Service Director at Klarna
Lunchtime in the city centre of Stockholm is like a jungle where only the fittest survive. The rumble of the jungle starts early, at around 11:45am and within 15 minutes Noah’s ark flood the streets and the animals need to be fed without delay. If you happen to step out at 12:01pm to find your bite to eat, the chances of finding a seat without reservation are slim pickings, my friend. Which was exactly the predicament I found myself in with this week’s Boss Lady, Alexandra Strömberg.
But the quick-thinking Alexandra takes us to a salad bar just opposite her Klarna office, where we bask in the warmth of Stockholm’s summer.
Aim to be remarkable
Alexandra currently works at Klarna as a Service Director with a mission to ensure that their customers get the same experience no matter who they are, where they are, or what device they’re on. Since Klarna is present in over 16 markets across Europe, and an internal team of around 250 people (at time of writing), the challenge of working with different cultures and teams is no small feat. Regardless of the challenge at hand, the goal is always to ensure that every individual contact with Klarna support teams is consistent and as good as it gets in experience.
“I really want it to be remarkable. Meaning that I (as a customer) would not only just get the experience and the support I need but I would also want to talk about it. That it’s so good that I want to share it with someone else.”
With such a large sub-organisation, that’s full of different cultures and diversities, how do you go about managing such teams? When Alexandra started at Klarna, she was employee number 640. Today, they are over 1500.
Alexandra explains that for markets where they have a small but growing presence, it makes sense to keep everyone here in Stockholm. “We can share knowledge in a different way and build a team culture that’s good.”
When the market becomes big enough and mature enough, that’s when Alexandra and the team move to set up a regional house. In Germany, for example, Klarna has set up a regional house that is home to around 50 people. She laughs “We’ve recruited every German there is in this town (Stockholm). And not everyone wants to work with customer service, trust me, so you want to find the right type of profile and person who actually is passionate about this.”
Support as the heart of the company
I’m curious to learn more about how things work internally for Alexandra. As head of the support organisation, what knowledge is formed within her teams and what does that contribute to outside of her sub-organisation?
“We are the only ones speaking to our customers every day, so we know everything. We know everything about the product because if we don’t, we can’t answer their questions. We know everything about the problems we have with our products, the positives, and what our customers’ experience is on this…so we sit on a lot of knowledge.”
It’s important for us to be the centre of attention in an organisation. To be able to reuse that knowledge and build products that are well adapted to our customers.
How can such critical knowledge be shared then? One way, Alexandra explains, is via internal recruitment where support team members move on to other parts of the organisation, armed with their customer experience knowledge.
“We have 45 people so far this year who have actually gone to other departments from our customer service team. That’s over 20% of our team. So we actually have 45 people knowing all about this, the real true school of customer service, and now can also bring value in other departments. I think that’s great!”
University isn’t about learning for the job title
When young women new to their field want to progress to senior positions and decision-making roles, we need to understand how those before us got there in the first place. As someone who immigrated from another country to Sweden, it’s not yet second nature to understand how career paths form here. I need to ask people what their previous roles were in order to connect the dots. So did Alexandra always know she wanted to be within customer experience? Or did it just become her path?
Without much hesitation, she says that “It really, really, flowed that way. When I was in school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.”
Looking back on her studies, she reflects “I learned a lot, but personally, it was more of a journey of maturity, self-learning, and how to lead myself in tricky situations, socially as well as academically.”
“I think that that was the best part of it. Not actually the different financial modelling or the marketing matrix. I could get that information tomorrow if I wanted to. Knowledge today is not the same thing as 10 years ago. I can get the knowledge I need whenever I want to if I really work actively on that.”
It’s more about what do I need that can give me the best value personally, so I can lead myself through a career with confidence and with passion.
I’m not sure about how many of you can relate to that line of thinking but to me, it felt very familiar. When I started applying to universities, I had absolutely no idea what job I was trying to educate myself for. I wonder how many young women apply for university in this same mindset? Probably a lot.
