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Good Enough for the ‘Bastards’


Anita Krohn Traaseth

Good Enough for the ‘Bastards’ Courage – Vulnerability – Credibility Reflections of a Female Leader


Good Enough for the Bastards ©2014, Cappelen Damm AS ISBN 978-82-02-47156-9 1st Issue, 1st Edition 2014 Norwegian title: Godt nok for de svina. En leders tanker om mot, sårbarhet og troverdighet English translation by May-Brit Akerholt and Margrethe Alexandroni English text edited by John F. L. Ross Cover photo: Bjørn H. Stuedal Cover design: Ingrid Skjæraasen All rights reserved. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author/publisher. www.cappelendamm.no


“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent� Eleanor Roosevelt, longest-serving First Lady of the U.S.

To my most precious Martine, Hannah and Milla


Contents

Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9

PART 1. COURAGE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 Chapter 1 Tinteguri. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13 Chapter 2 Grandma Bjørg on the Moon . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24 Chapter 3 The Men in My Life . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38

PART 2. VULNERABILITY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49 Chapter 4 ‘IBM Is Looking for More Boring People’ . . . . . . . . 51 Chapter 5 The Importance of Understanding a Company’s History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59 Chapter 6 ‘Do You Want to Be My Mentor?’ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68 Chapter 7 From Managing Director to Unemployed. . . . . . . . . 76


Chapter 8 Appreciating the Value of Resilience. . . . . . . . . . . . . 86 Chapter 9 Back in the Saddle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91 Chapter 10 The First 90 Days. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96

PART 3. CREDIBILITY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 117 Chapter 11 Social Companies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119 Chapter 12 I Don’t Jog, I Blog . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 129 Chapter 13 Norwegian Women: More Valuable than Oil . . . . . 137 Chapter 14 Not a ‘Clever Girl’ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147 Chapter 15 Sleep, Simplify, Write and Balance . . . . . . . . . . . . . 156 Chapter 16 A Role Model? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 167 Chapter 17 Sharp Elbows . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 174 Chapter 18 It’s All About Relationships . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 180


Introduction

I am too young to write a book. I am not enough of a leader. I haven’t achieved enough. I am not a good enough writer and I certainly don’t have enough interesting stories to tell. I am afraid of being made a fool of, and afraid of waking up to mediocre reviews. Not good enough. After reading the first ten sentences, you will understand why. But I’ll risk it anyway. There are numerous biographies exploring the ruminations of a leader, but in Norway they tend to be written at the end of their career. Many contemporary Norwegian leaders are likely to believe that it is best not to be too visible. Not to be too opinionated, too personal, not too involved in matters outside their job, and to generally steer clear of the social radar. That is the smartest thing to do. I have never based my choices on what may be considered smart or politically correct, and this book will give an insight into why and how I have arrived at this point of view. This is a book about a girl next door who grew up in the 1980s with Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female prime minister, as her role model. It is about how my father saved me from the traditional ‘clever-girl trap’ by introducing, at a very early age, the political incorrect, yet lifesaving phrase ‘that’s good enough for the 9


bastards’. It is about what it was like to grow up with a manic-depressive mother who ultimately chose to take her own life, and how this tragic life experience turned into a source of strength in my own adult life. The book is divided into three parts: Courage — stories from my childhood, how values, perspective and a zest for life was established. You’ll meet the men of my life, ensuring the essential ‘five a day’: dignity, manoeuvrability in life, belonging, meaning and peace of mind. Vulnerability — stories from my working life, the importance of daring to try, make mistakes, losing a job, the value of mentorship, raising your hand and the passion to lead. Credibility — reflections on challenging the politically correct, understanding the constant change and need for innovation, the prize of visibility, the complexity of relationships and self-worth. This is not a traditional management book that tells you how to become a leader or gives you the magic steps of climbing the corporate ladder. It is not about female managers or female leadership as a subject. This is a contemporary biography with a modern Norwegian businessleader, blogger and writer, mother of three and how she consciously avoids blocking the way to the top of her own life, whether for herself or those around her. These are reflections of courage, vulnerability and credibility, halfway through life.

