As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Miika Mäkitalo.
Miika is the CEO of HappyOrNot, the leading customer feedback solution relied upon by over 4,000 brands across 135 countries. He has accumulated more than 15 years of experience in management roles and holds a PhD in Industrial Engineering & Management.
Prior to joining HappyOrNot, Miika spent over a decade working for global technology company M-Files, and the Government of Finland, where he was appointed as the Director of Transport. Headquartered in Finland, HappyOrNot has collected more than 1.5 billion feedback responses and works with well-known brands such as Elkjøp, Levi’s Stadium, Autogrill, Good2Go stores, and London Heathrow Airport.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve always enjoyed learning new things, and when I left university and got my job with the Finnish Transport Agency, I never would have thought that six years later I’d be a director. After spending a decade working in the Finnish Government, I then decided to hop over to the world of tech. Joining software company M-Files was a really fun challenge, and fast forward another decade (and with help from an extremely talented team), M-Files had grown to become a global success. In December of 2020, I made the move to HappyOrNot, where I am now acting CEO and part of a team making feedback more accessible to some of the biggest multinational corporations.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
That’s a tough question! In some ways, I would say that joining and leading a company during a time of great change and uncertainty, is an interesting story itself. I mean, the idea of actually running and managing a company via a webcam and a screen was unheard of until last year. Today, we are a highly effective, dynamic and hybrid company, but this didn’t happen overnight, it has been the product of a company-wide effort, and those that were part of this transition will have quite a story to share in years to come.
I suppose another interesting consequence of the pandemic, has been how the relationship with our colleagues has changed. While we have been further away physically, I would argue that we have become closer on a human level. For example, when it came to celebrating our strong start to Q1 in 2021, we decided to host a virtual party on Teams. It was a huge success, and I was blown away by the effort and commitment shown by all, from disco balls to intricate fancy dress costumes everyone got involved.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Just a couple of months ago, I was in the office and noticed an employee enter the room whom I didn’t quite recognize. Initially, I assumed they were a new employee, however as they approached, I realized it was our VP of Marketing. This was especially embarrassing as I’d been speaking regularly with her on Microsoft Teams. After such a long period of time meeting people virtually, it is extremely nice to put faces to names, although I’ve learned that recognizing someone in-person vs online is a real skill.
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 about that?
I am grateful to a lot of people, but one person that comes to mind is my old supervisor, Anne. Graduating from university can be both an exciting and anxious time in one’s life, and having someone that is willing to support you and offer constructive advice when you need it, is extremely valuable. Anne certainly helped me understand what it means to be a successful leader, and that is something I will always be grateful for.
Personally, I don’t think I could honestly say that just one person had enabled me to get to where I am today, it would have to be attributed to all the folks I’ve worked with over the years.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
If you’re an international company (like we are), the chances are that you’ll have different strategies and approaches to customers in different markets. But, in order to know what is important to different customers, you need a diverse team. Meanwhile, to execute the best innovations, we need a lot of ideas, and as Benjamin Franklin said, “If we all think alike, no one is thinking”.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
As a country, there are many things that are unique about Finland, and one of them is its progressive attitudes towards social equality and egalitarianism. In fact, back in 2019, Finland appointed its current coalition government, which is formed of five women. By simultaneously enabling collaboration, youth and experience, Finland’s government is a perfect example of the direction in which society and business should be moving.
From a business leader’s perspective, ensuring that your company’s messaging promotes (and leads back to) core values such as inclusivity, diversity, and equality, helps build trust between employer and employee. Additionally, to become an incubator for ideas, workplaces need to be safe spaces in which honest views and opinions can be shared openly.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As the intermediary between the company and the board of directors, executives are responsible for communicating and explaining the performance of the business, as well as to ensure it is heading in the right direction. At the heart, being a CEO is about understanding the intersection between business and people, and most importantly, it’s about inspiring results.