Alexandra is proud to be have been so open in mindset, although she has always been envious of those who have always known their job title would be, for example, a doctor. We think back to when we were little girls dreaming of our future selfs and I laughingly share that I wanted to be a cashier. Aiming high from the early 90’s it appears. She laughs and tells me “I wanted to be a hairdresser. I would’ve been a crappy one so I’m glad I didn’t do that.”
Interestingly, many of the other Boss Ladies I have lunched with haven’t known what they’ve wanted to do either. Most of them have perhaps known the industry they wanted to working but specific roles were less clear.
Running a company within a company
For Alexandra, she has been in her current role for about a year and a half bringing her total time at Klarna to four years. Alexandra describes that her area of responsibility is more than just numbers.
“How do we actually know what our customers think? How can we ensure that we know? And not only from the qualitative perspective but also from the quantitative perspective; to actually get it statistically correct and be able to use it in making these smart decisions in our customers’ journeys to make them as simple and bump-free as possible.”
Being responsible for the customer experience by interpreting data means that she has around 250 people internally all working towards the same goal and an additional 800 outsourced individuals during peak seasons. When you have 9.7 million customer contacts a year, you better believe that you need all hands on deck. Alexandra describes the feeling as almost as if she is running a company within a company.
“If my company isn’t delivering towards the rest of the organization, why would I exist? Why would we exist? We have to motivate that and bring value or they won’t use us in the way they should.”
Learn what you don’t know, practice what you do know
We shift focus a little to skillsets and I probe Alexandra on which skills she would tell her 10-year younger self to have learned faster.
“I would learn the data delivery points earlier. I’m good at people, I’m good at leading people, I’m good at leading change and getting people onboard, so that is what I step into and focus on. First, of course, because that’s what naturally comes to me. But I do realize that the data and the background information will make me a better leader.”
Get data delivery right.
“It (data) shouldn’t steer every decision. I think it’s a balance between intuition and data but at least, I have to have it there beside me.”
“I’ve worked in 4 different companies in the last 15 years. I’ve been like 3 to 4 years in each. If I would’ve done that earlier, I would’ve gotten to the point where I could draw change and get what I wanted to do a lot quicker. Because I wouldn’t only get the people to advise my way of communicating or my being a leader where I involve people. I would also get the people who don’t really care about that. Like “Okay, get over yourself, I want to know what I can learn to do based on data.” And I could do that a lot quicker, so I would get my numbers together.”
“When I started in the role, I wouldn’t have the leader role where I had to make the decisions, but if that would be where I am at the moment and dig where I’m standing to ensure that I know what is expected from me from a delivery standpoint and deliver on that, and very clearly measure that because you can always fall back on that. So then you can also dare to make mistakes and you can dare to challenge things because you always have the measure delivery standpoints.”
“But what I can see is that I learned to reflect and build strategies on my flaws and focus more on my strengths. I will have flaws forever, I just need to build, you know, the strategy and have people around me who can help me.”
Get over yourself
I flip the question and ask what skills or knowledge she needn’t have stressed about.
“I really need to reflect on this, it’s interesting.” She ponders. After a few moments, Alexandra answers “I take a lot of responsibility. So I take responsibility for myself and others, and sometimes I think what I could have learned earlier is that, you know, get over yourself. This isn’t about you. You don’t have to take responsibility of 100 people because you are the most important person to do so. Other people can do it. You know, let go of your ego.”
“Everyone thinks “No, I don’t have an ego.” Yes, you do. It’s just the way it is. When you can find a strategy to let go of yourself and just let other people run things. You will not save the world.”
As a woman, you learn how to think of other people, as a child. You are responsible for taking social responsibility and you don’t have to do that.