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PART 1. COURAGE

“You’ll always be a C grade student”. I loved writing. It came easily to me, whether in the form of original short stories or literary analyses. Even so, after two years at senior high school, not one of my countless submissions had been returned to me without a big red C circled in the top corner. Occasionally this was accompanied by a minus sign, and on a few rare occasions, a plus. Finally I summoned up the courage to approach my Norwegian language teacher. She was a strict woman in her 50s, positioned behind a tall, intimidating desk. “What can I do to get a better grade in writing essays?” I asked, quickly following this up with an apologetic, “I really love writing, but I never get higher than a C. What can I do?” She raised her hand to her glasses, pushed them onto the bridge of her nose and looked straight at me with a resigned expression. “You’ll never amount to anything more than a C, Anita”. I was 17.

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That message from my Norwegian teacher has stayed with me. In one context or another we have probably all been told that we are mediocre, not good enough, and if we haven’t heard it then we have felt it at some point. This I am absolutely sure of. It touches a deep human feeling, and a healthy one too — up to a point. To take full responsibility for ourselves and our lives: this has become my guiding principle in every situation. It’s about admitting that I am the only person who can deal with the ups and the downs, the setbacks and the successes; accepting that life is about giving rather than taking, and about seeking the right balance. Naïve? Maybe. But for a leader this is a vital perspective. For a human being, it is even more crucial: it goes a long way in determining the quality of our lives. The first three chapters you are about to read reflect on this outlook on life, and how childhood and growing up formed these values; a zest for life, and not least, the courage to take responsibility for myself.


Chapter 1

Tinteguri

I grew up in a typical Norwegian, working-class 1970s home, filled with freedom and love. It was a white brick house with a big garden, two siblings, a sailor father and a stay-at-home mother. We spent a lot of time at home and it was enough just to have our own garden and adventures in the neighbourhood in Sandefjord, my childhood town, about 90 minutes south of Oslo. We enjoyed sunshine throughout the summer months and were three carefree, happy children playing in the garden, blissfully unaware that our mother was suffering from a severe mental disorder. Mum was a manic depressive. Bipolar disorder, as it’s known today. Or as Mum said at the time, “it’s just anxiety”. We never understood the extent of the problem, or the link between my mother’s anxiety and our perceived freedom. I was a happy girl with a freckly face and a boy’s haircut. I spent all day outdoors, playing with my brother, sister and friends. We ran from garden to garden and around the house, chasing one another. “Ants in her pants, that girl”, my father used to say of his tinteguri; the nickname he gave me, a name that has no real meaning for others than my family. On my first day of school, in August 1977, I wore a 13


new red dress. I felt so pretty, but the dress was very short. So short, in fact, that whenever I leaned forward, my underwear was visible to the world. I remember being aware of this fact, pulling at the hemline of my dress with both hands, hardly daring to move. A boy in my new school yard pointed and laughed. Even at the tender age of six, I realised that he was trouble. As the class bully, he was the complete package: his appearance, his freckles, his laugh, and the slightly wild look in his eyes. He stood by the railing at the school gates with his newfound classmates. When he pointed at me, laughed loudly and shouted, “I can see your panties!” there was no doubt in my mind. I had to do something fast. In my very short red dress I ran over to the group of boys, staring hard at the bully in the centre, and in a clear voice I announced, “Don’t you EVER say that again!” before turning around and marching in the opposite direction with the determination that only a six year old can muster. I was never bullied again. My parents had told me so many times and on so many occasions that I had ants in my pants and so, when our teacher asked her new class if any of us suffered any medical condition, I raised my hand: “I have ants in my pants”, I told her. The teacher smiled, but took my answer seriously, explaining that this was a good thing to have, and luckily not a medical condition. I had raised my hand in class for the first time at the age of six, away from the safe cocoon of home, and it wasn’t really scary. Mum had always taught me to be honest, and to be brave enough to tell the truth regardless of what it was. “The truth should always come out. If you’re able to tell the truth, it’s never as scary as you think it might be”, 14


