Jenny Sagström of Sköna: “Business books can actually be good!”

Business books can actually be good! I always thought they were a drag — just people pontificating about their overly obvious conclusions. Now, I’ve come to realize that the thirst to continue growing as a leader and CEO makes other people’s experiences invaluable. As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure […]

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Business books can actually be good! I always thought they were a drag — just people pontificating about their overly obvious conclusions. Now, I’ve come to realize that the thirst to continue growing as a leader and CEO makes other people’s experiences invaluable.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenny Sagström.

Jenny has spent the last 17 years leading her boutique agency, Sköna, from a 2-man shop founded in Silicon Valley to a flourishing global business with offices in both San Francisco and Stockholm. When she’s not working or skiing, she loves anything DIY including painting and cutting down trees.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, and attended Kungsholmens Gymnasium for high school. I had grown up learning English, but I strengthened my language skills considerably in high school. In college, I studied International Relations and Economics at Reading University and became fascinated by foreign politics and especially the Middle East. In my senior year, my professor helped me arrange a job in Syria teaching English, a position that would begin shortly after graduation. My parents didn’t discourage me from going to Syria, but they did point out that I probably would need some money for the Syria trip and helped me secure a summer job in an advertising agency. My parents clearly knew me better than I knew myself: At the agency, I was tasked with emptying trash cans and making coffee, but I got a glimpse of something bigger — an opportunity I had never considered. Within three days, I had canceled all of my Syria plans.

I had stumbled upon my calling! I had believed that working in business meant staring at Excel all day — I’d never imagined a job in the world of advertising and certainly didn’t anticipate the thrill of solving business problems with creativity. It’s something that excites me to this day! I can’t believe I actually get paid to do this work and feel truly blessed to have found a career I love so much — even if I found it in a roundabout way.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I first started Sköna in 2003, we were not a B2B-niched agency. In fact, we worked mostly with regional brands and we took pride in the fact that our wide range of clients made our creative work more inspired and less cookie cutter. But, within a few years — and probably as a result of being so close to the Silicon Valley — I realized that 90% of our clients were B2B high-tech companies. Along the way, we had become really good at helping them grow and scale. In 2015, we decided to double down and really focus on becoming a top-tier, global B2B agency.

I love working in the B2B world as it allows me to combine strategic, academic and creative thinking. When you’re advertising milk as an example, it’s easy to understand the product and its consumer. When you’re selling Enterprise IT solutions, you have to spend a considerable amount of time figuring out what your client even does — let alone trying to figure out how to market it to someone else. And it’s that challenge that I love!

Still, there’s a lot of creative freedom in consumer marketing that you don’t get with B2B. Since our book of business has not included many consumer brands in recent years, we started doing pro-bono work to keep our skills fresh. What started as an outlet for creativity quickly became more important. We all realized that putting our talents to use in this way gave us a different sense of accomplishment and pride — particularly when we realized our efforts were making a real difference for our nonprofit clients. Today, we commit approximately 10% of our time to pro-bono projects. This is something that has really galvanized us as a team.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I learned to double-, triple- and quadruple-check the recipients on my emails — and I learned this lesson the hard way!

My career in advertising started in 1998. Within just a few years, the business environment had changed and we were in the midst of the .com bust with agencies going out of business and a massive exodus out of San Francisco.

At this time, the agency where I was working still had one large client and since I was the only account person left, I was managing the business. I had received an email from the client with specific questions on spending and concerns about the plans we had drawn up I was young and prone to panic, and I forwarded the email to my boss along with a message about my concerns with how our agency had been handling the account and my analysis that the client in question would likely ending their contract in the near future. Well, I hit send — at the same time I realized that I was in fact replying to the client, not forwarding the message to my boss. In full-blown panic at this point, I quickly pulled the power cable out of my pink iMac, then ran into the server room and frantically pulled out every cord I could find. I made the whole building go dark but to no avail. There was no stopping the email. The client quickly responded, complimenting me on my analytical skills and confirming that yes, they were, in fact, looking to sever ties with the agency. The funny part was my frantic effort to stop the email. The not-so-funny part — which makes me cringe to this day — was having to fess up my mistake and share the client’s response with my boss.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The answer to this one is easy. It’s our amazing clients! Our business is built entirely on referrals and on sticking with clients who change jobs and bring us along with them (and retaining the business of the companies they just left). We have been lucky enough to enjoy very long relationships with our clients. Our first retainer client — Meyer Sound — was with us for more than 10 years. So was vmware, and so were many others. Most of our clients are female CMOs in the Silicon Valley. Marketing seems to be one of the areas where women truly have a seat at the table. On the whole, I think the reason that more than 90% of our clients are women is because we tend to work well together — we can be straight, yet supportive, and our communication styles tend to be similar. This makes for a clear and smooth work relationship that brings success to our clients and to our agency, as well.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I actually do a lot of journaling. I try to do morning pages as often as I can as this clears my mind from negativity and allows me to approach the day with a fresh perspective. If I have a particularly difficult meeting or negotiation coming up, I sit down to document the different potential outcomes, pitfalls and important points I need to make beforehand. I might not look at my notes during the actual meeting, but I find that making the notes allows me to think through a problem better.