She attributes this trait to her upbringing and now as a mother, can see similar patterns of behaviour transferring to her child. “I was one of 6 children, I was taught to do this. As a woman, you learn how to think of other people, as a child. You are responsible for taking social responsibility and you don’t have to do that. My daughter is 3 years old and I can see that she takes a lot more responsibility for the social interactions and the wellbeing of others than boys do in that group.”
“And it’s not the children’s fault. It’s just the whole structure that’s there. Some people have it naturally and some don’t but it’s still expected. And I think it’s really important to get over yourself and find the way where you don’t always have to take the responsibility.”
“That is something that I wish that I could’ve realized earlier and just let go of my ego. But at the same time, that drove me to get things going and also got me to different positions, but I am sure that I could’ve got there anyway. It just would’ve been another journey.”
Meeting resistance by those older and more experienced
I think one of the biggest opportunities to learn from Boss Ladies is by hearing specific examples of how they have overcome challenges, specifically when it comes to cases of gender disparity. You can read as many theoretical works as your heart contends but when you’re battling a case of disparity, I’ve never really felt like the theory helps. That flies out the window while the room your standing in is filled with the status quo responsible for the last few hundred (maybe even thousand) years of decision-making.
So Alexandra and I start talking about being met with resistance by those older and more experienced than us.
“I can definitely see when I meet male leaders that are on my level or above, (they) have a need to tell me how things are. They know my job very well, so definitely I get in those situations, not only at work now, but everywhere I’ve been.”
“My strategy has been “Okay, interesting. You know more about this, tell me. If you look at my situation, what would you have done?” And then I put the responsibility back on them.”
Its easy to idolise these Boss Ladies but what is so important for the young women new to their field that read this is that these Boss Ladies are as much human as you and I. They are extremely skilled at what they do but that’s part in credit to their ability to make mistakes and try again. These women are after all our role models, not our deities.
While on the topic of facing resistance, Alexandra shares one of her traits that doesn’t always make her own days easier.
“I run other people’s errands. Why do I do that? Someone comes to me and says “In my department, they’re doing these tasks. I’m not sure that it’s my task. I think it should be better off in your department.” I look at it and discuss and I say that no, not really, I don’t think this is the right department, but let me check in and talk to another person.”
“Why would I do that? Why can’t I just say “I know what you’re thinking. I would suggest that you go and speak to this person and I’m sure that you will get a good answer.” Instead, I commit, I try to pitch the idea for them and do the work, sweep a little bit in front and then they can handle it. I mean, come on, why? Why do I do that? Why am I running other people’s errands?”
“That’s also “Get over yourself. It’s not about you.” Let other people handle their things.”
Alexandra is open and says that she works on this every single day because it’s closely related to the motto of the customer experience teams; “How can I be of service?”
To improve on this tendency, she explains that she has to scope “How can I be of service?” to her responsibilities and mandate. “Then I can be of service and say “You know what, maybe this is not within my skill. I’m sure this person can help you.” And then I’d be of service. I’m giving you a person. You have to find, you know, a balance in that.”
“From the cultural perspective, our organization is now “How can we find that balance?”. What I’ve learned, and this is something that took a couple of years to learn and I wish I knew that earlier, is that there are key people that I have to have onboard. If I don’t have them onboard, I will not get what I want.”
“In change, for instance, I have certain people I know that I’ll go to lunch and speak to that person around this, ask for their opinion, and have them onboard even before I make the decision and tell them. I know who they are and I have identified that and I’ve spoken to them about “I see you as a key person for me. I need you onboard. I can see that I need you onboard so I need your input.””
I own it. Let me be the boss lady.
“People do not like politics. Everyone’s like “I’m not a politician. I don’t do this.” Well, I am. I do micro changes and I do work with politics. It’s the same as saying like “I’m not bossy, I’m a leader.” And I’ve always known, everyone’s told me I’m so bossy. And it’s just something I have to live with. But now, I own it. Let me be the boss lady.”
“And the only thing for me, I’ve decided, from a valued perspective is, which I wish I would’ve known earlier, is that I need to be an authentic person so that everyone knows that even if I have gone around and got people on board, I do it with good intentions.”
