Head of Private Sales (Sweden) at Nordea
When I first started working on this project, my vision was to take lunch with women who have been in their role for around 10 years. I hadn’t really planned (or expected that I’d have the chance) to take lunch with women who have been doing doing their job for two or three times that long. Which is why I jumped at the chance to take lunch with Boss Lady #2.
Gunilla happens to be the mother of one of my best friends here in Stockholm. I’d crossed paths with her a couple of times in the summer and after initially trying to be really strict with whom I lunched with for this project, the opportunity simply couldn’t be missed for two reasons. The first being her extensive experience at Nordea. The second being her encapsulating energy.
I’m going to attempt to explain what it’s like to share a room or a restaurant table with Gunilla but I’m well aware that I probably won’t do her justice and that’s because this Boss Lady is just someone you have to meet and share a physical space with.
I think I can say with confidence that Gunilla is the most encapsulating character I have ever met here in Sweden. She is the kind of person that has energy and presence that fills the space as soon as she enters it. But not in the obnoxious way that first came to your mind. The kind that draws people’s attention because they’re curious as to why she is laughing without a hint of shyness. The kind that people choose to sit next to her rather than two or three seats away.
If you’re from Sweden or have spent an extended period of time here, you realise that these traits are not the status quo, in fact in many instances they are a social faux pas. But that’s why I love being around Gunilla – she is refreshingly different from the norm. People draw closer simply because it’s good to be around her.
The significance of organisational changes
I was running a couple of minutes late (because, Monday) but spotted Gunilla as soon as I passed through the entrance. In a bar and lounge that is themed like a lux Mad Men episode, Gunilla stood out loud enough from the decor and regular lunchers so much that I swear there was a spotlight on her. Or maybe it was just one of the canopy lights in the bar.
I’d had this lunch planned for some time so naturally, I had had the time to think of a bunch of questions I wanted to get stuck into. But I started with the basics. What was her first role at Nordea and what attracted her to the position in the first place?
“I started as a stockbroker and back in those days, all the trading and the negotiating was done in-person. Everything moved super fast and I think that’s what attracted me to the industry and the job in the first place. Plus I always liked numbers”. A natural for the job it seemed.
Gunilla started her banking career in 1981 at Sundsvallsbanken which later became a part of Nordea. With a 3-year stint at Carnegie Investment Bank on top of her experience at Nordea, Gunilla’s total time in the banking industry is an impressive 35 years. Given that she has worked within one industry for such an extended period of time, I wanted to know if this was ever part of her plan.
“When I started working there, I had given myself a limit of 5 years. I wanted to make sure I moved onto another company after that time. It’s often good to not stay too long at one company but obviously, that’s not how it worked out” she says with a grin. “But there have been so many mergers and changes that it’s never felt like the one company to me”.
Expectations of modern talent
That last point was a perspective I’d not really thought of before; that an organisational change can be just as good as a job change. It was a fresh perspective and I let it sit with me for a moment.
I wondered if her own expectation to move onto a new company after a certain period influenced the way she saw members of her team, especially new recruits. Gunilla explains “I never expect the newbies to stay more than 2 years and in fact, I don’t want them to. I want them to come to the job with the energy, motivation and dedication to do well, get everything they can out of the job and then move on. That’s the best outcome for everyone. When people stay too long in a role or a company, it’s not good for that person or the company”.
I want (people) to come to the job with the energy, motivation and dedication to do well...
It was an interesting perspective and I’ve heard many decision-makers also hold this view. However, I don’t always see them practicing what they preach. My own view predominately aligns with Gunilla’s but I also recognise the challenges this presents for companies. If there is a talented team member that wants to leave the company, aren’t we meant to do everything in our power to convince them to stay? Or are we meant to let them go without question? Relying solely on Gunilla’s perspective leads me to think perhaps that’s just how it has to be in the modern workforce.
