HMD has just announced that it will launch its own branded smartphones in 2024. This raises a question about the survival of the Nokia brand. It also reminded me of what had set Nokia apart in the days of its preeminence. Here are six elements that were unique to their culture.
1. Values built from the bottom up: In 2008, when Nokia was reframing its values, it did so with 16 cafes around the world where employees debated and proposed values that were eventually presented to the board of directors. All companies decide values from the top down, but that was never the case at Nokia. Senior managers were evaluated through feedback from multiple sources on how to live the values; comments could come from anyone who interacted with you during the year. 50% of the annual incentive was allocated to business results and 50% to behaviors exhibited in living the values.
2. Flat structure, high trust culture.: Every organization talks about flat structures. Nokia had only six levels between an area sales manager in India and a global CEO. You had a long rope; It was your choice if you wanted to swing with him or if you wanted to hang yourself. The company always measured whether it was doing the right thing. When Nokia India was a $4 billion company, we did not have an internal audit department. When I asked, the global CEO said: “We trust our people, why would any of our employees harm Nokia?” Some might call it high confidence, others might call it naivety!
3. Free to disagree, but once closed, commit.: One could disagree with anyone in any meeting. However, once the meeting closed with a principle of 60% agreement but 100% commitment, everyone marched at the same pace. There were no repercussions for speaking out, he was judged on his impact on the job. In 2010, Nokia underwent a global reorganization. At the time there were about 870 blogs in the company, and one R&D engineer wrote in a blog: “This reorganization is like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.” Nobody reprimanded him or tried to correct him, he did his job normally, something unthinkable in any other company.
4. A premium for culture: In a meeting with the global board of directors in 2006, I spoke about the hot talent market in India and how a salary increase of 15% or more was the norm. The board silenced me by asking me a simple question: “Are you driving a good culture? What premium do you get for culture? That made me and my team think very differently about culture. The company always believed (maybe it’s your Northern European roots) that you worked for the love and success of the company. If the company was successful, then all components of the ecosystem would be successful.
5. Reverse Mentoring and Responsiveness: Nokia had policies that were way ahead of their time, they had work from home in 2009, they had open offices in 2010; Even the global CEO didn’t have a booth, he had hot desking in 2009, he had flexible office times to choose from. When Nokia was pivoting into Internet services, we had reverse mentoring where young, capable and knowledgeable middle and junior management managers trained senior managers. So, we received reverse mentoring from people like Zairus Master, Navdeep Manaktala and Prashant Dogra in 2010! To drive agility, we conducted a responsiveness survey every two months in which each department and each department head would be evaluated by everyone in the organization on their contribution to making the organization agile. The results would be shared publicly in the organization without censorship.
6. Humility above all.: A systemic warning on every forum would be: never be arrogant. Nokia wanted its people to be humble and down-to-earth and never get carried away. Even when we had outstanding results, the global CEO would say: “Celebrate for a minute and spend the next 59 minutes of the hour planning the next success. Nokia had a low power distance culture and never had elaborate PowerPoint presentations. During my time there, I never used a PPT with the global CEO. He would order a page or two and discuss them during the flight, over tea or dinner. The same was true for the global board presentations. You had to submit a two-page note that would be discussed, with no chance to hide behind the slides!
(Shiv Shivakumar is an operating partner at Advent International. He headed Nokia India from 2006 to 2011 and was senior vice president of Emerging Markets from 2011 to 2013)