As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Nordlander.
Jessica Nordlander, a technology executive and XGoogler with an MSc in Applied IT, was recently named “Sweden’s Most Innovative Leader.” She currently serves as COO for one of Canada’s fastest-growing software companies, ThoughtExchange, where she aims to operationalize moxie. She also lectures on the topic of virtual leadership at Columbia University and McMaster University and has been featured in Inc. Magazine alongside Mark Cuban and Seth Godin for her thoughts on leading innovatively.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an insatiable curiosity for learning everything about the world around me and a passion for solving complicated problems. I used to frame my inability to choose just one focus as a disadvantage, but I’ve come to realize that it is actually my greatest asset. I followed my curiosity at University instead of a traditional prescribed course, moving from engineering to business and finally ending up with a master’s in informatics. In doing so, I ended up with an educational background that has uniquely equipped me to tackle daunting, complex organizational and technological challenges by connecting the dots between disciplines. My career path has been much the same. Rather than pigeonholing myself into one kind of role or one type of organization, I followed the problems I was most interested in solving. This mentality has given me a very nuanced perspective, since I’ve worked for companies at all stages of growth, each with its own unique set of problems to solve. This is one of the things that drew me to ThoughtExchange — not only do I get to help address a new set of intraorganizational challenges myself, but the entire company is foundationally purpose-driven to empower business and community leaders to solve their most complex problems as well.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
English is my second language, which is always a recipe for a bit of comic relief. My team makes fun of me all the time for Swedish expressions I use that sound odd here: “steel bath” instead of “trial by fire,” “water on a goose” instead of “water off a duck’s back.” Things like that. As far as what I’ve learned from it? I guess I’ve learned not to take myself too seriously.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My high school science teacher is the first that comes to mind. Without his encouragement and enthusiasm for STEM, I might have had a completely different life. I was certainly close to choosing a non-science path; as I mentioned before, my interests are diverse and so many of my friends weren’t considering careers in STEM fields. There are a lot of subtle cultural paradigms that discourage women, especially, from taking this path. So I will always be grateful that he showed up in my life at exactly the right time to give me the push I needed.
I was also fortunate enough to work under two very inspiring leaders at Google, and I’m even more fortunate to still be in touch with both of them. The first is Natalie Bagnall, who was the one who hired me on and who taught me how to prioritize agility and learning over perfection. The second is Darren Pleasance, whose dedication to my growth, understanding, and success left a lasting impression on me about what it means to be an amazing leader. I’m lucky to call him my mentor and friend.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
ThoughtExchange was founded on the idea of democratizing share of voice — adding structure to conversations to unlock the collective intelligence of an organization. Change management is an absolutely critical leadership skill, but for far too long, our leadership techniques have been stunted and ill-informed. Either we operated within hierarchies, where the leaders make decisions on behalf of all their people without consulting them — or, when we tried to scale conversations to hear from our entire team, we found our skill sets and tools inadequate to the job. We might send out surveys asking people how they felt on a scale from 1–5 about issues that demand deeper consideration and understanding, or perhaps we called a staff meeting or a town hall, in which only a few extroverts in the group would feel comfortable voicing their opinions. We were only set up to hear the very loudest voices. ThoughtExchange was built on the idea that with the right tools, we can overcome bias and drill down to what is really important to the individuals within a group — before and after they have a chance to consider other viewpoints because our beliefs don’t form in a vacuum. It provides a safe space for people to share their thoughts, without fear of retribution, in which the highest-quality perspectives — not the loudest or the first — float to the top. The intellect of an organization doesn’t just live with its leader. Through our platform, they are empowered to “crowdsource” their leadership and unlock the full potential of their teams. A big piece of our purpose is empowering these normally marginalized voices to be heard.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
As a leader, if a person walks through your door and is visibly upset, it would be extraordinarily callous to ask them about their ideas for advancing the company’s long-term goals. But when we as leaders address our entire company, that is often essentially what we do — and somehow we keep getting away with it. It is especially important in difficult times like the present to lead with empathy and meet people where they’re at. The “hierarchy of needs” model usually credited to Abraham Maslow (but actually heavily inspired by the time he spent with the people of the Siksika Nation — worth looking up), tells us that foundational needs such as security and structure must be in place before your team can innovate and improve. So in uncertain times, that’s what I think about as a leader — how I can empower my team to do their best work by ensuring that they feel psychologically safe and heard, first and foremost. A leader’s ability to provide clarity and transparency is often what is required in those moments; when we started the digital transformation journey at STS Education, as the Chief Digital Officer, I felt that in order for people to feel psychologically safe with the changes I was proposing, I needed to take the time to put them into a wider context. What were the global changes that were driving the need for us to change, what would it mean for our company? I remember that I even showed the entire company what the drop in organic search looked like for us over the last number of years, as we had steadily gotten less relevant. A lot of leaders think of this as “10x the why” but I think we often fail at giving people a good enough why. We can’t justify our change in sales tactics because we have a new go-to-market model, we need to explain to people why we have a new go-to-market model and what drove that decision. Trust that the people that you have hired are smart and that they are able to wrap their heads around big problems.