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There's something about Pernilla

30 Mar

After just over two years as our CEO, Pernilla Dahlman has not only managed to become CEO of the Year in Sweden, but she has also become one of the most sought after keynote speakers and a true inspiration to many young leaders in the industry. In this intimate interview, she tells you what drives her and what she likes to do when she’s not working.

In November of last year, Pernilla Dahlman stepped out onto the stage at Berns Salonger in Stockholm and received the audience’s cheers as well as the award for CEO of the Year in Sweden. The jury commented that “in a very short time, with a passionate and responsive leadership, (Pernilla) has managed to increase the company turnover by an impressive 92 percent.”

At that point, Pernilla had been CEO of the company for less than two years and was having amazing success in a highly male-dominated industry. Among other things, she had been nominated for female role model of the year at the Swedish Telecom Awards. Her leadership was also a major reason why the company doubled its turnover and established its first foreign office in Dubai – where one of the company’s founders, Reza Assareh, is now Branch Manager.

What would you say is the hallmark of your leadership?

– My leadership is design-driven, meaning that it’s people-centric and based on exploration and a prototyping spirit. It’s important for me to get employees to feel joined around a higher purpose. I work a lot with forming a we-culture, empowering the employees to help them grow. I have strong faith in everyone I work with. Empowering people to solve tasks on their own often means that things don’t come out exactly as I expected, and it may not happen when I imagined it would, but when it’s done, it’s often so much better than I could have imagined from the get go!

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of this type of leadership?

–  The advantage is that people are happier working in a culture characterized by trust and shared purpose. I also believe that our customer-centric and prototyping approach provides better deliverables for the customer. I want to find the natural talent inside each person and encourage and empower it rather than hold it back.

– We’re in a constant process of exploration and change, which requires courage and a great ability to cope with unclarity. My responsibility in this is to create a sense of security and support employees with a lot of affirmation and trust, showing that it’s always ok to make a mistake.

A prerequisite make this happen is to recruit staff with a particular set of values and personality. People who care about other people with empathy and concern.

What do you think about being a leader in a design-driven organization?

– It’s a contrast to other types of organizations, with a short planning stage and the distinguishing feature that we’re constantly prototyping. There are a lot of ideas in motion all the time that need to be captured and validated.

– About ten years ago, I resigned from the industrial sector and set out to bring my skills to a more humanistic and aesthetic context. Back then, I didn’t really know what I would find, but I was looking for something more agile and learning-based and with more focus on people as co-creators. Previously, I had worked a lot in linear business processes, where you just worked without reflecting on where things were going, and often ended up reaching the wrong target. I felt that I wanted to move in another direction that better agreed with my view of people and a natural development process.

– It’s great to work with so many wonderful people who have tremendous skill and drive. In this environment, it’s important for me as a leader to catalyze and channel all this energy wisely. I’m super proud to be a leader in a design-driven organization that is so much in the forefront in terms of both methodology, business models and leadership philosophy. It’s really awesome!

What is required to establish an environment where innovation and creation of great user experiences are encouraged?

– As I see it, there are five key elements in creating a culture of innovation. First, there must be a common, higher purpose to unite around, engendering commitment from everyone in the company. Second, you have to think in networks. There are companies with closed hierarchies and others with open networks of customers, vendors and employees. Third, management philosophy can’t be too controlling, but should rather encourage every individual to contribute and develop. Fourth, you have to work with prototyping and experimentation - we must dare to fail. Rapid development makes analysis and planning less important. Last but not least is transparency, which is a hallmark of of open organizations and networks. Everyone  shares their skills and knowledge; what’s good for me is good for you.

What motivates you, and how do you do to motivate your employees?

– What motivates me is to see employees and customers grow. I try to motivate employees by showing that I trust them and that I think they’re tremendously important. I challenge my employees to take on more responsibility. I always try to show my employees that I care about them and that they can trust I will do my best to support them in all ways I can.

You are one of our industry’s most sought after keynote speakers. What would you say distinguishes you as a keynote speaker?

– For me, it’s a very personal thing to talk about my leadership. Last time I gave a talk, someone in the audience said that I spoke directly from the heart and was very personable. I like to use pictures, anecdotes and examples from our daily work at Screen Interaction.

– When I talk about leadership, I try to speak from a holistic perspective. I like to see the overall picture and usually cover leadership principles, responsibility of leaders, how to grow as a person and business results. My purpose when giving talks is to inspire rather than to educate and line up facts. My key topics are customer-driven business development, leadership and innovation culture.

Pernilla Dahlman's keynote slides from the presentation at the conference Mission User at SVID from Screen Interaction


In work situations, we know you as an outgoing person with a lot of energy. Are you the same person at home?

– In my job situation, I’m always in the action and very outgoing. I have a lot of energy and focus my attention on the people and challenges around me. At home, I take time for reflection and focus inward. I need privacy, a certain number of hours when I can be with myself and do things on my own. I like to run, read, write and listen to music. Doing mundane tasks helps me think. That’s why I like picking berries, growing potatoes, making lemonade, things like that. I also like exploring new hobbies, ranging from dancing, diving or mountain biking, to the karate I train with my kids twice a week.

What do you think is important if one wants to develop his or her leadership?

– Start with yourself; understand your strengths and weaknesses. Work with your obstacles, and don’t be afraid to get help. Depending on who you are and what you’re passionate about, find your own philosophy and where you fit best as a leader. Catch up on things that you’re interested in outside of your professional context. Get yourself a broad knowledge base; it provides a solid foundation for making good decisions. This weekend for instance, I’ll go and see the play “De stora vidderna” at the Royal Dramatic Theatre. I met the director, Tobias Theorell, at a leadership training just recently. At the theater, you’re put in the epicenter of emotions in a powerful way. It’s a great way to gain insights and develop yourself as a person and as a leader.

By Christian Dahlström