One of the things which surprised me is how much you won’t be able to do things yourself. If you go around fixing everything yourself, you will never have an organization that actually works. This is my biggest problem because some days I go home and feel I’ve done nothing. I used to evaluate myself on any given day by examining how much code I’d produced. Benchmarks like this don’t really work when the day is occupied by client calls and spreadsheets. So, it is important to remind myself that management and planning is also work!
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carsten Rhod Gregersen.
Carsten Rhod Gregersen is an IoT expert who counts more than two decades within software and innovation. Carsten is the founder and chief of Nabto, a peer-to-peer (P2P) real time communication based platform for IoT devices.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Of course, it’s great to be speaking with you! I came to work in tech because, simply, I love tech. I started out at age 12 reading books about the “basic” programming language before I owned an actual computer. The concept of programming an entity to do autonomous actions is just so fascinating. I like to think about how far humanity has come using technology and, to me, we are only in the first phase.
Further, I’m especially inspired by the Internet of Things (IoT) and the vast array of applications it has. I always wanted to be a tech entrepreneur so that when I had an idea I could act on it and work on the technology. But, after many years of building companies and products, you find in small organizations that somebody needs to take the top role and not only create the tech but ensure it is developed and brought to market.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Certainly. I initially found it difficult to lead by proxy. For example, it is easy to call the shots when it is a one-man-show. But once you start to expand and become an organization, the duty of the CEO is not to fix things but rather to tell people to fix things. This is much harder to do if you are a creator by nature.
If you are used to being “the fixer” who does tasks in a certain way, you have to learn how to delegate responsibility so your colleagues can choose how to best solve the problem themselves. This is the problem of most leaders, actually, if they come from the ground up. It can be hard to get out of the routine of fixing the problem to overseeing others to fix it. However, learning this skill is one of the most important for business leaders because great workers will always be inspired to do great work if you give them agency to make their own decisions. If you micromanage everything you will fast become a single point of failure and the organization will not be able to grow. It’s important to delegate and trust that your colleagues will solve problems even better than you.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Thankfully leadership is something that can evolve over time if you are willing to put the effort in. I find a lot of value in coaching and reading on the subject. I’m not saying that I’m entirely successful yet, but I’m certainly getting better at telling my colleagues to fix something and then leave it up to them to decide exactly how to do it!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
I’d be happy to! This is an interesting question to me because I actually didn’t start out to be the company leader, but since I have the competence of sales, developing, and some strategy background, I became the most eligible person for the position.
First, one of the things which surprised me is how much you won’t be able to do things yourself. If you go around fixing everything yourself, you will never have an organization that actually works. This is my biggest problem because some days I go home and feel I’ve done nothing. I used to evaluate myself on any given day by examining how much code I’d produced. Benchmarks like this don’t really work when the day is occupied by client calls and spreadsheets. So, it is important to remind myself that management and planning is also work!
Second, I’d reinforce that time administration skills are a must. Thankfully, this was a skill I already had in juggling being a dad and a tech entrepreneur, but time is, without a doubt, one of the most important elements for any leader. If you don’t already have this skill, you will need to learn it because it is a core competency.
Third, and again related to time: success takes time! We have now worked for more than a decade on our company, Nabto. We initially thought that in the first five years that IoT would be the next big thing, but it’s only just starting now. In tech, and especially in small companies and entrepreneurship, the acceleration from product hype to tangible results takes much more time than you think.
So, this leads to my fourth suggestion: balance the big picture with the present. People always tell me that I envision things from far away in the future, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. It is good, for example, to anticipate events before they transpire. On the flip side, though, sometimes if you see things from too far away, you miss the momentum to actually get there. It’s important to balance present endeavours with future possibilities. Timing is everything!
And finally, the element which ties everything together: CEOs must have patience. It continues to surprise me how long it takes from getting an idea in my head to getting others motivated and actually working on the idea. Of course, I can see the vision, but it takes a lot of effort to motivate others and execute with excellence. This only happens if they also believe in the idea, and this takes effort and patience! People are not computers and you cannot install the same idea into multiple people. Leading, from small projects to larger company endeavours, is a day-to-day effort that requires consistent work and, above all, patience.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
This is an interesting question. When I see burnt-out people, it normally has to do with their mental wellbeing. So, I find it very important to keep work in perspective and stay mentally fit.
What will burn you out the most is if you have expectations but feel you don’t meet these expectations. I suggest aligning your goals with your expectations. Be honest about your capabilities and be sure to celebrate the small wins. Don’t just focus on the big ones, but the small ones.
When I do encounter “big problems”, I normally try to do a mental exercise of comparison. For example, what if I had nowhere to stay for the night, or no food or water? If this was the case, would this current “big problem” even be relevant? Keep things in perspective and try to only concern yourself with issues that you can actually fix.
Of course, there are some physical remedies for emotional or mental stress. I love long-distance running and use it as a tool to destress. I find that doing something physical helps to take out the adrenaline from the workplace.
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?
I don’t know if I ever have had a real business mentor or anything like that, but I certainly take a lot of life lessons from my grandmother.
My grandmother taught me to work hard, play hard, and make work fun! For example, my cousin and I used to visit her farm here in Denmark. She would sometimes make a game by putting a large bucket of berries on the table for us to manually process. Each berry needed to be de-stemmed before it could be cooked into jam, and she made it a competition to see who could do it first. In hindsight, this was a really clever way to turn a mundane task into a fun activity and learn about friendly competitiveness.
My grandmother lived on this farm which used to be a sandy meadow, so it was a pretty harsh environment to make anything grow there and keeping up the farm was a 24/7 job. So, she, like most farmers, made her job her hobby. I try to do the same where I have a positive mental attitude to get things done. “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” Confucius once said, but this could also be turned around with “love the job you have been assigned”. I’ve found out that if you dig deep enough, most professions offer exciting problems to solve.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Of course, I have goals like everybody else. I want to be able to pay for my pension and to give something to my family so that they have a good start in life. But, professionally, I see myself as a gear in the machine. We live so well in today’s society because of tech and I want to be a small part of the larger mechanism of what makes modern life so great. To be honest, I’d almost do the work for free because I just love it that much!
I really appreciate it when my team can deliver software which makes something cheaper, better or easier. I don’t need to be remembered as a massive player, since I know luck is also very much involved, so I’m satisfied playing a small role and making it just a little better than it was before.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I want to help build toward a bigger tomorrow of better IoT. I really do see peer-to-peer connections within IoT as something which can improve connected devices. I hope that our company makes some impact in improving the overall deployment of IoT by delivering better security and latency of IoT.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I’d encourage everyone to follow the advice of my grandmother: work hard, play hard, and — most importantly — make work fun!
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