Women as authority figures
I like hearing about her unique views on leading a team so I explore if her management and working style has been different to other team members. It’s with this question that the conversation simultaneously turns to gender equality. I’m happy to see that Gunilla doesn’t shy away from the topic. To be frank, I don’t think Gunilla is the type to shy away from anything.
I ask her what it was like to have first started her career in an industry so dominated by men. “It’s still like that” she answers wryly.
Gunilla continues to explain that her challenges weren’t because there were no women to work or socialise with but rather it was more being female led her to be disregarded as the authority figure or expert in any given meeting.
“I used to go into these meetings with a room filled entirely with men that were a lot older than me, who just sat with their arms crossed frowning at me before I had even started speaking. And I was meant to convince them that whatever I was putting forward was something they should get behind. They had already decided ‘no’ before I started speaking to them”.
Hearing this does two things to me. The first is an overwhelming feeling of sorrow. I feel sad that this perfectly qualified person was made to feel inferior simply because of office politics. The second feeling is frustration. Why is it that when people are a minority in their workplace, they have to face these adversities? I delved deeper to find out how Gunilla overcame this challenge.
She thinks for a moment before answering. “You need to learn when to speak and when to keep your mouth shut.” she says firmly. “You need to decide what kind of person you are and want to be in those situations. Are you someone that can just take it? Or are you someone that needs to say something and fight it?”.
You need to decide what kind of person you are and want to be in those situations.
I ask which person Gunilla is but I already know the answer. “I am a very direct person and I knew that I would always be that person…to just say it how it is. I’m not scared to be that person. But I have learned that sometimes, it’s better to let the small things go. Women in the workplace will always have to deal with crap so you have to decide which is the important stuff for you”.
Facing adversities out of the office
Gunilla exudes a powerful presence, if you’ve not already noticed. But it’s not the kind that’s intimidating. It’s more the kind that you know comes from a place of knowledge, experience and wisdom. She’s got lightning fast perception and is quick to join the dots in whatever conversation you find yourself in. I admire that about her. She’s also got kickass humour that will leave you rolling in laughter whilst you try to keep your white wine spritzer from spilling over. I’m curious to know whether this experience of not being perceived as an authority figure is something that has occurred outside the office.
“You know, it still happens all the time”. She goes on to tell me one particular story. “Ten years ago, when me and Lasse (Gunilla’s husband) were shopping around for our apartment, the (male) realtor would only speak to Lasse. Even though I was the one with all the finance knowledge and was asking all the questions! As soon as I gave him my Nordea business card, which listed my senior position, his attitude changed instantly. I was the one he spoke to and paid attention to!”.
Again, that’s so utterly disappointing and depressing to me but I’m impressed by her ability to not pay too much attention to it, like water off a duck’s back. I guess this is that “know when to speak and keep quiet” thing she talked about earlier. I’m 100% sure I don’t have that down-pat yet.
The art of problem-solving
I really admire Gunilla for her perseverance and stamina in an industry that probably makes a lot of women take flight rather than fight for the jobs and careers they love. But another other side that I admire is how she has raised an amazing son that many people are proud to call their friend, myself included. How is it that she has managed to continuously rise through a huge company whilst also balancing family and a social life?
“You always find a way to make things work” she says quite simply. We start talking about different strategies to do just that. “You know, one of the easiest things you can do is to think of the worst case scenario and work back from that” says Gunilla. “Because if you can think of the worst scenario and solve it in your head then you have nothing to worry about!”
Gunilla and her husband have recently purchased a house in France and she uses this recent experience as an example. “Everything with the house at the moment is a mess. But what’s the worst that can happen? We can’t afford the house anymore? Then we just sell it and try to cover our losses as much as we can. It’s just money and we can always earn it back”. It’s this same thought-process that Gunilla has used throughout her life to balance both career and family.
As we wind up the conversation and our lunch, I’ve already started internalising her advice. Everything Gunilla shared with me is some of the most genuine pieces of advice I’ve heard from someone at her level of seniority.
It’s comforting to know that most of the time, even a complex situation can be thought of in the most simplest of terms.
You can follow Gunilla on Linkedin.