If we’re working on something creative, I like to put on my running shoes and go for a jog. I’m not a particularly good runner and no matter how much I run, I don’t seem to get faster or be able to run longer. But, about 10 minutes in, that “runners high” you read about happens to me, too. My mind starts going and I usually come back from each 45-minute jog frantically searching for a pad of paper so I can write my ideas down. Each jog usually yields between two and four decent ideas worthy of exploring and developing further.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

It’s been pointed out time and time again that publicly traded companies with diverse boards and management teams outperform those led by white men. People with different cultures and backgrounds bring different perspectives, experiences and world views to the workplace, and that this diversity of thought fosters creativity and results in new and different solutions. Basically, ‘we just don’t know what we don’t know’. The more diverse your teams are, the more unexpected — and as a result better — will be your solutions and suggestions.

In businesses — and in leadership teams in particular — it’s common to end up with an echo chamber. I don’t believe we do this intentionally, but often we end up hiring and promoting people who think like us — it’s just so easy to find common ground and understand their viewpoints. So, it’s no wonder when you plateau as a business or sometimes end up feeling stuck; how are you supposed to envision new ideas and solutions when everyone in the room is approaching the issue from the same angle?

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

On paper, Sköna is pretty diverse, but we’ve realized it’s an area of opportunity for our company and are currently finalizing a plan to improve our hiring process. Our goal is to ensure we attract candidates from a variety of backgrounds and races.

As leaders, we also need to listen to our people — without judgment and repercussions. What we believe to be an inclusive organization might not feel that way for the people working inside of it. And the trick here is not just to listen, but to be willing to make changes as needed. Here at Sköna,we recently sent out a survey to all of our employees to gauge their experiences in the workplace, understand where we’re succeeding and identify areas for improvement. We received several interesting suggestions and ideas — things that weren’t even on my radar — and we’ve since built these ideas into our 2021 plan.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

My most important job is imagining what’s ahead for our business — both in the short term and in the nex t5–10 years. This includes staying on top of trends and marketing movements, envisioning what services we may need to offer in the future, and thinking about our potential for expansion to other markets or even other countries. I also have to ensure transparency and clear communication among all of our agency’s departments and ensure that everyone is going in the same direction.

I have learned the hard way that when you have a proactive and ambitious team, you have to be extra vigilant as the leader when it comes to communicating your vision and goals. Smart people don’t wait around for you to tell them what to do and where to go. The minute there’s a opening, smart people will work to fill it. And unless you want all of your smart people running in different directions, you must ensure everyone is on the same page when it comes to your company’s goals and vision.

Lastly, the CEO has ultimate accountability for the company culture and morale. It’s our job to motivate and keep everyone else going, even in the toughest of times. It’s our job to inspire and lead our teams — even when things are hard. The trickiest part is striking the right balance between transparency, honesty and just being a cheerleader.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

One myth is that as the CEO, you only handle the high-level strategy and decision making. It’s a major misperception that we sit around all day looking at numbers and reports and callously make decisions that really only benefit ourselves. Perhaps that was my own misperception — that CEOs were like Scrooge McDuck on a three-martini lunch.

