Americans, and much of the rest of the world, often think of Scandinavia, or the Nordics, as one homogeneous la la land-like block sitting on top of continental Europe. If we go by the textbook definition, the countries comprising Scandinavia are Sweden, Norway and Denmark, with Finland and Iceland as part of Nordics, but not of Scandinavia.
However, since these five countries share many cultural, social and economic similarities, we can lump them together for the purposes of discussing culture, and specifically, business and leadership culture. Apologies to all geography purists.
As someone who was born in Helsinki, today active in the Nordic startup and tech scenes, I tend to believe that I have some credibility to pinpoint comparative weaknesses and strengths of the region.
While Scandinavia can certainly learn about business and leadership from the US, the region has produced household brands such as IKEA, Nokia, Volvo, H&M, Skype and startups like Klarna, iZettle, Rovio (Angry Birds), Supercell, King and many others. The Nordics also have a higher share of billion-dollar exits in comparison to GDP than any other region in the world.
Business Insider has coined the Nordics as the biggest unicorn factory in the world. While region has impressive tech scenes, Sweden alone produces more exit value other Nordic countries combined: 59% of the total exit value for exits at over $100 million is attributable to Sweden, 22% to Denmark and, 12% to Norway and 7% to Finland.
Although Sweden is battling with social issues, Norway is re-calibrating its oil-reliant economy and Finland is slowly recovering from deep recession, all countries have a track record of excellence when it comes to building successful multinational companies. As for Iceland, the small island with a population of 330,000 is quickly establishing itself as VR/AR powerhouse, and Denmark is known as the happiest country in the world.
As these rather impressive facts and stats in mind, not all is rotten in Scandinavia. Let's look at what we can learn from our Scandinavian friends.
Silence is a virtue
Great leaders know how to communicate. This means knowing the right message to convey, when to use words, and when to choose silence and action. There are those challenging moments in business where we could inspire more not through pep talks but by showing others that we are committed to action by putting in the work ourselves.
Finns are known to avoid verbal communication like the plague, while Swedes enjoy taking meetings and are generally more social than their eastern neighbor. There's a joke about Finland, which Illustrates the Finnish collective, but voluntary speech impediment, “A Finnish guy loved his girlfriend so much that he almost told it to her”.
Perhaps the love of silence stems from the pessimism of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and the style of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, both showing that silence can be expressive. Watching Bergman’s films, it’s easy to notice the powerful moments when there is little to no dialog and so much emotion is created through the actions and ambient sounds. It’s in silence that actions become amplified.
For business leaders who love to hear their own voice while ignoring the voices of others, silence can be a virtue when used wisely, and as da Vinci said, “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.”
Less is more
The Scandinavian design movement started in the 1950s and emphasizes simplicity and functionality. It is already nearly 70 years since brands like Ikea, Marimekko, and Iittala continue to celebrate this tradition by featuring minimalist and functional design in their products. There is an enduring appeal to no-frills products that work well in their core functions.
This philosophy applies to a variety of products and services. In digital, this could mean developing streamlined focused apps and services that can do at least one thing excellently rather than being able to do a lot of things but perform poorly. Avoid trying to accomplish too many things at once. Focus on what’s essential and make sure they work the way they should. In a way, Apple and the underlying principle of its founder Steve Jobs has always been about simplicity and minimalism.
A bit of misanthropy never hurt anyone
While Swedes are extremely friendly, Finns appreciate the lack of human contact. A visiting American often mistakes this for hostility - which it might be - but the underlying instinct is more about individualism. Finns often prefer to go about working on tasks individually, without interruptions or distractions.
Collaboration is good, but simply being around people doesn’t mean collaboration is happening. Long meetings aren’t exactly a good sign of progress. Actual work only gets done when people get to hunker down and work on their respective tasks. Often, this is achieved by being away and disconnected from others. After all, big tech companies like Nokia were built by quiet, hard-working Finns, similar to Graham Greene’s quiet American.
Interruptions must effectively be managed. Due to the creative demands of modern work, it’s also important for people to achieve a certain flow or get into a zone where they become most productive.
Scandinavians value personal space. You may have encountered internet memes of how people in the region keep each other at more than arm’s length while waiting for the bus. The rest of the world may find this amusing but each culture has a different take of how small or big that space is. Israelis, for instance, are known to be comfortable being up close to people.
Regardless of culture, everyone needs personal space to function. You can’t expect to concentrate at work when someone’s literally breathing down your back. Studies have shown that a breach of personal space stresses us out. This is why the flexible or open office plan has its share of criticisms. While this doesn’t mean that we have to go back to cubicles, giving people their own physical space in the workplace shows that we respect their personal space as well.
As leaders, we must be able to acknowledge this and be flexible of our expectations about how people get things done and give them the leeway to approach tasks the best way they see fit.
Fewer hours, more productive
Scandinavian countries rank among the most productive in the world. All five countries mentioned above land in the top 19 globally. Denmark leads the pack at second place overall in the list with workers delivering £24.14 (approximately $32 dollars at that time) of value created per hour. If you think that’s pretty astonishing, consider that Danes also have a standard 37-hour work week.
Delivering more in a shorter time is about efficiency and effectiveness. To achieve this, leaders must focus on the things that deliver the most value and be really good at these little things. Often this involves making sure the fundamental functions and skills are covered and that these are performed masterfully. Letting people achieve work-life balance also makes them happier and allows them to recharge and be productive on a daily basis.
Culture of consensus
While a bit of radicalism, contrarianism and individualism often result in innovation and birth of companies, such as Apple, Nordics are known for radical egalitarianism. In work cultures like Israel, a team of ten is a team comprising ten working individuals. How often do we encounter instances where we find faults in the work caused by misaligned expectations? Those ten people would often all have their opinions on the matter.
In the Nordics, the same ten people comprise a dynamic and focused goal-oriented group with no room for squabbles and bloated egos. Sweden, for example, is a highly consensus seeking society. On the upside, this culture allows people to discuss and get everyone’s perspective on the matter. Issues are hashed out and everyone understands what others have to say.
Most Scandinavians typically speak more than one language. Aside from their native language, most are fluent in English with Nordic countries consistently in the top of the EF English Proficiency Index. This gives Scandinavia an advantage in business as this allows them to perform business globally without language barriers.
In addition, knowing more than one language has several benefits. It gives you access to a wider knowledge-base and allows you to enjoy more perspectives. Being able to observe nuances of languages also helps you become more appreciative of diversity and cross-cultural differences.
The lessons mentioned in this piece are great pointers in creating a culture that allows people to perform at their very best. Being an inspiration through action, giving people the space they need to function, and embracing their individuality are great leadership virtues to exhibit.