she would say. She was right about that. She was right about many things, my mum. What I recall most deeply from my childhood are certain moods and feelings of security, such as the memory of being tucked up with my brother and sister in front of the fireplace with hot cocoa and blankets. Perhaps this only happened once, but that sense of warmth and safety has stayed with me. I recall trips with Grandma to the beautiful west coast of Norway, where we trudged through cowpats and ate traditional thick, fried pancakes called svele in the barn. Maybe we weren’t there all that often, but I still remember the smell of the barn, the taste of the pancakes and Grandma’s strong, warm, hardworking hands. Grandma Olga was an important figure in my life. In fact she is stronger and more meaningful to me now than I ever realised while she was alive. I inherited a painting from her: Birch in Storm, a reproduction of I.C. Dahl’s painting from 1849. Grandma was very fond of this painting and after reading up on its history, I’ve come to understand why. During Dahl’s descent through Måbødalen Valley on his way to Eidfjord, the artist is said to have spotted a solitary birch tree clinging to a cliff-edge. According to the Norwegian Encyclopedia, the painting can be interpreted as a symbol of the struggle to survive in a beautiful but bleak and rugged landscape. For me, the painting has become a cherished symbol of my grandmother’s life. When things are tough, I look at that solitary birch tree surviving against the odds, and think of her. She managed, I can manage. Grandma Olga Marie Krohn Furseth was born in 1916 at Klokkargården in Herdalen, a small picturesque valley in Sunnmøre on Norway’s west coast. A red15


haired, chubby little girl with a firm personality and a warm heart. She went on to marry a man named Lars. Together they had four children and lived on Ødekvækstad Farm at Løten, until one day she took three of the children and left the farm and her husband, which was almost unheard of back in 1951. I don’t know why she left my grandfather, I never asked, but I’m sure she had good reasons. Grandma lived with her nose to the grindstone. Amongst other things she made a living for herself and her children by working as a cook for a shipowner named Werring based at Nøtterøy, a beautiful island one hour south of Oslo. With that job came a little white house in the village, a hundred metres from the water’s edge. It was a white, wooden house, picket fences, with a big garden and a hammock in which we would all sit and swing. We went to bed in freshly ironed sheets and plump, warm quilts and devoured home-baked bread with a thick layer of homemade jam for our supper. As pure and idyllic as any visit to a grandmother is supposed to be. Grandma’s hands were never idle, whether crocheting, washing, cooking or folding clothes. “No matter how life is treating you, working is always good for you”, she told me. She was very much present in our lives, so sincerely involved and supportive, and so proud of her grandchildren’s educational achievements. It was always a joy to call her and hear the pride in her voice when we told her about a new boyfriend or girlfriend, a new house, another job or a new title. When she was in her 90s she visited our new house in Nordstrand, Oslo. An old house from 1918. The toilet was on the second floor but the steps were very steep, 16


so she got down on all fours and crawled up the stairs. It was quite a sight. My husband offered to help her, but Grandma brushed him off: “I can manage!” There and then I understood from where my daughters and I have inherited our independent nature. We can fix most things ourselves, we’re willing to master skills required in any situation and we never give up before reaching our goal, however hard the challenge. I went through primary and high school as an average or slightly above average student, all without exerting too much effort. It was good enough for my parents. I didn’t have to do homework after school and they seldom checked up on me. They had faith in me and were always proud, regardless of the grade I came home with. I was an active child with a lot of friends and perhaps a few too many interests outside of school. I wanted to try everything: scouts, judo, swimming, dance and football. As long as I made my own way to practice sessions there were no restrictions. I was allowed to start, quit and try out as many activities as I liked. My parents only drew the line at investing in expensive equipment, in which case I had to promise a more long-term commitment. My own children are subject to the same approach. They can work out for themselves what they want to do in their spare time. I don’t have any preferences as long as they are active, happy and willing to try new things. Showing skill and aptitude for a sport from an early age is not important to me, nor am I overly concerned about their success at school. However, being a resilient and good human being is important to me, far more so than grades. When I was a child, my family rarely spoke about grades. On the other hand, we did talk a lot about character. Perhaps a little prematurely? 17


