Lessons From a Great Company

1) Introduction

Jorgen closeupWhen it comes to travelling,I prefer to do so at night. By taking airplanes in the evening or during the night I gain two benefits. The first one is that I get to see sunsets and then the the starry sky above the clouds, which I love to see. The second is, I can use more of my daytime for work.

One day of travelling in daytime is a lost workday when I cannot take meetings or make calls to move things forward. Being the efficient person I am, several hours without interaction and communication is hard to take.

Anyway, today I have travelled from Nairobi to Amsterdam during daytime. It is an eight hour journey and a part of it I spent writing this blog post.

Three weeks ago I wrote a blog about creative personalities and innovation.

At the end of the blog I touched upon the collective innovative power of assembling talented people in one company, and I promised to explain my experience of this further in a later post. Today I had time to write the second installment.

2) The awakening

Sophia-Antipolis officeIn the 1990s, I used to work for a great company.

I came there not by my own initiative or action, and I did not know anything about them before my first interview. It just happened that I got a call one day, and they asked if I could come to meet their CEO. Flattered I said yes, and that was the start of a new phase in my life, never to be forgotten.

In the company, we felt a sense of belonging and purpose. We hired primarily young professionals, in their late 20s or early 30s with excellent grades and references. We dispersed them among a dozen offices across the world, managing to keep our kindred spirit by frequently moving people around.

We had boot camps for new recruits and we moved them to work in other countries than their origin to ensure smooth adaption into our corporate culture. As most people were young and away from their home countries they spent also their spare time together and some of them later on even got together and formed cross-cultural families.

During a couple of years in the late 1990s we recruited close to if not more than 100 young people. Americans, Germans, Britt’s, South Africans, Scandinavians, etc.  In my team I had 32 nationalities. All of them carefully selected, talented, well educated and energetic to contribute to the company’s success. As we were in high growth they had to get up-to-speed quickly and it was common that a new recruit was project manager for our project at a Fortune-500 company within weeks of starting with us. We practiced extreme in work training and we leaders spent a substantial amount of our time on training the youngsters. Time that was well spent as most new people became productive quickly.

3) The impact

421px-European_Central_Bank_041107Our clients were the Fortune 500 companies. In our tiny organization, we dealt with clients belonging to the smartest business people in the world, being CFO’s, Head´s of Asset Management, Head´s of Trading and Head’s of Treasury of the worlds most successful multinationals.

Our role was to enable them to do their work, to liberate them from the limitations of previous systems and routines, by using our solutions to master the financial might of multi-asset investments, trading operations, currency and interest rate risks, liquidity, cash flow and other financial exposure in their global corporations.

The prime of our success was when our talented engineers built the platform that currently runs the European Central Bank (ECB).

One treasury monitor window on computer screens, updated in real-time across Europe, allows the central bank experts across the Euro-zone to implement the monetary policy that has given us the low interest rate and low inflation most Euro zone countries have today. Besides standard portfolio management, it handles advanced credit and market risk management and performance measurement of the ECB’s foreign exchange reserves.

Sophia-Antipolis office 2When I think of it I feel proud, even though my own role was a tiny component of the machinery that made up the outstanding company delivering these things. I feel proud to have belonged there. The great company was there when I joined, created by the natural force of the founder and the smart recruitment strategy of the HR Director Gunnar von Koch. I was there briefly and many of the talented people I got to know are still there, in the futuristic office building in Sophia-Antipolis.

Not so long ago the company was bought by private equity and was merged with an American larger corporation, and I think with the larger scale some of the magic disappeared. Still, it remains in the memory of those of us who were there, in the sales meetings, the product management priority discussions, the user group forums, the client steering committee meetings and on there airplanes.

I still frequently meet my former colleagues on Lufthansa, Swiss or BA flights. It is becoming less and  less common, but every month there is someone there from the old days.

Trema beach party 2012On June 30th 2012, we are going back in time for a reunion evening on a beach east of Antibes, twelve years after I left the company. I look forward to this, and I expect my former colleagues to show up by the dozen, maybe a hundred, flying in from across the world because they feel the same sense of having belonged to a great company that I do. Some will bring their families, others travel from far, and it is going to be great to meet up with them all.

4) The stuff great companies are made of

What is it then, that makes up the greatness I remember so well? What stuff is it built from? A company is not an organism, but a collective of individual people, …or is it?

In the previous blog, I wrote:

To make up a truly innovative company there is a need for a focused innovation strategy, a winning overall business strategy, deep customer insight, great talent, and the right set of capabilities to achieve successful execution.

More important than any of the individual elements, however, is the role played by corporate culture — the organization’s self-sustaining patterns of behaving, feeling, thinking, and believing — in tying them all together.

In the previous blog I argued that structure was essential in boosting the collective creativity of the team. However in the great company that is the subject if this blog, we did not really have such firm structure and we definitely did not have a good innovation process in those days. Rapid expansion and frequent reorganizations prohibited such structure to really fall in place.

Yet, we created those amazing things.

Maybe the explanation is that a critical mass of talented, smart people with a clear mission to perform and a sense of belonging to the team always find their ways?

5) More to come

In two blog posts I have explained my personal experience and thoughts on individual and corporate creativity.

In the next blog in the series, maybe to be written on my next daytime flight, I will touch upon the creative place, and the effects of assembling smart people in dense cities, and what this will mean for the future when 70-80% of us humans will live in dense, urban areas.

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