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Katrin Berntsen: “People want to be seen”

Laughter. Raise your hand if you think having fun and laughing with your colleagues is a great way to spend your workday. We take ourselves a little too seriously sometimes. It’s important to continually explore how we can be creative, think outside the box, and have fun with our work. Coming together to brainstorm creative […]

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Laughter. Raise your hand if you think having fun and laughing with your colleagues is a great way to spend your workday. We take ourselves a little too seriously sometimes. It’s important to continually explore how we can be creative, think outside the box, and have fun with our work. Coming together to brainstorm creative campaigns, fun ideas and other crazy initiatives is something I believe sparks new, cool ideas that will lead to awesome outcomes.


As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katrin Berntsen.

Katrin Berntsen is the Communications Director for Aker BioMarine, the Norwegian biotech innovator. The company is known for its sustainable krill harvesting operations in Antarctica, producing omega-3 rich krill oil products for human consumption, as well as animal and aquaculture feeds. They were named Europe’s most innovative company in 2018, and Norway`s most innovative in 2017. Berntsen is responsible for developing the global communications strategy and ensuring that Aker BioMarine’s narrative is known around the world.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I was born in Estonia at the end of the 1970s, a time when we were part of the Soviet Union and communism still flourished.

I would say that scarcity is a key theme throughout my childhood in the Soviet Union. The shops were empty and access to simple things such as bread, soap or milk was difficult. Clothes were almost always second-hand. I was 16 years old the first time I traveled beyond the Estonian border. And as a teenager, I spent a few hours every day standing in the what felt like a kilometer-long line to buy food. And just when you think things couldn’t sound any gloomier…my first celebrity crush was Lenin!

But, growing up in that environment instilled in many of us the ability to find opportunities where others saw none, to invent and create from scarce resources, and to be thankful for what we had. In my professional life, this has translated into the skills needed to produce results with minimal budget and resources.

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

Early in my career, I had an opportunity to be part of a small team who led a nationwide campaign to convince the Estonian people to vote ‘yes’ to European Union membership. We acted as advisors to the President and the Prime Minister, and we were responsible for the communications to explain (and persuade) about the benefits the EU would bring. I spent a month on the road traveling from city to city, holding presentations and face-to-face meetings with different interest groups, as well as media interviews. The results of the Estonian European Union accession referendum, in 2003, were more positive than predicted. The turnout (64 per cent) was higher than the participation rate in the most recent parliamentary elections, and 67 percent of those who came to the polls voted in favor of membership. This was my first lesson in the persuasive power of purpose-driven communications.

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

When we go to job interviews, we spend most of the time selling ourselves. At the end of the interview, we get at best five minutes to ask questions about the company. These scarce five minutes are often filled with polite, harmless questions that do not really reveal much about the company, the culture, or the possible conflicts that you have been hired to solve. Many years ago, I joined a company that I thought I knew well based on their public image, just to discover that the internal culture did not align with my own views. During the job interview, I was too focused on selling myself and too little focused on getting to know the company. I have now learned that a job interview goes two-ways: I too am interviewing the company to see if it’s a match. Is the company mission aligned with my values? Is communications a strategically important function for the management team? Do I have good chemistry with the rest of the team and the leader? These are all really important questions to answer before you accept a new job. Just to illustrate, before I joined Aker BioMarine, I spent two weeks with the team, met my manager for lunch several times, and got insight into the company strategy and mission. Five years later, I can say that it was a good investment and still a good match.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to retain great talent today?

People want to experience continuous growth in their roles. Very few of us are in the same job for 20 years. One of the biggest challenges I have is to keep things exciting enough for the millennials, who now comprise almost half of the working population. If you manage to retain millennials for more than two years, that is a great achievement. To do this, they need to see that they are growing. They have ambitions to fill the big shoes, and they want to be recognized for their contributions. It’s equally important that the company they work for has a clearly defined purpose. Why are we coming to work every day and how can we use our time to do good for the planet and people? If your people are challenged enough, and they understand the mission, you have a good chance at keeping the best ones.

With 20 years of experience, I have made it a point to hire interns nearly every year. Communication, and especially digital communication, is changing so rapidly that I need to see the world through younger and tech-savvier eyes. This helps us to understand the channel landscape, new software and the latest trends. These digital-native interns are my secret advisors when it comes to keeping the communication fresh and relevant, and they definitely influence our priorities when it comes to digital communication. A 20-year old intern once referred to me as “you old person”. It’s important to not take (too much) offense, but rather to listen, learn and bundle my experience with new and more agile thinking — and to try to see the world through their younger eyes.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

In my team, we work across many time zones. That means that we need to be flexible, respectful and understanding, taking into account meeting times that suit everyone. And that naturally leads to being comfortable with putting in a few extra hours sometimes to make it fit.

