Sweden has an ambiguous relationship with individuals who stand out. In principle there is tolerance. And people like siding with success. But behind this façade, there is something known as “the law of Jante”, the attitude that “nobody is better than anyone else”. Individuals who are too competent and gain too much success have to be brought down to earth sooner or later.
Sweden’s perception of Carl-Henric Svanberg illustrates this “law of Jante” attitude. His capacity to engage people is impressive, as is his mastery in the role of communicator on stage or in front of a television camera. But at the same time, this creates a problem.
Initially, a great deal of effort went into making Svanberg the new face of Ericsson. “The problem was that he was a bit too good in that role,” says Sténson. “But once we had got beyond the first confidence-building phase, it became important to focus on the other managers as well. Some were already displaying tendencies to abdicate from their communications responsibilities and we definitely did not want to start a personality cult.”
So the strategy had to modified. The motto was “From cult to culture”, and now it was time for the rest of the management team to make an appearance. After rehearsing their presentations for Ericsson’s capital markets day in 2004, they were very successful. Swedish business magazines were soon publishing articles praising the new Ericsson’s successful efforts to change its culture.
Training is required here as in other respects. Not even a seemingly spontaneous and relaxed stand-up comedian like Jerry Seinfeld would stand on a stage and improvise; everything is carefully rehearsed, says Svanberg. “There is an art to being able to express a clear, simple message and it is dangerous to make messages up as you go along. Taken on their own as headlines in a newspaper, they can be as brutal and as misplaced as you can get.”
TRAINING IS VITAL
Being prepared is vital: “I have every sympathy with politicians who come out of their front door early in the morning with sleep still in their eyes to find a television reporter standing there asking ‘What do you think about this?’ You have to watch your tongue and practice getting the message across. You do not realize that until you are standing there yourself.”
Svanberg experienced this before the 2006 election when he made a comment on a possible shift of government in Sweden. “I was presenting an argument that was not particularly clear but when it was broadcast they edited it down to eight seconds when I said it could well be refreshing to have a change of government. That really made a major impact. I cannot complain because that is what the world is like. I meant what I said, but it reminded me of the impact you can have when you are the head of Ericsson.”
Just before Christmas 2003, Svanberg committed a communications faux pas. At a meeting of Ericsson women’s network, Ericsdotter, he was asked about the shortage of women in leading positions. He had prepared a talk about business strategies and went on quoting figures without knowing what to say.
Svanberg had received no briefing about the agenda for the meeting. He later apologized. A reference group of about 10 women was set up and an action plan was launched in 2004 based on their opinions. Lists of candidates for senior appointments always had to include at least one woman. And the target was for each management group to contain at least two women.
Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn