Tips From The Top: One On One With Holger Seim

I spoke to Holger Seim, co-founder and CEO of Blinkist, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Holger: I grew up in a small village with 750 inhabitants. There were actually more cows than people!

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Holger: I started Blinkist with three other co-founders and we all have a strong opinion and very different perspectives. From there, we quickly grew the team, hiring a diverse group of people, which now tallies 150 employees from more than four nationalities. Working with people who see the world so differently has definitely been challenging, and has sometimes set us back because we needed to overcome our personal differences to reach a shared conclusion – but, ultimately it is the thing that has most helped me to grow and learn something new every day.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Holger: Vulnerability: I think it’s very important for leaders not to be afraid of letting their guard down. Sharing their feelings and admitting that they don’t have all the answers creates a safe space for others to do the same. It also fosters better teamwork, cooperation, problem-solving, an increased flow of ideas and higher trust as well as emotional connection. 

Communication Skills: It’s vital to communicate clearly and candidly, as well as to listen actively.

Flexibility: Flexibility is paramount to leading. Different people have different needs in any given situation. Sometimes employees need their leader to delegate and get out of their way, but sometimes they need someone to support and help guide them. In order to be able to play those different roles, you need to be flexible and adapt your style according to the situation.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Holger: 1. Focus on culture and organizational health: I strongly believe in Peter Drucker’s quote that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It couldn’t be more true. I’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs (including the younger me) that are obsessed about the “hard” aspects of business, like marketing and product strategy, but neglect the “softer” aspects of business, like culture and consciously creating an environment that brings the best out of people. While culture may feel “soft” or intangible for some, I believe it’s the strongest competitive advantage you can build as a leader.

2. Prioritize clarity over certainty: As a leader you often face difficult decisions – and it’s sometimes very hard to choose a path because you’re simply not certain which will be right in the long run. At the same time, the organization is looking to you for guidance and clarity. I’ve learned time and again that postponing decision-making in the hopes of finding certainty rarely ever brings that certainty – instead, the lack of guidance and clarity to the team during that time can have high (and often hidden) opportunity costs.

3. Be vulnerable: It really doesn’t hurt and can do magic. No one is expecting you to know it all or have all the answers. 

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams?

Holger: My best advice would be to not take good teamwork for granted. I think it’s all about focusing on managing and leading a team just as you focus on leading individuals. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Holger: One of my early bosses used to say “Wer vorschlägt, entscheidet,” which translates to something like “If you want to drive a certain decision, make a proposal.” This sounds pretty trivial or obvious, but it isn’t. I see a lot of people who are unhappy with a certain situation, but they fail to drive change or influence decisions because they don’t offer proactive solutions. A specific, well-constructed proposal is sometimes all it takes to drive a decision your way. Make it as easy as possible for people to say “YES, let’s do it” to your ideas.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Holger: I think it’s so important to carve out time to meet with young entrepreneurs to give advice and mentorship. We have all benefited from it at some point! And, importantly, I believe that in helping people start their journey and learn faster, you’re doing more than just helping one entrepreneur: your advice and support can benefit a whole organization with lots of employees, and ultimately help build a whole ecosystem.  

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Holger: I love to read and it has shaped me in many ways. My love for reading led me to start Blinkist – an experience which has had and continues to have such a big impact on my life because it gives me incredible purpose, tremendous opportunities to grow constantly, and freedom and autonomy, which I value a lot. On top of that, books have helped me to grow personally and professionally – and have helped me find a good balance between work and life by letting me escape the day to day by diving into a great story.

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