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I think I have been a fighter for a long time. I grew up with a parent with a severe mental illness which influenced my day-to-day directly for a long time, and indirectly it has probably been forever formative. I think from this I have gotten a very stubborn wish and will to be in control of my own circumstances. From the perspective of “giving up,” I think I like to give up on my own timeline, meaning when I feel like I have done everything I can to course-correct — not when someone else thinks it is time to give up. One example of this is when I got my first ever international work opportunity and was transferred from Sweden to Dubai and the Middle East. I had some huge challenges there initially and our results were really suffering in the beginning but I refused to leave until I had created success. The harder a problem is, the more stubborn I become in solving it.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Finding a way to disconnect psychological safety from the idea of change for your team. The world moves pretty quickly at the best of times, and in the last eighteen months, the changes have been coming especially fast and furious. As a leader, you can’t stop that from happening or insulate your team from change. So the best thing you can do for them is help them learn to thrive under constantly changing conditions; an agile team will have a massive competitive advantage, especially when they need to quickly pivot (and they always need to eventually). There is a difference between the concept of change and the process of change. If the process around it is there and people feel like they are taken care of, most people don’t have a problem with the concept of change. My response when leaders complain that people are resisting change is that it is probably because they haven’t wrapped it in a process and justification that people can absorb.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
You can’t start building trust with your team or engage them in the moment when the future seems uncertain. My best advice is to lead authentically, always. For better and worse. Help people build their careers in a way that benefits them both as long as they work for your company and beyond. Help them become the best professional version of themselves and they will trust you with their careers. I have always seen it as a huge privilege to be able to be a part of people’s development and I take that responsibility very seriously. By approaching leadership this way, you have some capital in the trust bank when crisis hits — and I have then been able to sit down with my teams and say “Listen, this is what I see coming our way,” and have always been blessed with people genuinely hearing me out and offering their ideas of how we best move forward.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Early, often, and in as much detail as you can.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You can plan to prioritize building up your agility like it’s a muscle. Strengthen it all the time, and have your team do the same. That way you’ll be better equipped when the world inevitably shows you what it thinks of your plans. Some people try to stick to their plan even when it isn’t working (usually a big corporation problem) or alternatively, refuse to plan because they want to be able to “pivot” (more commonly a startup problem), but I believe in creating a plan that you stick to until you change it. Otherwise, you are creating a situation that is very prone to micromanagement and people will thrive even less than they already were. And again, as I mentioned before, have a change process in place that people understand.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
This principle will be different for each organization because the number one principle that guides a company through difficult times is its unique purpose. A lot of companies today base a big part of their culture on perks — and this comfort-fueled culture feels great when things are going well, but what happens when things turn and those perks start to fall away? When raises are no longer guaranteed? When layoffs begin and the waffle bars and foosball tables disappear? A team that is working toward a common purpose has a “north star” to follow also in troubled times.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
One that I think is very common is the tendency to treat organizational change as though it’s a one-off occurrence because, for many years, that’s how things generally operated. Transformation came in the form of a singular change event, for which you would “unfreeze” the status quo, manage the change, and then “refreeze” the organization in its new form, which would remain until the next change event. But of course, with the digitalization of work has come the continuous change that makes this management style obsolete. Today, an effective leader knows that businesses need to be in a constant state of adaptation to remain competitive — and that because of this, their teams need to be equipped to thrive in a continually changing environment.
Another big one is leaning into efficiency bias. Our entire leadership paradigm in the western world is built on outdated principles that prize efficiency and results above all else, but when all your resources are directed at optimizing the status quo, there’s no room for growth or innovation. You need to be ambidextrous — devoting time and resources to experimentation (and yes, failure) as well as optimizing what already works.
