it was just walk up and try to speak to them and try to earn their respect, which I did. It took some time. It was rough at the beginning, but I learned a lot from that. It was hard, tough, but a very fair environment.
Bryant: How did you handle it?
Bjork: They looked at me skeptically. Who is this kid just out of school? He doesn’t know anything about what you really do on a construction site like this. But I was a foreigner, and they were curious, so they said, let’s hear him out, see who he is.
Then it just comes down to proving yourself — things you give them advice on or things that you tell them that are solid and sound, and weren’t just pulled out of the air. I’ve always been very open toward people. I never kept anything to myself, and I just explained to people what was on the agenda for the day, and why we were doing this.
Bryant: What has been your approach to leadership?
Bjork: I have never seen myself as a leader, someone who says I’m going to become a C.E.O. I never did that. And that goes even for where I am now. I didn’t start as C.E.O. at this company. It was never something that I put on a map, where I said, I’m going to get there. It’s more the result of me very much earning the respect of the people I work for, and they said, this is a guy we’re going to promote.
Bryant: What else?
Bjork: I’ve always been competitive, and I’m also curious. I want to learn things, and that’s why, early in life, I put myself in challenging situations, like coming to the United States from Sweden to work here. I’m also more humble today than I was 20 years ago. I am by no means the expert. I’m not the smart guy in the room. I might have an ability to bring people together and get the best team or have a sense of what’s needed. Being the coach — that’s sort of what it’s been for me.
Bryant: What were some other big lessons?
Bjork: I once worked for somebody who managed in such a terrible way that I decided to never work with people who treat people badly. Life is too short for that. Let’s work with people who appreciate you and you appreciate them. It was such a terrible experience, so I left the company because I didn’t want to be associated with that.
For me, it’s super-important — if I love my job, why wouldn’t I want the same thing for my co-workers? They will feel good and they will enjoy working and they will stay, and I know it will show up in the results as well. There is no other way to do it. Motivated people will go way further than anyone else.
Bryant: Tell me about the culture at your company.
Bjork: We developed five core values that we live by. The first one is “challenge,” because we are a disruptive software company. Always challenge the conventional, because if you follow others, you can at best be No. 2. And if you want to win, you’ve got to find your own way to the top. And we challenge each other at QlikTech, because if you’re complacent, you’re not going to survive.
The second one is move fast — because we are building a hypergrowth company. It’s O.K. to make mistakes, just don’t make the same mistakes. Learn from them. The third one is, be open and straightforward. What that means is just be open if you think something is wrong. We hear everyone out. It’s important that everything is on the table, because somebody might have something brilliant to say. But when we leave the room and we’ve decided on one thing and your view might not be incorporated in that, you still have to respect the decision.
The fourth one is teamwork for results. This is not about the individual. This is about the team, the power of the team. In our company today, we have 28 offices in 23 countries, so our team is a virtual one. You reach out and you speak to people everywhere, and you learn a lot from people that way, because there are a lot more similarities between cultures than you might think.
The fifth one is take responsibility. You’re given authority to be part of a lot more than just your position, but some responsibility also comes with it. And if you want to grow fast, you have to put into people’s DNA the idea of being cost-conscious. That’s why we all still travel coach.
At our annual company summit each year, we give out awards for each of these five categories. The employees nominate people in each category and then you become a value ambassador for the coming year. It could be an individual, or it could be a team.
Bryant: A lot of companies develop values and put them on posters, but you tie an award to each of them.
Bjork: I will tell you exactly that story. Somebody said, “So why don’t we make posters of this?” I said, “Are you a lunatic? Posters?” If you have kids, you know that they’re not going to do just what you tell them to do. You have to act the way you want them to act. If we don’t live and breathe it, it fails.
That’s why, when I hire managers and senior managers, I want to find a person who is grounded, who doesn’t have to prove anything, but certainly wants to be part of a successful journey and contribute to that and get recognition for that. But they don’t have to stand there and wave their hands all the time for attention, because they know who they are. They are secure in themselves. Self-confidence is very important, managed the right way. It doesn’t have to be on the edge of being arrogant.
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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. His book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, was published in April of 2011 by Times Books. To contact him, please click here.