Nordic GIP Part 3: The Lessons Taken Home

Kit O’Connor ’17

NEW YORK – This is, alas, the final time you’ll be hearing from me. Which sounds so morbid, but really, it’s just because my work as the social media guru will conclude with this post, and then I’ll graduate and won’t be able to take week-long trips around the world on random Spring Breaks anymore! A single tear rolls down my cheek…(to match the single dollar left in my bank account).

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The gorgeous Nyhavn district in Copenhagen – be sure to take the canal tour (bottle of wine or six-pack optional, but highly recommended).

But! Sweden! Denmark! Families! Business! That’s what this is about. I struggled a little bit with structuring this post, so like any good consultant, I ended up with three main takeaways: one negative, one positive, and one that’s purposely a bit amorphous (I know, I know, show, don’t tell). Let’s get started.

The bad: One of our first visits was to the American Embassy in Stockholm, where we met with a number of senior embassy officials and learned about their initiatives for American interests in Sweden and how they can help US businesses make inroads around the globe. That meeting was perfectly fine, and we were impressed by the number of speakers who made time out of their day to meet with a group of Columbia MBAs.

However, the security protocols necessary to get into the embassy honestly made me embarrassed to be a United States citizen – I saw a young girl, who couldn’t have been more than four years old, shouted at through a glass wall, forced to take off her coat on a chilly day, and contort her feet and body to prove, I guess, that there were no threatening items on her, all while her mother had to stand twenty feet away (yes, we all had to do the same). I’m proud of my country and believe there’s a reason that our mantra of freedom above all attracts the most innovative and accomplished people to learn, teach, and start businesses – by no means does that mean that our people or politicians are always correct, though I do like to think that we represent the opportunity to make life better, no matter who you are or where you come from. But when I’m reminded of that scared little girl and her introduction to America, I wonder whether we’ve become a bit too possessive of our liberty.

(steps off high horse)

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OK, so, the candles aren’t exactly the focus of this photo but they really are everywhere!

The good: Hygge! Hygge, the Danish concept of “everyday togetherness”, which has certainly seeped across the border into Sweden, and definitely enjoys a robust ad campaign in the US.

There are a couple ways that hygge was present during our trip. The first is in the purely physical, and can be represented best by the abundance of candles in nearly every conference room that we met in. What would certainly be a fire hazard in America is a source of coziness and serenity in Scandinavia: proof that work in the Nordic is supposed to be comfortable in addition to being productive.

The second is the attitude that work in Sweden and Denmark is generally a two-way career contract. I alluded a bit to this in prior posts, but it deserves a specific callout here: employment in Nordic is designed to last much longer than in other areas of the world. Compared to the two ends of the spectrum – the US, where workers are used primarily for efficient productivity, and, say, France, who has extensive protections for employees to keep jobs – Scandinavia firms seem to invest more in training and education for their workers, and those workers in turn accept slightly lower wages for a career that can span decades rather than years. I will put a caveat on this: my belief may be skewed a bit due to small sample size or meeting exclusively with family firms.

 

The fuzzy: Speaking of family firms…another student and I were talking with Professor Angus about one small family firm’s search for a CEO. We wondered why the search never seemed to find a good candidate: the business was established, profitable, and had a well-oiled supply chain and production facility. In fact, we softly felt that just about any of the students on the trip would be well-positioned to run the company after our education at CBS.

However, Professor Angus asked one question: “Could you run the firm AND deal with the family issues behind the scenes?” We immediately shook our heads and realized THAT’S what makes family firms different – it’s never just about the money, contracts, or factory. It’s about everything that came before and the legacy that will be. One founder noted, “That’s my name on the jar. What will it stand for after I’m gone?” Will an outsider ever be able to live up to that attitude?

So in the end, neither the Nordic region nor family businesses can really be put into neat little boxes (classic consulting again: it depends.) But, like each Chazen trip I’ve experienced, I feel I now truly have an informed opinion on the region and will be better able to understand and transact with my future Swedish and Danish colleagues and business partners. Thanks again for reading along with my journey, and looking forward to my next chapter after Columbia!

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A trip we’ll never forget.