Discourage political, ego-driven behavior: Ensure that everyone puts the team’s purpose before their individual success. There are not many things that are as energy-draining as company politics — once someone starts to act egotistically, it triggers others to follow. One small way we try and foster this culture is, for example, in how we set up our office. The co-founders don’t sit alone in glass offices peering out at the team. We sit together with the team. This is an attempt to get rid of the “founder ego”, which is a good place to start!
As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Holger Seim, CEO and co-founder of Blinkist. Holger founded this company back in 2012 in Berlin to solve a growing issue he’d been facing since leaving school by creating a micro-learning app and platform that condenses non-fiction titles into 15-minute audio and text digests.
Thank you for joining us Holger! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It’s a combination of three things: a passion for entrepreneurship, meeting the right people at the right time and then having the guts to take a risk. I discovered my passion for entrepreneurship when I was at school, thanks to a teacher who organized extracurricular projects around starting a business. At university, my co-founders and I were lucky enough to run into each other, and we quickly realized that we all shared the same passion and desire to start a business. This led us to start our first venture back in 2008 — a student consultancy that supported local companies in fields like marketing, strategy and employee engagement. It was a great success and is still running today by a new generation of students.
This early success was pretty encouraging and gave us the confidence to think about bigger and bolder projects. We would frequently meet to discuss possible business opportunities. On one of these occasions, we started to think about ideas for a mobile app, because the app ecosystem started to grow really fastback in 2011 and we saw a big opportunity to jump on that trend. We quickly combined this opportunity with a problem we were facing after leaving school: since starting our careers, it had become increasingly harder to fit a lot of reading into our lives and keep learning outside of our jobs.
We realized that the sudden ubiquity of the smartphone led to a shift in reading habits and that our problem could be solved if we transformed the content in non-fiction books into an engaging and flexible format on our devices. As a result, Blinkist was born in 2012, as an app connecting readers worldwide to the biggest ideas from bestselling non-fiction titles via 15-minute audio and text digests.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
A special moment for me that I can still remember very clearly was when I saw the first person using Blinkist in “real life”. In the early years of Blinkist in 2015, I was commuting between two cities in Germany every week. One day, while I was travelling to Berlin by train, a man sat down next to me, pulled out his iPhone and started to read on the Blinkist app. I couldn’t resist talking to him and we ended up chatting for the full four hours of the journey.
This random encounter was very special for me because this is when I realized that what we were building was actually being used, by real people in real-life situations. Of course, we had customers sending us feedback, but randomly coming across a person that was using Blinkist was way cooler. Even today, it’s always a very special moment whenever I see people using Blinkist.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
A big project for Blinkist in 2019 is to improve our “discover experience” which will make it even easier for our users to find the right content for them. When we started Blinkist, we were focused on business books and, as a result, attracted a certain kind of business-focused audience. However, over the past few years, we’ve outgrown our roots and built a very diverse audience of more than 9 million people. Of course, there are still young professionals looking for career advice, but there are also mothers and fathers looking for parenting books, and curious lifelong learners of all ages looking for insights from different disciplines like history, psychology, and philosophy.
An exciting challenge for us is to keep Blinkist relevant for all of these different groups of people and match everyone with the right content that inspires them to keep learning.
According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
I recently read Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy and he defines happiness as being “equal to or greater than your perception of events minus your expectations of life”, so when your life expectations aren’t met, you’re unhappy.
While there are certainly a lot of things that can and have to be improved around work culture, I believe the biggest reason for people being unhappy these days is that their expectations of life have increased due to the increased exposure to “perfect lives” in our social media feeds. Our Instagram or LinkedIn feeds are full of beautiful, seemingly successful people that have the most purposeful jobs, the most stunning vacations and a great work-life balance in general. In my opinion, such impressions make it harder for us to have realistic expectations about jobs, relationships, and life in general.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
We haven’t done any proper research in this regard, but from my own experience, I can say that people who are dissatisfied at work are generally not as productive, not invested in the quality of their work, and they are more likely to spread negative energy that can hinder other colleagues. At Blinkist, we strongly believe that a happy workforce is highly correlated with productivity at work, personal well-being, and, ultimately, company profitability.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
- Champion self-empowerment: Create a culture in which people can take the lead on their roles, have true ownership, and are not micromanaged. Self-empowerment is our core value at Blinkist and one of the reasons why we are where we are in terms of company success and employee engagement. We support self-empowerment by assigning roles to individuals that document their accountabilities and domains to make sure that everyone knows why they’re here and in which domains they’ve got decision-making power. This removes traditional hierarchical reporting lines that can demotivate team members and slow down their work.
- Default to transparency: Share information freely with everyone so employees can make sense of the bigger picture, make informed decisions without having to rely on their manager, and feel that they’re trusted. We take this very seriously at Blinkist by sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly with each other, and whenever we do — in “ask-me-anything” sessions or business updates — you can see on people’s faces how much it motivates them.
- Discourage political, ego-driven behavior: Ensure that everyone puts the team’s purpose before their individual success. There are not many things that are as energy-draining as company politics — once someone starts to act egotistically, it triggers others to follow. One small way we try and foster this culture is, for example, in how we set up our office. The co-founders don’t sit alone in glass offices peering out at the team. We sit together with the team. This is an attempt to get rid of the “founder ego”, which is a good place to start!