I’m a strong believer in trust-based leadership. It’s important that all team members understand the expectations and rationale behind their deliveries, but I also want them to feel empowered and take responsibility for their tasks. As a dispersed and global team, it’s essential to use effective collaboration tools, to ensure that we are aligned and in sync, and more importantly to stay in touch and understand what’s going on in each other’s lives. I strive to maintain an open dialogue with the team, so that they know they can always approach me with any challenges or opportunities they encounter.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

People want to be seen. When I first started my career at the Estonian Ministry of Finance at the age of 22, I took the elevator with the then-Minister of Finance, Siim Kallas. He was immediately personable, asking who I was and what job I held. What could have been an awkward elevator ride turned out to be a warm and welcoming conversation with the boss. To be fair, the year was 2001, and we did not have smartphones to bury our heads into, so elevator conversations were a bit more commonplace. A few weeks later, I noticed the minister having a conversation with the cleaning lady, asking about her son’s exams and university plans. Showing that level of interest and engagement in people at all levels is something that has always stuck with me. As you can imagine, his team always went above and beyond to deliver good results. They had his back at all times. And I believe that’s because he truly saw each and every one of us.

Empathy. We are not robots. We are people who at any point in time can have health issues, relationship problems, high stress levels, etc. I try as much as I can to see people in my team for who they are, not just at work, but also beyond. If they have a special situation at home that requires a little extra understanding or flexibility for a given period, then we need to be there for them and do what we can to support them. One of the people in my team recently shared the exciting news that she was expecting a baby. When I asked her how her husband reacted, she told me that she had not told him yet. I was the first person she told. Overall, the early message helped us to make a good plan for combining work with her pregnancy, so that she could have flexibility needed to stay healthy while still working full-time.

Positivity. The Aker BioMarine CEO, Matts Johansen, is always positive and sees the light at the end of the tunnel. He doesn’t spend time on blame-games, but rather all of his energy is directed towards finding solutions. He looks beyond the negative aspects and puts every brain cell to work to engage, find solutions, innovate, and spread his “you can do it” attitude.

Team spirit and having each other’s back. Some companies promote competition among coworkers, such as the employee of the month, best co-worker, highest seller, and so on. In my view this it is detrimental to team work, as people are encouraged to win or outshine each other at any cost. I believe in making sure the team works well together, that we help one another and celebrate when others do well. It’s equally important to take action when you see that your team is struggling to work together due to personal conflicts or unclear work tasks. This can be like having a square tire under the car, creating a lot of noise and disruption. We as team leaders cannot bury our heads in the sand when this happens. It is our responsibility to find out the root cause and solve it. This is one of the most difficult tasks we have as leaders, but it’s also one of the most necessary to tackle in order to ensure that the team reaches its full potential.

Laughter. Raise your hand if you think having fun and laughing with your colleagues is a great way to spend your workday. We take ourselves a little too seriously sometimes. It’s important to continually explore how we can be creative, think outside the box, and have fun with our work. Coming together to brainstorm creative campaigns, fun ideas and other crazy initiatives is something I believe sparks new, cool ideas that will lead to awesome outcomes. In one of my previous jobs, a small team came up with a fun idea that earned us 10,000 articles in the media, got us trending on Twitter, and secured us the European Excellent Awards and Sabre Awards globally, with 0 dollars in budget. Almost ten years later, I still meet up with that team for a beer to remember how much fun we had doing it, and the great effect it had on the company’s reputation externally and our spirit internally.

What advice would you give to others to help their employees to thrive?

Get a work spouse. There is a lot of science that shows that having a good friend at the office increases motivation and overall happiness at work. Having a good friend to talk to, eat lunch with and to turn to when in need is worth so much. Throughout my career, I have always had a work spouse (almost always female for me, so it does not have to be opposite gender), and I still meet up regularly with all my previous work spouses. They are my friends for life. Now that I am a little older and more experienced, I am so lucky as to have two work spouses, just to make sure I am covered.

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. 🙂

When growing up in an environment where everything was scarce, you learned to be self-sufficient. Every summer, we spent a lot of time picking berries to make jam, picking apples to make juice, harvesting vegetables and so on, just to make sure we had enough home-made food stacked up for the coming winter. As part of that, since I was a child, my grandmother taught me to pick all sorts of leaves and flowers for tea. To this day, I pick, dry and ferment different flowers and plants that I drink throughout the winter for tea. Each cup of my tea comes with a specific memory of a place where I picked the leaves, as well as the health benefits that they provide. They are all local plants from my garden or forest, and they are 100% sustainable. If we all picked more from the nature, we could substantially reduce packaging and plastic waste, and reduce the CO2 that is spent on shipping each coffee cup. This could make a big difference.

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

For building the best teams, I love the quote by David Ogilvy, the “Father of Advertising”: If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

I, too, want to grow, learn and take myself to new places in my career. This is only possible by hiring outstanding people who push you upwards rather than down, and who will blossom along with you.

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