Innovation Catalyst & CEO Innovation Pioneers
Most questions are easy to ask. Most questions are easy to answer. Together, questions and answers form conversations and more often than not the dance flows back and forth. Question and answer, question and answer, question and answer.
There is one question, however, that for a long time has often left me struggling to find exactly the right answer. “What do you want to do?”
I’m not talking about what I want to do on a particular day or next weekend, or even tonight. This question is about work. What do you want to work with? What’s the job that you want? What title are you looking for?
This question is so hard to answer because the traditional jobs and roles don’t really accurately portray what it is I want to work with. I can of course always just say “marketing” or “communications” but it feels a weird to give up before I’ve even started.
So ultimately I have two options. I either answer the question in ways other people need me to answer. Or I create my own answer, which is exactly what this week’s Boss Lady did.
Non-traditional solving the traditional
I met Susanne Fuglsang at the symbolic Svampen before strolling through Sturegallerian to Grodan. It was a magnificent summer day so we took a seat outdoors to embrace the Mediterranean heat that was visiting Stockholm.
Susanne founded her own consultancy and is an innovation catalyst and executive producer. That means helping companies to evolve their innovation process through hackathons, design sprints, and workshops.
A pioneer in the hackathon space, Susanne reflects on the past few years. “I was really early with that format of hackathon, and I’m also probably the oldest one arranging those because normally it’s a very young crowd. But it doesn’t really matter in this case as it’s about how good you are in understanding the needs for the companies and your surrounding environment.”
Working within tech I am familiar with hackathons but it always seemed to be that it was connotative of small teams and startups. How do larger companies and traditional enterprise organisations embrace the hackathon?
Susanne explains that there is a big need from companies right now. There is “a tremendous interest from authorities, companies, non-profits and even social innovation companies. So all segments of society are interested in the format like hackathons because it’s actually a very scientific kind of process. It’s based on design thinking.”
It’s always connected to important strategies and shouldn’t be an aimlessly fun thing to do.
So what characterises a hackathon? “It’s a set time, it’s always an external perspective, and you work with a business strategy challenge.” Susanne stresses that it must always be connected to a business strategy. “It’s always connected to important strategies and shouldn’t be an aimlessly fun thing to do.”
Every year, Susanne runs four or five really big hackathons, each of which take three months to prepare. “The main thing you do is build relationships between the ecosystem, so you have to be really good at communicating and making people work together. As a producer, that’s your main goal.”
Create your own role
Hackathons are a relatively new way of solving business challenges, or at least, it’s not the default way of overcoming a challenge in the business world yet. How did this Boss Lady come to found her own company in the space? “I didn’t find the job that I wanted to have, so I created it myself.”
I didn’t find the job that I wanted to have, so I created it myself.
“And when I created it myself age, gender and my background didn’t really matter. So, for the first time, everything had kind of fallen into place.”
Susanne goes on to explain why she probably gravitated towards the work in the first place. “I’d always been in the forefront of development, forefront of technology, forefront of society. So when you’re a very curious person, you can’t really find jobs that are described in a way that you can apply to. There’s no way I can apply for my job, so I had to start my company to do what I wanted to do.”
This mentality and approach to her work is what ultimately resonates with me and is what I am keen to further explore. I feel that when you’re a young working professional, or new to your field, you feel external constraints to conform to how work has been done for decades preceding you. But Susanne is proof that actually, you don’t need to conform. You can build your own role.
Having been out on her own for a while as a founder and owner of her own company, what does Susanne consider the biggest advantage of her choice? For her, the answer is two-fold. The first one being that she can do what she wants to do because that will never be in the one job description. The second is about freedom of movement. “I’m allowed to go in and out of exciting projects. I don’t really want to be connected to one, I want to be free to do a lot of different projects.”
One day can mean working with a union, another day can mean working with a science-based company. Susanne has worked with non-profits like Reach For Change and city councils like City of Stockholm. It’s a diverse clientele that must hold buckets of exciting projects.
But what about focus? While there is definitely a plus with diversity in projects, the flip-side is something most call context-switching. It can be the thorn in your side when you’ve got a long to-do list because ultimately, you’re vulnerable to being less productive than if you would have just had one project or task to focus on. Susanne acknowledges that the ability to context switch is very personal – you either like it or you don’t.
“I can have a 100 things at a time and feel comfortable with that. I think you have to be a very good project manager from the beginning to like it, because you need a lot of control. You can’t drop any balls because then it’s not going to be a good project. But still, it’s about delegating and doing what’s most important, so I guess you have to be a person that likes that, and not all people like it.”
“But you can develop it, of course, you can always train your skills. I had 15 years in advertising agencies before this, and 5 years working with South Korea’s export market, so I’ve done so many things, and I’ve failed in many ways. So by failing I learned a lot.”
Failure is a lesson
What does Susanne qualify as a failure? I jump at the chance to probe her a little more because not everyone’s perspective of failure is the same.
“Lots of my failure has been done around trying to find a platform to work from. Meaning that finding people that you can grow together with and sell your service and kind of create your service with.”
“I have tried several times to find those people and a lot of them have failed because it’s too hard to go into. It (the company I have gone into) has always been a network organization, so it means that when you don’t co-own a company, you’re just networking. People tend to not be able to be as loyal as you need to be as when you own your company together. And I have never preferred to own a company together, I have preferred to work with freelancers in every project, so it means I can’t really have a fixed crew. I have to be myself and actually hire the people I need instead of having the team around me.”
Repetition makes the master
Of all the Boss Ladies I have had lunch with thus far, this is the first that has openly stated her preference to outsource the team rather than be situated within one full-time. Did she wish that she could have learned this faster? Or was it a necessary part of the process of self-development?