- Make company culture a priority, not an afterthought: There are tons of things that can foster a great culture and most of them don’t happen automatically. In way too many companies, culture is delegated to HR departments and isn’t made a top leadership priority because it doesn’t directly affect the business KPIs. However, that’s a big mistake — I believe that the most important factor to get a healthier culture is the genuine commitment and involvement of the senior leadership. We’ve been there as well and didn’t really think consciously about culture and organization in the early years and ended up having a rather classical hierarchy with an unempowered team and us founders as the bottleneck. Fortunately, we realized it early on when we were still small enough to change our culture to the better and have made keeping it as great as it has been a company priority ever since.
- Make meetings more efficient: In his book Death by Meeting, Patrick Leoncini says that “no action, activity or process is more central to a healthy organization than the meeting. There is no better way to have a fundamental impact than by changing the way a company does meetings.” This statement resonates a lot with me. Most people are happy when they feel they have made an impact, and a week full of unnecessarily long meetings prevents exactly that. In order to keep meetings efficient, we’ve introduced across all teams weekly tactical meetings with a clear agenda, therefore making disorganized and unstructured ad-hoc meetings obsolete.
- Bonus: Provide free, healthy lunch: There’s nothing that beats a delicious, healthy lunch 🙂 We opened La Cantina @ Blinkist in August last year and it has boosted engagement and happiness among employees tremendously.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
I think the problem with our society is that it promotes a culture of perfectionism. With social media, and particularly Instagram, we live in a world where people are encouraged to paint perfect pictures of themselves, which fuels narcissism and self-obsession and inevitably leads to envy and jealousy. In the workplace, this culture of perfectionism squashes creativity and flexibility because it breeds an obsession to get everything right, and therefore leaves workers unfulfilled from the unrealistic objectives they have set themselves.
By fighting against perfectionism, we can start to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture by removing the need for egotistical behavior and flattening hierarchical structures. This would form a society that is not as self-centered and would help create more collaborative and happier workforces.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
All of my leadership experience has been gained over the past few years from running Blinkist. I never had any formal training or prior experience, so I’m still learning a lot about my leadership style and adjusting it as I go.
Reflecting now, I can identify three main responsibilities that I take seriously as a leader and that definitely informs my leadership style. The first is providing clarity of vision: I believe the main function of a leader is to clearly define and communicate a vision that allows people to understand where they’re going, what’s expected of them, and why; that inspires them to do their best. I do everything I can to make sure that the Blinkist company vision is clear. This is also crucial when it comes to helping people to focus on the right projects or topics. If everyone completely understands the path we’re on, they’re more likely to be able to focus their expert energy in the right places and contribute in a productive way.
That leads me to the second responsibility I have as a leader which is empowering people: I want every member of the Blinkist team to feel fully responsible and accountable for the work that they do. As a leader, this means that I am largely hands-off when it comes to day-to-day operations so that people feel trusted, they can make their own decisions, and continuously learn. At Blinkist, if someone owns a project or a domain, they have full power to follow our internal advice process and ultimately make their own decisions about that domain. This means that things can move quickly and team members feel real ownership.
Finally, people sometimes mistake self-empowerment with being a lone wolf and this is absolutely not the case and brings me to my third responsibility as a leader which is providing clear guidance with direct communication. Early on as a leader, I would meet with team members every month or so and it soon became apparent that this was definitely not enough. So I changed my approach and now I have short, weekly one-on-one meetings with individual team members where I can listen to any issues that crop up and act as a sparring partner on tough topics or decisions. This is really helpful for members of the team as it’s an opportunity for them to check-in. While I sometimes bring up topics or ask questions, each team member decides the agenda of these one-on-one meetings themselves so they have an opportunity to talk about what matters to them. In these meetings, it’s my job to make sure that team members feel heard and get the support and guidance that they need. It’s my ultimate aim that each team member walks out of these meetings feeling confident, supported, and ready to tackle the next challenge.
As I said, my leadership style and practice are constantly evolving as I learn new approaches and face new challenges along the way.
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?
I’m really grateful for the teacher who made the effort of organizing the extracurricular activities dedicated to starting your own business. Thanks to this, I discovered my passion and talent for entrepreneurship in school and had confidence, later on, to do it in “real life” and start my own business.
I’m also really grateful for my co-founders. We complement each other a lot and Blinkist would never have been started without all of us working together so passionately.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We’re still at a fairly early stage with Blinkist and all of my time is spent growing the business.
The biggest lever I have at the moment in this regard is to make Blinkist a great place to work and have a direct positive impact on the lives of our fast-growing team of more than 120 people. I also make an effort to encourage and foster entrepreneurship by making time to meeting with younger entrepreneurs who are just starting out and seeking advice.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I can’t share a fancy quote here, but the most important lesson for me in life so far has been that relationships are key for my happiness — both in and outside of work. The most interesting and purposeful projects aren’t fun without great colleagues, and the most precious experiences and memories are always the ones you share with others.
Figuring that out for myself has made it much easier for me to prioritize my time and make sure that I surround myself with enough of what makes me happy in my life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe that it would help if every one of us opened up a little more and made ourselves a little more vulnerable instead of playing it cool all the time. It would particularly help in two ways:
- We’d all be happier because a lot of our unhappiness is rooted in comparing ourselves with an inflated positive image we have from others which sets unrealistic expectations.
- We’d all grow faster personally because instead of pretending that we’re already perfect (in order to match ourselves with the unrealistic expectations), we could be more frank about our weaknesses both to ourselves and to others. Based on this we can then work on overcoming them more openly.
Based on those beliefs, I’d start a movement that would help people open up more and encourage them to reveal the gaps between their ideal self and their current self. Once people start talking about this gap, I think it will become apparent that either the ideals themselves are in fact attainable or, and this is more interesting, that the ideals don’t exist. My movement could have a London Underground inspired hashtag #minethegap and would probably involve hands-on workshops around radical candour and self-acceptance.