Since I was 12 years old I have worked, juggling responsibilities and earning my own income. It was not until I became a university student and moved to Oslo, watching my fellow students spend their days off relaxing in holiday cottages or by the seaside, when I realised that not everyone spent their holidays working. As an adult I make this very clear to my three girls: go out and work, make a contribution and earn your own money! This is so important when it comes to mastering skills, and hammers home to them the fact that not everything falls into your lap. I believe that giving children everything they want and shielding them from work during their studies can have an adverse effect on their work ethic and character development. Life is about learning to manage numerous tasks simultaneously. We needn’t demand too much too soon, but a little initiative is important. We should allow our children to experience the responsibility and, not least, the pride when they receive their own hardearned pay from a first holiday job. Not all summer jobs are equally tempting and motivating, but they do form a part of the overall learning curve. All tasks must be completed. Some jobs you can learn a lot from, although this may not be obvious at the time. They provide valuable experiences that can influence your choices later in life. My holiday job on the production line at an egg factory is a perfect example of this. For a few years my father took a break from his work as a sailor and during that time he worked at the Prior Norwegian Egg Factory. I was lucky enough to find a job on the assembly line during every school holiday for four straight years. Dad woke me early each morning and together we drove from Sandefjord to Tøns18


berg before pulling on our blue warehouse coats labelled ‘Norwegian Egg Produce’ and spending the day sorting and packing eggs at the three stations of the production line. We clocked in and we clocked out and it was during this period that I came to realise that it was a good idea to get an education. I had no desire to do the same thing year after year. Still, the atmosphere and work ethic of the people working on the egg-sorting production line was fantastic; wonderful, mature women who loved their work and welcomed me with open arms. Every Friday the whole conveyor belt had to be washed down after a week’s worth of several thousand broken eggs. There was egg residue in every nook and cranny, and the job was as laborious as it was mindnumbing. A friendly colleague told me that it would only need a light going-over with some elbow grease to finish the job. I made my way to the storeroom looking for a jar of elbow grease but, of course, found nothing. I gave up and returned to her, telling her, “I can’t find the elbow grease”. The most important thing I gained from my holiday job at the egg factory was a strong work ethic and respect for production. It proved to be a benchmark for everything I have since achieved. This combined with a childhood in which the focus was on togetherness, common sense, thrift, freedom with responsibility, lots of love and a belief that we could do whatever we chose and be whoever we wanted to be. Throughout my childhood and adolescence my parents genuinely believed that I could achieve virtually anything. I don’t remember them ever expressing a desire for me to become one thing or another, and I have never felt pressured or been pointed in any particular direc19


tion by their expectations. Their sole ambition for their children was that we should graduate from high school. They would only allow us to take our driving test as long as we didn’t take up smoking until we were 18. The rest we would have to work out for ourselves. The world of intellectuals was foreign to us, and higher education was never on the agenda. “Piece of cake”, my dad would always say if I was dreading something or unsure about how to solve a problem. It wasn’t often that I asked my parents for help with my school assignments, and invariably it led me to work things out for myself after Dad told me I had what it took to solve the problem. Whether this was because he truly believed it, or because he didn’t have the answers, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, his response – “a piece of cake!” – told me that I was capable. I still feel in my bones that I can do it, a notion that gives me confidence and stops me from wasting my energy worrying that I might be incapable of doing new things. I use the same principle with my daughters, hoping they too will believe that they can achieve whatever they set their minds to later in life. As the daughter of a sailor, it’s perhaps not surprising that I also experienced itchy feet at an early age. Aged 18 and straight out of high school I set off for Paris to work as an au pair girl, exploring the city and the romance of its timeless culture. However, the Champs-Élyseés was not the idyllic, romantic little street that I had envisaged — it was long, wide, noisy and overpriced. Parisians are busy with very little interest in strangers and it wasn’t easy for me to make French friends. I lived at “Chambre de Jeune Fille”, in the girls’ room on the seventh floor. There was no lift and the entrance 20