...I had to do it over and over again to kind of realize.
“I think it’s a necessary process for every person to do. For me, I had to do it over and over again to kind of realize. Because you always tend to think that you need people in a more fixed manner. You think that, okay, I need this crew to be with me all the time, and that’s how society has kind of taught me to think about the job.”
“So I’d been trying so hard to find that fixed platform. It took me such a long time to realize that, in the way I work and in the way I have my passion (which is about being free and do the projects I believe in), then you can’t have a fixed team because it doesn’t work like that.”
“I think I kind of developed a new work style that I think will be very common in the future. I think it’s super common that people work more and more like I do, but it takes a lot of effort to find the format for it.”
Personal history can blaze its own path
We find ourselves talking about working internationally and Susanne says that she has always preferred working towards global questions rather than just Stockholm and Sweden. For a period of five years, Susanne worked with Swedish entrepreneurs and startups in building export relationships between Sweden and South Korea.
“What I learned from those failures was a lot of things. One thing was my personal journey to reconnect with my own company.” The other? “Because I’m adopted, I had the possibility to kind of learn about my country through business.”
Because I’m adopted, I had the possibility to kind of learn about my country through business.
While my own connection to South Korea is fleeting (I studied there for a short time during my university studies), this common fondness for South Korea ignites a new burst of conversation and we talk about the language, street food and school.
“What I haven’t told you,” she says with a coy smile “is that I have two daughters, and the oldest one lives in South Korea. She moved when she was 19 so she’s been living there for almost 10 years now. She was the reason why I started my company to work with Korean business because I realized when she moved there that I had no clue about my home country.”
Susanne goes on to describe what it was like to become familiar with her home country through her daughter and her business.
“She visited Korea with me when she was 14, turning 15, and she fell in love with the country just by herself, no pressure from me. I didn’t have a connection with the country, so how could she? She took it on her own to kind of explore.”
Another one of Susanne’s impressive CV listings is Geek Girl Plus; a network for older, senior women. A chapter of Geek Girl Meetup, which aims to inspire and engage a bit older women to engage in IT, start-ups & innovation.
“I see a lot of knowledge gaps between the older generation of women and the younger ones, and I want to bridge those two and find the learning experience.”
But instead of starting her own network, she joined Geek Girl Meetup and started Geek Girl Plus as a sub-network that she ran entirely of her own accord.
I see a lot of knowledge gaps between the older generation of women and the younger ones, and I want to bridge those two and find the learning experience.
“I started (at Geek Girl) around 4 years ago, right about the time when I wanted to start my own company. I would say that my smartest move was to be involved in a community that I wanted to work with, which in my case was Geek Girl. Because I knew they were passionate about technology, they were passionate about new formats, working over borders, and all the things I liked, and it’s also a very sharing environment.”
After four years, Susanne no longer sits on the board but serves in the nomination committee. Though there is still so much value to being involved in such communities.
“I know that I could’ve never started a company if I wasn’t a total geek myself. But I wasn’t I geek until the age of 45…then I turned into a geek.”
“I have so much in reward to be engaged in that type of community. I’m engaged in a lot of other female tech communities. You always want to support other initiatives. The most valuable things is that you find so much talent and I use them in my projects.”
If Susanne didn’t consider herself a geek until halfway through her career, what kind of obstacles did she face?
“I think the challenge was mostly that they couldn’t place me in a box, and people that you can’t place in a box don’t get jobs through, for example, HR, because you can’t fill in a certain description. I never filled in a certain description all my life.”
Abandon the square peg and round hole
For a period of time, Susanne worked in advertising, arguably the most straight forward job title she has ever held. What skills has she brought over from the world that, in recent years, has received a new wave of romanticising from hit series like Mad Men?
Succinctly, she says “The way to conceptualize what I sell and to communicate that. I was really good at working with my social channels and to do my own website and to market (myself).”
What about skills that she needn’t have stressed about learning? Was there anything that simply comes with years in the industry? It can be a hard question to answer and Susanne takes a moment to reflect.
“What I’ve learned is that the most important thing, in hindsight, is that I have so many issues with my own willingness to try to find a job within the frames that I wasted so much energy. It took away a lot of good years when I could’ve done what I really wanted to do instead of trying to get into the box.”
I think that all of us have tried to figure out where we want be, and often we focus too much on where other people think we should be.
“I wasted so many years on that, and that is, in hindsight, a tough lesson. And I think that’s a lesson for everyone because I think that all of us have tried to figure out where we want be, and often we focus too much on where other people think we should be.”
“But it ought to take a lot of self-knowledge to know where you want be. People today are too stressed out. They want have their dream job when they’re 20. I’m 54 and I have my dream job now.”
I relate a lot to this kind of stress. I remember working really hard through university so that I could land a job within communications after graduating. But I never really gave much thought to beyond that. So once I had a job, it became a question of, is this it?
Susanne even questions the meaning of ‘the dream job’. “What’s a dream job? I mean, that’s so different for everyone. So it’s maybe not something that you should aim for as one goal. It’s more like trying to have that type of vision with all your jobs, to make every job to your dream job, in a way, instead of trying to figure out what is the end journey.”
“I’m so different than when I was 20. But that’s really something I want to stress to people. People are too much in a hurry! You can’t know what you want to do until you know yourself and that takes a lot of time. You can’t know that when you’re 25, not even 30.”
And with that, patience becomes the biggest learning of this lunch. That even if you are driven and ambitious and thirsty for knowledge, your career path takes time and there is no way to escape that really. However, while on that forever journey, you’re still the creator of your mini journeys. And there is nothing stopping you from making every job your dream job.