Innovation has always played an important role in the success of the most competitive companies, but in recent years the role of innovation has changed radically. First, innovation is not an option now a business imperative. The best innovates on a regular basis. Second, past innovation will not be sufficient in the future, thanks to the 4th industrial revolution we are living. By 2025, a new consumer class will have emerged and most of the world’s consumption will take place in developing countries, which will mean new opportunities. These changes in demand will coincide with the application of major innovations in materials in the integration of ICTs, 3D printing and advanced robotics. Everyone talks about innovation, but no one talks about the role that leadership plays in making it really happen within companies.
“Diversity is not just the morally correct goal to strive for, it matters for the bottom line too. Companies with more diverse workforces perform better”
I had a conversation with a very successful woman in STEM: Jessica Nordlander about INNOVATIVE LEADERSHIP. She is a technology executive with an MSc in Applied IT, an XGoogler and was recently named Sweden’s Most Innovative Leader in 2019, the most important management and leadership award in the country. She is currently COO at one of Canada’s fastest-growing tech companies, enterprise crowdsourcing firm Thoughtexchange, whose platform empowers leaders to give everyone a voice – especially the unheard - and embrace diversity to achieve inclusiveness and find common ground.
You are a technology executive with an MSc in Applied IT, an XGoogler and was recently named the most Innovative Leader in one of the most innovative countries in the world: Sweden, how does it feel?
It is important to point out that this award was not about me as an individual being an inventor or an innovator, it was about leadership and for leading in a way that makes innovation possible. As Chief Digital Officer at STS in Sweden, I led a significant reorganization and helped individuals and teams free themselves from some of the rigid practices that had been put into place to maximize efficiency. When I was given the award it finally felt like there was some recognition around what I think leadership needs to look like in the 21st century. In terms of what the award has meant for me personally, it has given me exposure to other leaders that want their leadership to become more impactful and to move to a more inclusive model.
You are currently COO at one of Canada’s fastest-growing tech companies, enterprise crowdsourcing firm Thoughtexchange, whose platform empowers leaders to give everyone a voice – especially the unheard - and embrace diversity to achieve inclusiveness and find common ground. Can you tell us more about that?
Thoughtexchange is growing rapidly. We just closed our third round of funding and have also increased usage by a staggering 600% this year. We are building out our teams very quickly right now — we are currently at 160 people — and this expansion of talent and resources will mean we can put the power of crowdsourcing into the hands of more leaders. This tool makes a new leadership paradigm possible- and leaders are using it to surface direct, honest, and compelling insights from their customers, employees, and communities.
“The reason those Nordic countries are ahead is not because of some magic attitude at work, but because of how systems are built-in society”
We’ve established an amazing client base with a growing list of Fortune 500 companies — such as Allstate Insurance, American Airlines, Cineplex and McDonald’s — as well as hundreds of public organizations, educational boards, and notable technology companies. Leaders are finding out what is most important to their communities by crowdsourcing common ground within groups of people where subsets of that group might have very different thoughts and feelings about topics. In a world where people are growing more and more polarized, the fact that technology can be applied to help us find common ground is reassuring.
The platform is ideal for a large diverse workforce as it allows everyone to contribute to decision-making and problem-solving without the usual biases of power, extroversion, or location coming into play. We now have the chance to open our virtual doors to a new work paradigm to embrace the benefits of diversity while harnessing the inclusive, collective power of everyone’s thinking. We’re proud to be part of that transition.
Jessica, you are an advocate of diversity, equity, inclusion, and gender equality, why is so important that companies take seriously these issues and make changes?
I believe most people want similar things, regardless of gender, skin color or sexual orientation — they want a work environment where they can use some of their waking hours to contribute to society and exercise their brains. They want enough hours away from that environment to spend time with their families and loved ones, play sport, or have a hobby. If you can build workplaces that cater to these fundamental human needs, everyone will be more contented.
Diversity is not just the morally correct goal to strive for, it matters for the bottom line too. Companies with more diverse workforces perform better -(https://www.forbes.com/sites/karstenstrauss/2018/01/25/more-evidence-that-company-diversity-leads-to-better-profits/#724d86cc1bc7) — so even if it feels uncomfortable at times to be the only person that looks like you in that executive team or boardroom, it’s so worth it. Both for future generations to come and for the organization you work for. Leaders need to recognize that this no longer is just a question of having a moral view, it makes financial sense within every business. It is now not just obviously progressive leaders making the case for diversity, it’s any leader trying to maximize shareholder value.
You have lived in many countries and you always have worked in the technology industry, what aspects can you share with us about what you have seen in diversity, equity, inclusion and gender equality in those countries?
