Johnny Warström: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”

Be truthful — Do real research. Don’t make stuff up. You need to have a solid foundation to stand on. But also be true to yourself and your organization. Again thought leadership is highly dependent on authenticity. As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the […]

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Be truthful — Do real research. Don’t make stuff up. You need to have a solid foundation to stand on. But also be true to yourself and your organization. Again thought leadership is highly dependent on authenticity.

As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Johnny Warström, CEO and co-founder of interactive presentation platform, Mentimeter.

After studying Electrical Engineering at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Johnny’s first venture was a management consultancy company. Following this, he moved over to the telecom industry and then, in 2014, Johnny co-founded Mentimeter with university friends with the vision is to transform presentations and meetings into fun and interactive experiences.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Prior to founding Mentimeter, I was working for a large corporation where I quickly became aware of a growing issue faced by most office environments — pointless meetings.

It was out of this frustration that the idea for Mentimeter emerged, as I started thinking about what I could do to challenge the ways of conducting meetings and the tools needed to make them more collaborative and engaging.

I was stunned by how inefficient some of my meetings were, and how there weren’t any tools available designed to make them more engaging. I wanted to rectify this problem and prompt some kind of change, so I created my own company and product to solve it.

As Mentimeter was developed it became clear to me that the boring and pointless meeting was only a symptom of a much bigger problem. Namely that corporate and educational culture has been created to promote talkers. Being an extrovert is the default state for a good leader, and a good talker or presenter is high status. But when only the loudest voice in the room is heard the best ideas are drowned out and we lose the opportunity to build great things that encompass the complexity of human thought. That’s why we with Mentimeter want to transform the way meetings, presentations and lectures are conducted, making it easy to listen and be heard.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

It is not for me to say if I am an authority on the topic, but I do think that to be seen as a thought leader you need to have an opinion and a clear motivation as to why you are doing something. If your main goal is to get everyone to agree with you, then you are not a thought leader. As a thought leader within my company, I like to open the table for conversation, debate the topic and come to conclusions together, as a team.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Back in 2016, my team and I spent five months working in Silicon Valley. While out there, we developed one of the most popular features of the Mentimeter platform, ‘interactive quizzes’. Being abroad with my team made me realize the value of spending time away from our hometown, Stockholm, as it contributed to the team’s creativity and spirit.

Since then, we’ve relocated the entire office to a different country for a month each year, during which the whole team works in, and explores a brand new city. The most recent trips we have visited are Lisbon, Barcelona, and Palermo. Since the relocation initiative started, it has helped us to foster a more productive workplace, improved cross-team collaboration, and company culture. Allowing us to develop a level of trust that I believe would not have been obtainable through traditional corporate exercises, ultimately creating a more successful and faster-growing company.

The idea behind relocating the entire team was inspired by the findings from the researcher, Philip Runsten, Ph.D. at Stockholm School of Economy. He developed a concept called Collective Intelligence (CI) or the “intelligent organization”, which shows that high performing teams work in a more exploratory way, producing and increased output of 2,300% compared to lower-performing teams.

One of the most important fundamentals when it comes to creating a high-performing team is to create a positive and secure environment, in which team members have complete trust and confidence in one another. Based on this, we wanted to create an environment that would promote Collective Intelligence, and this is where the relocation idea came from.

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?

When first pitching Mentimeter to angel investors in spring 2014, we pitched to something like 70 different angel investors and got only four investors interested. It was really hard to convince investors that the product prototype we started off with was going to revolutionize meetings and presentations. When pitching Venture Capital firms in 2015 the same “no”-patherened showed itself, that time no investor wanted to invest.

Not being able to secure investment felt like a failure and we started questioning ourselves and our product idea. But with the results in hand, it was a blessing in disguise. Rather than relying on external financial backing, we had to really focus on building a product that users loved and were willing to pay for. Since 2016, we have been profitable with the autonomy that a Venture Capital-backed company often doesn’t have.

I think the learning here was something that has remained central at Mentimeter and that is a product first strategy. If we would have focused more on sales in the beginning to build a business case for investors, I don’t think Mentimeter would be as loved as it is today. Essentially all our growth has been organic and based on product experience. To me, entrepreneurship is about adding value, not making a spectacular exit.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

To me, the difference is that a typical leader primarily aims to optimize an organization or group in-line with the existing norms, whereas a thought leader is leading the way by introducing a new way of approaching a problem or an industry.

Jake Dunlap, CEO, and founder of Skaled said it well, ”thought leaders possess an innate ability to contribute to the conversations happening today, while also being able to speculate on what is going to happen tomorrow. Rather than chime in on every topic, they set the pace for the industry and offer intelligent insights and informed opinions.”

This brings me back to my previous comment that having an opinion, clear vision and believing in something, to then implement any changes sets thought leaders apart from an influencer.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

Every company needs to invest in having a clearly defined vision, brand conviction, and position. Often this is done to be able to tick a corporate box instead of really investigating what cultural, category, user, and brand truths define your direction. If your direction is generic, eventually your product or service will become generic as well. The idea of ”disrupt yourself before someone else does it for you” is perhaps taking this to the extreme, but I believe having a clear direction is a prerequisite for growth. Both form an organizational collective perspective, but also from an individual employee perspective.

As a leader in an organization, you become an extension of the thought you want to be leader of. To make that true, and not just words, it is essential to go from thought to action.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Target audience relevance:

Let me take our own product as an example. We are a horizontal product with target audiences that have very different needs — compare for example a school teacher with a management consultant. For us to grow as a business, it is very important to find an idea that is relevant to both of these groups, but also understands how it needs to be adapted to be relevant to them.