As an executive, one is required to dissect, critique and refine the organization’s strategic business plan, based on both the external and internal factors. The challenge of considering the bigger picture and making decisions that may impact customers, employees, and the board, is what makes being an executive unique.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I suppose the biggest misconception is that some people think that all executives are like Elon Musk. But in reality, most CEOs are not flying around in private jets drinking champagne, nor are they sitting in multi-million-dollar offices planning how to colonize Mars. Actually, most of the work we do is very down to earth. In fact, you’re more likely to find an executive presenting PowerPoint slides, pulling together Excel spreadsheets, or sitting in a meeting solving small everyday issues, than find them in an expensive restaurant eating caviar!
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Like most, I too wish there were more hours in the day. When I joined HappyOrNot, I was excited at the prospect of engaging with customers frequently to learn and hear their stories. However, with everyone so busy, it can be hard to schedule these meetings. I hope to find more time to connect with clients in the new year!
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Commitment. When it comes to traits, few successful executives get to where they are without being committed to their employees. It comes down to trust and respect, and most CEO’s will tell you that nothing can mimic the genuine support and confidence of a workforce.
To answer your first questions, I certainly don’t think that being a CEO is for everyone, but what I would say, is that for those with aspirations to be an executive, make sure you give it your all and don’t hold back.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
If you were asked to list all the things that make up the perfect company culture, your pen would probably run out of ink. It may sound obvious, but creating a great work culture is all about keeping things simple. A clear mission, vision, and strategy breakdown will often help communicate the fundamental steps in a digestible way to your team. Also, making the culture cornerstones visible helps a lot. When the values or guiding principles and the leadership philosophy are explicit, it definitely fosters the behavior and culture we want to see.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
There are a lot of businesses out there that are doing so much good, and being a part of a company that adds to the continuous improvement of society, is my small way of contributing. I suppose, the short answer is, by working with companies that have a positive impact on the world, and helping them succeed!
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. I wish someone had told me that the cliche, “the sky is not the limit”, is not actually just a cliche! Looking back now, I am aware of how many of the barriers that I’ve faced in business, are ones that I’ve imagined. It can be easy to forget that someone has to take the first step, and that if you don’t, someone else will. Ultimately, we all owe it to each other to be ambitious and push the boundaries.
2. Data is the key to everything. Whether it’s solving problems or understanding success, data is the oracle, and knowing how you can use it to strengthen your company is vital for leaders. That’s not to say that data will solve all your problems, but it’s almost always a great indicator of what needs fixing.
3. Take action, and don’t be a cautious observer. Being proactive and decisive is a trait that all employees should have, irrespective of their level. Getting into a habit of making decisions will help build momentum, and fresh talent should always be encouraged to trust their instincts.
4. It’s all about finding the balance. Personally, I love work, and the more of it there is, the better. This being said, ensuring that enough time is put aside for leisure activities cannot be undervalued. Not only can hobbies and downtime help you re-energize, but they also provide a chance to reflect. As a keen runner, I choose to unwind by getting a healthy dose of fresh air and letting my legs and mind wander.
5. Hire those that fit the culture. When I started out, I thought that finding someone with a great skillset was the priority. Today, I now believe that finding talent that reflects and shares the same values as the company, is often more important than finding someone with the perfect CV.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d like to see a world where every employee can be happy and feel fulfilled at work. Given that we spend such a big proportion of our lives at work and with our colleagues, I feel that everyone deserves to work in an environment that is supportive, optimistic and fun. We all want nice experiences and memories when we are outside the workplace, so why should we settle for anything less when we are doing our jobs?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m a big fan of the quote, “Go where the music is playing”. I think it captures the essence of any go-to-market strategy, and often carries with it more weight than research and studies.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
One of my favorite authors in business and leadership is Jim Collins. Meeting him or Mark Hamill for lunch would be awesome. Jim and Mark, I look forward to receiving a calendar invite!