I’m not sure if I was disappointed or relieved to learn that my days as CEO are very different from that myth. In fact, I spend most of my time trying to curl the ice for my team, helping them remove obstacles so that they get the best opportunity to do their jobs. Often that means tactical things such as emptying the office trash cans, or helping an account person juggle their administrative tasks. I think the secret job description of a CEO is that no task is too small (or too big). You must continuously make decisions on where and when your help is most needed. Sometimes that means engaging with your most important client and sometimes it literally means taking out the trash.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Our ‘softer skills’ aren’t always valued. Where a man might be applauded for showing compassion, it might be seen as a weakness in a woman executive.

Another challenge is the fact that women in traditional families are usually the “default parent” — no matter how demanding their job. We’re the ones who have the pediatrician on speed-dial,, schedule the parent-teacher conferences and buy the classmate’s birthday present.. We know all of the teachers’ names, when homework is due and when school spirit days are scheduled. This means that while we might have intense day jobs, many of us put in a lot more hours than our partners in our homes. And this is the tricky part. I think we all know we’re enablers in these situations, but it’s so hard to change. Most of us hold ourselves to an impossible “superwoman” ideal, and it’s hard to let go of that standard and keep your sense of self-worth intact. I don’t think men generally put that same amount of pressure on themselves.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I think I expected CEOs to ‘think’ a lot and make a lot of big decisions — and not much else.

My actual job at Sköna is a lot more hands-on. I see it as my job to clear the way for others to do their jobs the best they can. That means pitching in when and where it’s most needed — from ordering coffee to designing growth plans and budgets.

We’re a smaller company, so I guess I still don’t quite feel worthy of calling myself a CEO. When I think of CEOs, I imagine the leaders of Fortune 500 companies doing the “thinking a lot” and making big decisions. In reality, 99.9% of all U.S. businesses are small businesses like mine, probably led by people like me, with a more hands-on approach to the job.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I think most good executives are natural leaders. That doesn’t always mean the most popular kid or the homecoming queen. In fact, it’s probably the most annoying kid — the teacher’s pet who always wants to help out in the classroom. The ones who can’t seem to stay on the sidelines and wait their turn, but who can’t help but try to force whatever outcome they’re looking for. I’m happy to report I was an annoying kid!

People who are rigid or who crave structure are probably not a great fit for executive roles due to the unpredictable nature of leadership.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

It sounds so cliché, but you have to be yourself. I don’t believe in having a professional version of yourself — someone who puts on a suit and goes to the office each day. I’m a proponent of bringing your whole self to work and also creating a work environment that encourages this for everyone.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Our initiative of Sköna Forward — the pro-bono work we do as an agency — has been a huge driver in our legacy of making the world a better place. Helping our paying clients sell more and more Enterprise IT solutions really isn’t necessarily changing the world for the better. Our work with pro-bono clients drives this change instead.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

A flat hierarchy doesn’t mean nobody is in charge. As Swede, the approach to consensus is ingrained in me, so for many years, Sköna was a completely flat hierarchy. Today, I’ve learned that someone has to make the decisions and deal with the consequences. I’ve stopped being afraid to be the leader.

Process is not bad. It may seem boring, and at times overwhelming and perhaps even stifling, but putting processes in place keeps you from having to reinvent your work or your approach over and over again.

Business books can actually be good! I always thought they were a drag — just people pontificating about their overly obvious conclusions. Now, I’ve come to realize that the thirst to continue growing as a leader and CEO makes other people’s experiences invaluable.

Your words matter. When you become the boss, you can no longer just throw ideas and suggestions out if you’re not serious about them. People (especially smart, ambitious people) might start acting on a half-baked idea.

Getting clarity is more important than getting a no. I’ve learned that people will be ok with a no — as long as you provide them a clear answer rather than the ‘nyeah’ you might throw out to avoid being the bad guy.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Being born and raised in Sweden, it’s hard not to mention universal healthcare and universal parental leave as the cornerstones of an equal society. I think it’s crippling from a business perspective to expect companies to pay for these basic necessities. Not only would universal healthcare and parental leave create more equality, but I believe small businesses in America would be exponentially more successful without the pressure of healthcare costs and the regulatory mess and inequality around parental leave.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

You have to cut out the deadwood to make room for new growth!

In a service business, losing clients is the hardest thing. But sometimes, it can also be a good thing as you don’t know what’s going to grow in its place when you eventually let go.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Barack Obama — his brilliance, charisma and compassion would make him the perfect breakfast or lunch date.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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