Opening up for collaborations:

From a single original idea, we can find ourselves linking up and being connected with other individuals and organizations in other industries that are striving for the same outcome. These people can later become the partners and organizations necessary for yours and their success.

Employer branding and retention:

A business won’t grow without a highly motivated team and being passionate about creating a thriving workplace culture is key. Thought leaders need to be good listeners and communicators in order to inspire and influence their team as well as know-how to acknowledge others’ ideas and needs, but also be transparent and share the company’s vision and long-term goal. Research by Deloitte shows that 76% of these employees believed that a “clearly defined business strategy” helped create a positive workplace culture.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

I’m gonna give you three, coined by one of the greatest thought leaders of modern history, Mahatma Gandhi:

  • Be truthful — Do real research. Don’t make stuff up. You need to have a solid foundation to stand on. But also be true to yourself and your organization. Again thought leadership is highly dependent on authenticity. Mentimeter was founded out of the frustration that I and my partners were feeling about going to yet another boring and unproductive meeting. Rather than just accepting the corporate truth, we were true to ourselves and decided to do something about it.
  • Be gentle — Have an opinion but also respect that of others. At Mentimeter we make sure every decision process is made as transparent as possible and that all employees get the opportunity to give their opinion Being humble is one of our core values, something I think is essential if you are a fast-growing organization.
  • Be fearless — At Mentimeter we are offering an alternative to the standard PowerPoint, Keynote and Google Slide default of presentations being a one-way communication. Going up against these big dragons it is easy to be scared and doubt yourself. But, to challenge the status quo and change people’s behavior, you cannot be apologetic about something you like to change.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

One of my big idols is the late Swedish physician and academic, Hans Rosling. His way of putting the spotlight on our prejudice by finding a way to visualize facts has had a great impact on me. One of the reasons why he was successful and loved, I believe, is because he did not change who he was. The authenticity in his message stems from not being an “academic machine” but being human. This is a key learning and inspires me to lead by thought. When we and potentially our beliefs are challenged, we feel stress, and this stress can easily lead to a ‘lockdown’ mode where no arguments can change our perception. To prevent that to happen I believe it is essential that the message communicated feels authentic.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

As with all corporate jargon, there is a tendency to hold onto a statement and overuse it, but the ubiquity of a statement soon wears thin. I would never refer to myself or someone else as a thought leader, nor do the people who might think that what I have to say is interesting. But having the ambition to lead with the power and complexity of thought is still true.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Put work-life balance as a core value of your company. Realize that leadership is not about the individual (you) but about the collective. Share responsibility, listen and trust in people. If you have clearly defined what you as an organization want to achieve, this becomes much easier and clearer.

Leaders should value quality over quantity, encouraging employees to leave on time to enjoy their life outside the office. I’ve found that keeping work-life balance on the agenda for the entire company works the best, at Mentimeter we have it as part of one of our core values called “work smart” that we incorporate in everything from interviews to career development. We want to empower employees to make healthy and honest choices about how they fulfill their responsibilities at work and I feel that creating an environment that people enjoy and want to work in, is where the focus should be placed.

Being a Swedish-based company has, of course, had a huge impact on the type of work culture we have created. Though Mentimeter is a global company with customers in over 160 countries, we have adopted a Scandinavian model that emphasizes on an inclusive environment and an ethos that encouraging a work-life balance. Swedish companies often practice a horizontal company culture, encouraging workers to become their own leader by taking initiatives, which in turn creates a more collaborative environment. That’s why there is also often an emphasis on the importance of teamwork and collaborative work across teams.

You are a person of enormous 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 would love to inspire the new age of listening.

The second decade of the new millennium might go down as the loudest in history. In politics, loud populists have spurred the polarization of opinion and divided nations. In business the louder the untouchable entrepreneur the higher the value of the company, even though it does not necessarily add value. In media, a new landscape has emerged where shouting the news has become the only means by which to survive. And in everyday life, social media has us asking if something is not shouted out to our following did it actually happen?

When there’s all this noise, and we are all shouting — no one is listening. And when no one is listening, the best ideas are drowned out, we start to lose the opportunity to build great things that encompass the complexity of human thought. Instead, things become flat and one-dimensional. Society for the few, not the many.

As we now move into the third decade it is time to stop talking. To silence the loudest voice.

Stephen R Covey put it well, ”Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. Listening is not easy. Especially in a society where talking is status. But when we listen to understand each other, great things can happen. You start deciding, learning, exploring, having fun, and growing together. You release the power of together.

I think we are already seeing this happening. For example, look at Greta Thunberg. She started a quiet revolution in Sweden that went from a one-person strike to a global movement. Interestingly, her core message is that we need to listen to science.

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

A quote that I very much relate to is “the best of times are now”. It’s a quote I like to think of and look back to whenever I feel I have made a mistake. For me, this quote reflects the idea that it is pointless to romanticize over your past, especially as a business leader. Being too preoccupied by the past will hinder your attempts to foster a goal-driven and forward-thinking workplace, and prevent you from engaging and motivating your team. Instead, focus your attention on what lies ahead, and you will be able to inspire through your ambition and thirst for success.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have a karaoke lunch with Lady Gaga. Performing a duet is the obvious reason, but talking about how she created a movement by listening to her fans would also be really interesting to hear more about.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter — @Mentimeter —

YouTube —

Instagram — Mentimeter —

Facebook — Mentimeter —

LinkedIn —

LinkedIn — Johnny Warström —

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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