I’m Swedish and started my career in Sweden. From there I moved to the Middle East and was an MD based in Dubai. In addition, I also lived in Canada, Ireland, and Norway. What gives me hope is that in all those countries during the time I lived there, I saw significant progress in the industry. Companies understood that to be able to attract the best talent available, they needed to cater for women more and prioritise diversity to attract the best talent and become better organizations. Of course, these countries have different starting points- Sweden and Norway already had a high percentage of women in the workforce for decades. Something that is strongly connected to not just how equality is experienced in the workplace but also how things stand domestically.
If programmes are available to ensure parental care is a shared responsibility i.e. there is paid paternity leave, then things are evened out at home first before they are tackled at work. The reason those Nordic countries are ahead is not because of some magic attitude at work, but because of how systems are built-in society. Living in the UAE, very few of those systems are in place and in some ways being a woman was challenging operating under those conditions. But during the time I was there I saw great leadership when it came to pushing things in the right direction. I only ever experienced curiosity and encouragement around being a woman taking on leadership roles. I do recognize that that is not the case for everyone though and comes from my privileges as a white woman.
Canada is much closer to the Nordic model, but there is still room for improvement – like how paternity leave is promoted. It is available but very few men take it, which makes it more of a cultural shift that needs to happen. I feel Canada is kind of sitting in between the worst and best examples of equality in the western world - the US is the only developed Western country that has no paid parental leave program on a federal level. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jan/27/maternity-leave-us-policy-worst-worlds-richest-countries) That makes it a lot harder to get the type of female participation in the workforce that we’d like to see and to make sure that women who have kids don’t get left hopelessly behind forever in the workforce.
You mentioned in a talk that we had the word “INNOVATIVE LEADERSHIP”, what does it mean?
We consistently hear talk of disruption, globalization, and digitization and how corporations and other organizations the world over need to transform to respond and develop competitive advantages. It is my strong belief that if we want our organizations to change, we need to totally rethink and transform leadership, otherwise true organizational transformation will never be possible.
Most of the leadership practices that we learn, still today, at business schools are built on assumptions of a relatively slow-moving world. Whereas I believe that the fast-changing environment that most CEO’s navigate today requires organizations that are built for continuous change. Being a continuous change leader requires a completely different approach or you will lose credibility and the organization will go into change fatigue or even complete burn out. To build and lead an organization in continuous transformation, you must disconnect psychological safety from change so that the people that you lead can find peace and security even though things are in constant flux. At Thoughtexchange, we refer to this paradigm shift as going “from loud to crowd leadership”. From having one person with a voice and strong decision-making skills, to a person that can activate crowds of people, tap into their collective intelligence, and build stronger companies.
“Leading innovatively means challenging existing management and leadership paradigms continuously to create environments in which innovation can flourish through many different people”
Leadership nowadays has a lot more to do with helping people thrive under imperfect and constantly changing conditions and levelling up the playing field in terms of diversity and equity rather than finding ultimate perfection and efficiency in a certain task or work that is repeated over and over again. It is about becoming a leader who encourages innovation to flourish. There is such a massive difference between leading innovation and leading innovatively. Leading innovatively means challenging existing management and leadership paradigms continuously to create environments in which innovation can flourish through many different people. It requires risk-taking and bravery in leadership and dedication to the advancement of people, as much as to the ruthless advancement of technology.
You are a young woman very successful in STEM, what´s the recipe of your success?
I am a little bit reluctant to give advice that puts pressure on women to do things that they might not be doing for completely natural reasons. However, one thing I have found to be good for my career is to challenge myself to say yes to things that I haven’t had any idea how to do. It was a good piece of advice that I was given early on in my working life. When I’ve been asked to take on something that sounded really difficult, I’ve accepted the challenge even though I’ve had no idea how I was going to do it. This is a trait more commonly seen among men than among women, mostly because women are judged much more harshly when we fail. Women’s willingness to take risks is usually much lower – not because we are more risk averse but because we are given a harder time when we do not succeed.
So, it is understandable women would exhibit this behaviour – it is not their fault. Men in general are much more likely to give difficult things a go because their mistakes are more often seen as a bump in the road rather than something that defines their potential. The reason I have been able to take those risks is that I have always felt I had very little to lose. I’ve never felt that failing at work has defined me as a person, or that I would have been worse off than I was in the first place. I think as a woman giving advice there are so many things you can say that women need to do that when you say them it makes them seem easy- even though they are extremely difficult. Or that it is all up to women to do all the hard work needed to allow women to succeed. It should not just be up to women to facilitate gender equality – it is everyone’s responsibility.