"Love change": Business advice from the man who held Nokia together

Risto Siilasmaa started F-Secure and helped keep Nokia afloat - here's his business advice

Business advice flows freely at tech conferences - analysts happily spout off maxims, authors try to shill their latest corporate insight books, and start-ups who have yet to make it past their first round of funding are full of best practice to share.

While all of the above may well have business insight that's helpful for your company, there's an argument for going straight to the source - the business leaders who have found success in tough situations.

We're not sure there's a better description for Risto Siilasmaa. The Finnish entrepreneur founded F-Secure, and took the reins as CEO at Nokia back in 2013, helping the historical firm navigate its deal with Microsoft and find a reason to continue.

At Comptel's Nexterday North conference in Helsinki, Finland this week, he offered advice on how to succeed in tech business - and his tips may not be what you expect.

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Build trust

To start, he said you must build "trust between you and all the other stakeholders, your team, and the other stakeholder teams."

Pointing to the negotiations with Microsoft, Alcatel-Lucent and Nokia Siemens Networks, he said they worked better if they weren't adversarial.

"If you don't have trust, the negotiation typically fails," he said. "There were four moments when negotiations (with Microsoft) broke down and we always recovered on the trust that we had created."

Here's how he started the takeover process with Alcatel-Lucent: "My first words to the team were that our key objective is that when we finish this process, regardless of whether we have a deal or not, we will be life-long friends." He got his deal, and the merger went ahead.

Treat your employees fairly - and better

That trust extends to your own staff. Nokia cut tens of thousands of jobs over the past few years - yet its attrition rate at its lowest points remained around one or two percentage points. While some Nokia staffers were surely simply scared to try to find a job in a market flooded with former colleagues, Siilasmaa said the company did all it could to help staff find new jobs and build an atmosphere where staff weren't afraid of what was going to happen next.

"You always take good care of the people who will depart," he said.

Nokia did that with a programme called Bridge, which aimed to help get laid off workers new jobs or into education for retraining.

It worked, according to Siilasmaa. When former staff were asked a year later how they felt about the redundancy process, 85 per cent said they were satisfied or very satisfied, which he called an "amazing outcome" as "typically you are not satisfied with the way you are being laid off". Survey aside, he noted there were no industrial action or strikes during the restructuring, and that 65 per cent of those leaving knew what they were doing next on their final day at Nokia, whether it was education, a new job or starting their own company.

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That helped because it reduced uncertainty. "For remaining colleagues, they could work with less fear, trusting that they would be treated well if the worst comes to happen," he said. "It means you can ask a team to push very hard to get a product out for Christmas, even if they know they'll be laid off on January 1 because they know the company has no choice and will do the best [it can] for them."

Assume the best intentions from others

Siilasmaa also wanted to help his own team - the board - to do their jobs better. He created five golden rules, designed to give a moral backbone to the board, knowing it would face difficult decisions. "We needed a shared set of values or behavioural rules for that."

One of those rules was the assume the best intentions from others. "It's a very simple rule and a very profound rule. It's very hard to follow."

"If someone comes to you and tells you something that you don't like, you'll usually lash out," he said. "You'll think offense is the best defence." Instead, assume the person is trying to help, and take the time to understand what they're trying to say.  "The whole dialogue will be a completely different one."

This also means that your employees won't be afraid to come to you with bad news - and that's the news you need to hear most of all. "You fear what you don't know, you fear what you can't discuss," he said. "Bad news is good news. You need to talk about the bad news, and you need to talk about it immediately because then you can make a plan, and when you have a plan, you have faith for the future."

Take time to build teams and talk

Siilasmaa's board was almost entirely new and hadn't worked together at Nokia before. To help build the group into a team, he boosted the amount of hours the board worked, adding a third to the time allocated for meetings. "The only way you create a team is if you spend enough time together," he said.

Despite more than 60 board meetings in 2013 alone, attendance was close to 100 per cent, despite how busy board members were.