And a trap that I see entirely too many leaders falling into is the illusion of control. An example of this is companies that don’t allow employees to work from home at all. This draconian policy is generally framed as being beneficial to the company, the rationale being that collaboration is somehow inherently better when it occurs in a face-to-face environment. I’ve been talking about this for years now, but it’s recently become more relevant than ever. Not only does this mindset not afford leaders the control they’re seeking, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer that it actively harms their teams, both in terms of morale and productivity. Leaders need to examine these antiquated beliefs and whether they’re really achieving the desired results — and then offer their people the opportunity to work wherever they do their best work.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
This answer can vary a lot across industries, but I think a common thread is that you have to think creatively. So often, we get stuck in the mindset of using what has worked for us before — and when there’s a downturn, it feels doubly risky to experiment. But you just can’t think that way. When the situation changes, so must your strategy. One example of something that worked for us at ThoughtExchange during the pandemic was our initiative to offer organizations and groups use of the product at zero cost. It was difficult to see everyone struggling, and we wanted to do what we could to help. But we also helped ourselves, because this turned out to be a really impactful move. On a community level — for example, Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education gathered insights from some 40K teachers, parents, and community members using the ThoughtExchange platform and used the data to inform his decision about school reopening — but for our business as well. We saw a year-over-year usage growth of 600% during the first three months of the pandemic, and now that has become a limited free trial that we’ve rolled into the sales cycle.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Lead authentically. Don’t keep information from your team out of some well-intentioned notion of protecting them, or worse, because you doubt their ability to understand. Be communicative and honest, even when the outlook is grim. You hired your team because they’re intelligent — not only should you have faith that they can grasp complex issues, but they might be able to offer fresh thinking to help the organization during difficult times. After all, they make the business run, and collectively, they know it inside and out. Perhaps one of the more notable employee ideas to completely transform a business is Amazon Prime, the idea for which came from a small team of employees at a time when the company was not anything close to the e-commerce giant it is today and was, in some ways, struggling to compete. I don’t need to tell you how much this one employee-led initiative changed the company — and the world.
- Wrap change in a compelling rationale. Business leaders the world over have been known to bemoan the difficulty of getting their employees on board with change because they subscribe to the mentality that when you’re the boss, you shouldn’t have to explain yourself. This is unreasonable and, frankly, unfair. Many of us spend at least as much time at work as we do at home with our families, which means that a great deal of our quality of life is tied up in our careers. If a significant change becomes necessary, don’t expect them to take your word for it without clear communication of your reasoning. Organizational change often affects them profoundly and as leaders, we must respect our teams enough to give a better answer than “because I said so” or we will find ourselves in an uphill battle against our own people at the time we most need them on board.
- Lead innovatively instead of leading innovation. Our cultural ideas of what a leader should be and do could use a refresh. We often think of a leader as someone who has the ideas and then assembles a team with the skills to execute on them, but in my experience, the most innovative leaders are the ones who build a team that can collectively dream up exponentially better ideas than any one person could alone. Leaders must then strive to create an environment in which all these voices are heard equally, instead of the few that are loudest or belong to those with the most impressive titles. An organization thrives when its leaders are able to tap into diverse perspectives. This is common sense; people with different brands of intelligence and creativity will fill in each other’s blind spots, but this is not just my opinion — the research backs me up. Boston Consulting Group conducted a study showing that businesses with diverse management teams had an average of 19% higher revenues due to innovation, and other studies have directly correlated higher rates of immigration to improved regional economic outcomes.
- Don’t get caught in the efficiency trap. One of the most pervasive leadership myths is that maximum efficiency will give companies a sustainable competitive advantage. But efficiency is essentially about eliminating waste — getting the job done whilst expending the lowest possible amount of resources — and you won’t see innovation in the ranks if you don’t provide your team with “slack,” or resources in excess of what they actually need. This can come in the form of time, technology, personnel, etc. Leaders need to find the right balance that enables them to meet current demands while still allowing for growth and innovation. Google is pretty well-known within the tech world for its 20 percent rule, which encourages all employees to spend one day a week working on projects that don’t show immediate promise of turning a profit but might pivot the company in the future. Google News, AdSense, and Gmail all directly resulted from this forward-thinking policy.
- Take on a “disruptor” mindset. Don’t get caught propping up a failing business model just because it worked for you in the past. Blockbuster’s business model was the best in the game — until it wasn’t (and they declined to buy Netflix when they had the chance…oops). In the cybersecurity world, it’s common practice to hire an “ethical hacker” to see if they can break into your systems and expose a vulnerability before someone with malicious intent does; this mindset is also helpful on a general ops level. Take on the mindset of an attacker — where is your business vulnerable to disruption, and how can you stay ahead? Don’t become set in your ways; always be scanning the horizon for how you can disrupt yourself, or someone else will gladly come along and do it for you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Charles Du Bos said, “The most important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.” This quote is so meaningful to me. My biggest drive in life is following the path where I can learn the most — even if that means venturing out into the unknown. So these are words I definitely aspire to live by, and it has helped me not get too attached to things like titles, etc that might have been beneficial in the short term but would have slowed me down in the long run.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I write pretty regularly for a few different outlets, like Inc. Magazine, Real Leaders, and Headspring — probably the easiest way to follow all of them at once is to follow me on LinkedIn.