Build your own collective
I imagine that perhaps jumping from role to role with more responsibility and leadership each time, brings with it some level of stress. How has Alexandra found ways to manage it? Having already lunched with Charlotte who tipped me off on this Boss Lady, I had learned that the two of them, along with their partners and kids, lived together in their own little collective. She goes on to tell me what that’s like.
“Charlotte and Christian are our best friends. We’re four people taking care of each other. So if someone forgets to organize food for nursery one day when they’re going out in the woods, the other will organize it. Or, can someone pick up the kids? Yes, we can. Can you take them over the night? Yes, we can. My daughter calls them Mama Charlotte & Papa Christian, and her daughter calls me Mama Alex.”
How do working professionals living in the centre of Stockholm come to realise that a mini-collective is what they want and need?
“I’ve always loved the idea since growing up in such a big family. I come from a very traditional family. My mum needed help and I was an extra parent and so was the neighbor. I think it’s just part of my way of living.”
“And for me friends are family. Charlotte, she’s my sister. Even though I would say that I chose Charlotte, I haven’t chosen my sisters. I’ve learned to love them in different ways and they’ve learned to love me, trust me.” She laughs.
“Charlotte and I have actually chosen each other. But we’ve also had our phases, in-and-out, you know, and we’ve known each other for some time. Our partners like each other – that’s not always the case. I think Charlotte and I have decided that she is my partner just as my partner is, and he has to understand that it’s not a competition but that they’re on the same spot, you’re on the same level.”
Curiously, Alexandra relates the collective way of living back to her drive to stop taking responsibility for everything. “Stop taking responsibility for everything and owning everything; get over yourself & join in the crew.” She states quite succinctly.
Working for the collective of the team
Its clear that there is a strong sense of sisterhood between Charlotte and Alexandra and I ask whether this is something she brings to the office?
“Yes, I try and bring it into the workplace but I work first and foremost for the collective of the team no matter what gender you identify yourself. It’s also dangerous to talk about female and male because there you can identify as many different things. In general, I think that the collective for us being equal no matter who you are and what sexuality you have is important.”
“I would say that feminism for me is not a female topic; it’s people, it’s a human topic. So everyone needs to be at work, otherwise it’s never gonna happen. And we still have a management team with only men, the top management team, could you believe it? But when I started, we didn’t even have any females on vice president level.”
Alexandra tells me about her role in one of the ways Klarna is actively working towards getting more women into leadership positions.
“We started a network, Klarna Executive Ex, that we have been working with for approximately 6 months. It’s all the top female managers in the organization – we meet up, have discussions, we make sure we have different topics to talk about, build forms, build a network, broaden our voice a little bit. And also feel supportive because sometimes you can feel like, when you’re a minority in the situation, you just need someone to speak to.”
As a group, the network has become a powerful influence on top management. “We can, as a group, go and pressure management. Say: ‘’Do you think that we deliver? ‘’Yeah, you’re brilliant!’’ Great! So how will we get more of us?’’
The result of such pressure has resulted in mandatory trainings in unconscious bias for hiring managers as well as a new recruiting process that aims at reducing bias. It starts at the job advertisements and includes having both male and female hiring staff interview the candidate on separate occasions.
“It took 3 years before we got everything from my perspective through. We got the group together, we have together built this, and this has been my personal agenda from a gender perspective, and as a sisterhood, that is what we’ve been able to do.”
But all the while, it still requires outward support from top management. At Klarna, this has meant company goals tied to gender equality. “We have to recruit 50:50 from now on up to 2019 to get to a level of 40:60 on female manager level. And that’s not even enough, but we have to start somewhere that makes it not demotivating.”
As a last sentiment that summarises what job satisfaction is to many of us, Alexandra states with certainty that “I want to be able to feel that we’re able to do it. It’s tough…but we’re able to do it.”