The board didn't spend those extra meetings voting, however. Siilasmaa believes that's the wrong way to run a company. "We never voted on anything - all decisions were unanimous," he said. "Smart people will end up with the same outcome, if they have enough data, enough time to talk, and there's no fear to talk about anything."

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Thankfully for his board, Siilasmaa believes work should be fun - especially during tough times. "We have to laugh," he said. "A board meeting where we don't laugh out loud is a bad board meeting. No matter how difficult the topics on the agenda, you need to find a reason to laugh."

Learn to love change

Change is the only constant," he said - especially in the world of tech.  "It's opportunity," he said. "Without change, there's no opportunity. When you can do the change yourself, it's a wonderful feeling, when you see a change happening and you can push it forward faster, because it's to your benefit, it's almost as good. But change is something you need to love. It's your lover."

And that's true for the forces pushing on your company and industry, as well as how you yourself operate, he said.  "Don't rely on how things have been done before. Challenge the status quo, think for yourself and don't take no for an answer," he said.

If that sounds like a cliche, recall that Siilasmaa has lived it: when Nokia needed billions of euros to buy Nokia Siemens Networks, he eschewed the normal way of working and called Steve Ballmer at home, demanding a loan or he wouldn't meet with the then Microsoft CEO on the handset sale. It's hardly the standard way of selling off a division or asking for help, but it worked.

"Don't do anything because it's the tradition," he said. "Don't do anything because people tell you it's the only way to do things."

Be like the Finns

Siilasmaa said it's a stereotype that Finnish people are pragmatic and not showy - and that can be beneficial in business. Asked what Finns can teach to the world when it comes to business culture, he pointed to their goal-oriented focus. "We don't need to look good, we need to get results. We don't need to grandstand, we can just very calmly talk about the issues and find solutions. "

Plus, Finns understand the value in not hogging the credit for a success. "If we can give the credit to somebody else, to the other side for finding the solution, that's wonderful," he said. "They'll feel good about that, and we'll feel good because we know the truth. Everybody feels good."

Business advice flows freely at tech conferences -- analysts happily spout off maxims, authors try to shill their latest corporate insight books, and startups who have yet to make it past their first round of funding are full of best practice to share.

Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

While all of the above may well have business insight that's helpful for your company, there's an argument for going straight to the source -- the business leaders who have found success in tough situations.

We're not sure there's a better description for Risto Siilasmaa. The Finnish entrepreneur founded F-Secure, and took the reins as CEO at Nokia back in 2013, helping the historical firm navigate its deal with Microsoft and find a reason to continue.

At Comptel's Nexterday North conference in Helsinki, Finland this week, he offered advice on how to succeed in tech business -- and his tips may not be what you expect.

Build trust

To start, he said you must build "trust between you and all the other stakeholders, your team, and the other stakeholder teams."

Pointing to the negotiations with Microsoft, Alcatel Lucent and Nokia Siemens Networks, he said they worked better if they weren't adversarial.

"If you don't have trust, the negotiation typically fails," he said. "There were four moments when negotiations (with Microsoft) broke down and we always recovered on the trust that we had created."

Here's how he started the takeover process with Alcatel Lucent: "My first words to the team were that our key objective is that when we finish this process, regardless of whether we have a deal or not, we will be life-long friends." He got his deal, and the merger went ahead.

Treat your employees fairly -- and better

That trust extends to your own staff. Nokia cut tens of thousands of jobs over the past few years -- yet its attrition rate at its lowest points remained around one or two percentage points. While some Nokia staffers were surely simply scared to try to find a job in a market flooded with former colleagues, Siilasmaa said the company did all it could to help staff find new jobs and build an atmosphere where staff weren't afraid of what was going to happen next.

Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

"You always take good care of the people who will depart," he said.

Nokia did that with a programme called Bridge, which aimed to help get laid off workers new jobs or into education for retraining.