was situated in a back alley. My room was tiny. The toilet was a hole in the floor down the hallway. The French were so small and ‘petite’. I felt like a giant at 5’7 and with my Nordic dress sense — jeans and big, woollen jumpers. Each time she visited, the grandmother of the house made a point of mentioning that I was getting fatter and fatter and that I should be aware of this fact. Not great for my self-esteem, as you can imagine. The jumpers just got bigger and bigger. Pinching my nose to block out the aroma, I fried kidneys and served red wine to little Jeremie and Geraldine. The tiny, 7m2 kitchen in Square Desaix smelled awful, but that was simply the way things were. Five year olds are served fried kidneys in Paris. The biggest cultural difference was the school, L’Institut Catholique. The teacher was a nun, and she had a cane that she would slam on the table to keep us in line. I came from a Norwegian school culture in which students raised their hands and asked questions. I had been taught to be involved during school lessons, but this concept was not popular in Paris. It was made very clear to me that I should keep my opinions to myself. There it was all about cramming French vocabulary and keeping quiet: very quiet. Following my Parisian year I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, so I moved back home and took my university preliminary entrance exam, in case I decided to study at university. I had always been drawn toward the field of law. As a 16-year-old in Sandefjord, I had stated in an interview with the local paper that I rather fancied being a ‘dance lawyer’. The dream was to combine the two things I loved most — dancing and defending people who were bullied or not able to 21


defend themselves. Nevertheless, I wasn’t a good enough dancer and I couldn’t envision myself spending more than five years studying one and the same subject at university. After a solid pass in my entrance exams, I ended up applying to study political science in Bergen. I can’t quite remember why I chose political science, but it sounded very impressive: Political Science. I proudly showed my father my acceptance letter, stamped by the University of Bergen. “Political Science?” he said a little uncertainly. “What sort of job will that give you?” I hadn’t thought about that. What sort of occupation would it give me? I had no idea. In the end I threw away the acceptance letter and opted instead to travel to Florida with friends for six months. That felt like a much more tangible plan. I was able to experience more of the big wide world, supported financially by a new job as an au pair girl. In retrospect I have thought long and hard about this part of my life. The fact that my father considered it acceptable for me to travel to Miami instead of embarking upon a course at university says a lot about him as a person. I also think this event influenced my choices later in life. I have never opted for the most obvious or most politically correct option without first questioning myself. I never accept an assignment just because it would look ‘right’ on my CV. I have to know what it involves, to understand whether I can make a difference and I need to have a really strong desire to do what is required. I have turned down leadership roles in management and networks because my priorities have been elsewhere. I have followed my heart and I have chosen to take risks. 22


This requires a person to be open, even to those things that one feels sceptical about. One of the girls from Sandefjord who went to Miami lived with a host family who had a special guest visiting one evening. This visitor, a close friend, was said to be a bit special — the rumour was that she could read people’s future. I had just turned 19 and thought this sounded exciting, and so even though I didn’t necessarily believe this to be true, I went along to meet her. To my huge surprise, she looked totally normal. There was no distinguishable hocus-pocus, brightly coloured outfit or crystal ball. She looked like my host mother, a typical Florida mother: cheerful, a little on the round side, with big hair and wearing a lot of makeup compared to the Norwegian mothers. I didn’t tell her anything about myself, and so she had absolutely no personal information to go on. Our conversation was recorded on tape so that I could take it home with me. She had a pack of strange cards with pictures on them, and she asked me to pick a few of these. When she saw the cards I had chosen, she fell silent. She put down the cards, took my hands and looked me in the eyes. “My dear”, she said, “Is your mother or father very sick?” “Yes,” I answered, “my mum”. I started to feel highly sceptical. What was going to happen now? What would she say next? “Just relax, my darling, it’ll all be just fine”, she said. “It’s just that your father will live a lot longer than your mother. But that won’t be a problem for you. You’re strong. You’re going to get even stronger. You can look forward to a lot of love in your life”. Four months later, my mother died. 23

Good Enough for the 'Bastards'  

A contemporary business leader from Scandinavia shares her reflections on courage, vulnerability and credibility. Inspired by Sheryl Sandber...

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