It worked, according to Siilasmaa. When former staff were asked a year later how they felt about the redundancy process, 85% said they were satisfied or very satisfied, which he called an "amazing outcome" as "typically you are not satisfied with the way you are being laid off". Survey aside, he noted there was no industrial action or strikes during the restructuring, and that 65% of those leaving knew what they were doing next on their final day at Nokia, whether it was education, a new job or starting their own company.

That helped because it reduced uncertainty. "For remaining colleagues, they could work with less fear, trusting that they would be treated well if the worst comes to happen," he said. "It means you can ask a team to push very hard to get a product out for Christmas, even if they know they'll be laid off on January 1, because they know the company has no choice and will do the best [it can] for them."

Assume the best intentions from others

Siilasmaa also wanted to help his own team -- the board -- to do their jobs better. He created five golden rules, designed to give a moral backbone to the board, knowing it would face difficult decisions. "We needed a shared set of values, or behavioural rules for that."

One of those rules was the assume the best intentions from others. "It's a very simple rule and a very profound rule. It's very hard to follow."

"If someone comes to you and tells you something that you don't like, you'll usually lash out," he said. "You'll think offense is the best defence." Instead, assume the person is trying to help, and take the time to understand what they're trying to say.  "The whole dialogue will be a completely different one."

This also means that your employees won't be afraid to come to you with bad news -- and that's the news you need to hear most of all. "You fear what you don't know, you fear what you can't discuss," he said. "Bad news is good news. You need to talk about the bad news, and you need to talk about it immediately, because then you can make a plan, and when you have a plan, you have faith for the future."

Take time to build teams and talk

Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

Siilasmaa's board was almost entirely new, and hadn't worked together at Nokia before. To help build the group into a team, he boosted the amount of hours the board worked, adding a third to the time allocated for meetings. "The only way you create a team is if you spend enough time together," he said.

Despite more than 60 board meetings in 2013 alone, attendance was close to 100%, despite how busy board members were.

The board didn't spend those extra meetings voting, however. Siilasmaa believes that's the wrong way to run a company. "We never voted on anything -- all decisions were unanimous," he said. "Smart people will end up with the same outcome, if they have enough data, enough time to talk, and there's no fear to talk about anything."

Thankfully for his board, Siilasmaa believes work should be fun -- especially during tough times. "We have to laugh," he said. "A board meeting where we don't laugh out loud is a bad board meeting. No matter how difficult the topics on the agenda, you need to find a reason to laugh."

Learn to love change

Change is the only constant," he said -- especially in the world of tech.  "It's opportunity," he said. "Without change, there's no opportunity. When you can do the change yourself, it's a wonderful feeling, when you see a change happening and you can push it forward faster, because it's to your benefit, it's almost as good. But change is something you need to love. It's your lover."

And that's true for the forces pushing on your company and industry, as well as how you yourself operate, he said.  "Don't rely on how things have been done before. Challenge the status quo, think for yourself and don't take no for answer," he said.

If that sounds like a cliche, recall that Siilasmaa has lived it: when Nokia needed billions of euros to buy Nokia Siemens Networks, he eschewed the normal way of working and called Steve Ballmer at home, demanding a loan or he wouldn't meet with the then Microsoft CEO on the handset sale. It's hardly the standard way of selling off a division or asking for help, but it worked.

"Don't do anything because it's the tradition," he said. "Don't do anything because people tell you it's the only way to do things."

Be like the Finns

Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

Siilasmaa said it's a stereotype that Finnish people are pragmatic and not showy -- and that can be beneficial in business. Asked what Finns can teach to the world when it comes to business culture, he pointed to their goal-oriented focus. "We don't need to look good, we need to get results. We don't need to grandstand, we can just very calmly talk about the issues and find solutions. "

Plus, Finns understand the value in not hogging the credit for a success. "If we can give the credit to somebody else, to the other side for finding the solution, that's wonderful," he said. "They'll feel good about that, and we'll feel good because we know the truth. Everybody feels good."

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