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Thank you to the 1,400 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 questions!
I hope reading

7 Questions with Steen Isdahl

helps you in your leadership.



Jonno White

7 Questions with Steen Isdahl

Name: Steen Isdahl

Current title: COO (IT)

Current organisation: Salling Group

COO at Salling Group - largest retailer in the Nordics.
Responsible for IT operation covering 52.000 employees, 11 warehouses, 1650 stores and 4 HQ's.

Changes organisation from being operational reactive to becoming operational relevant and transforming operation to become a competitive differentiator.

Been a C-level member in IT for 15+ years. Covering job roles in companies like IBM, Carlsberg, Ericsson, TDC, Vodafone and Salling Group.

A father of 3, married to Lene for 30 years and has a bucket list to see all major football finals at least once for each tournament.

7 Questions with Steen Isdahl


1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?

To align the agenda of having a progressive ambition of bringing all platforms up to date in version and functionality and removal of ALL legacy, and at the same time develop and support new business areas to support, with the pressure of agility and scale of roll out.

To navigate in the landscape of large vendors like SAP and IBM products and cloud software, where to balance and expect the future of compute and service in respect to cost and availability.

2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?

Determination is the key, and being determined in every day action, then opportunities comes, and it all started in the United Nation at the international Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia in Den Haag, where I as a IT product manager participated, and we worked hard every day to build and deliver solution to convict war criminals. This passion of creating a focus of passion, and the background as semi pro footballer and football coach for 10 years, is the foundation for the ambition to lead and create results.

Ending up as IT professional for large installation in IBM as Deputive delivery Executive for customers like Arla, Carlsberg, Dansk Supermarked, was through the best education you can get, the foundation of enterprise processes of IBM and the work with top execs in the companies that we served and delivered to.

From IBM to Ericsson, the opportunity to be exposed to top execs like Carsten Dilling (CEO TDC), Hans Vestberg (CEO Ericsson) and Lars Toft (CEO Ericsson Denmark) was a stepping stone for understanding, developing and executing on strategies. This lead to the COO role towards Vodafone and working with one of the most ambitious teams in tele industry, and delivering a result to become #1 in the UK and the highest margin growth in the decade, shows how strategy, execution and celebrating with pride for each succeed.

This work in Ericsson and Vodafone formed me in the end to join Salling Group as COO, but the decision to leave the role was based on the need to return to home to support my kid, who had a hard time in school and life, as he was diagnosed with ADHD. With tremendous support from Vodafone, I was released, and was embraced by the opportunity at Salling Group. And as time has passed, my boy has successfully completed school and has joined a prestigious school in Belgium, and Salling Group has consolidated and improved int operation significantly, and has moved from being #2 in the Nordics to become #1.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

Structure is king, and as everyday starts at 07.00, with the update operational report from yesterday, and the latest changes of the schedule of the day.
The need for juggling many different areas and levels, the structures and meet prep reporting a day in advance, is the key to be efficient, and starting all meetings with an expectational setting.

We organize after a calendar must be 25 % free in regard to the following week, as the guiding principle.

08.05 – the major challenges last 24 hours. on an all meeting call

Meeting as planned, but the guideline is:
1/3 projects,
1/3 operation,
1/3 people and strategy.
12.45: employee conversation of the day, a chat/talk with an employee, about being, becoming and developing the area of interest (talent growing)
13.00: Ad Hoc
16.30 Management team coordination – 2 days a week
17.00: Finance and approvals
Approvals and report sign off.
18.00: wrap up and closure of the days todo’s
18.15: Gym/bike or walk
20.00: Family time
22.00: News or a good book or a football match

As everyday life is very structure, time out for reflection with management and visiting the business areas of
Salling Group is some very important placeholder, as dedicated days for roadmaps and innovation and talent growth are must do’s in the calendar.

4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

You need to build a vision with an end goal, that is relevant for all, and then drive the weeks as single weeks, and continuously discuss improving and share how we are moving progressively towards the goals.
When vision and goals are shared, then a vital learning is the effort of securing and imposing accountability, and next is to recognize accountability taken and promote based on accountability, passion, integrity and GRIT.

These are the keys to change/improve the DNA of the company (IT deps) and the days to day focus. In this, we can’t forget diversity, as uniformed group makes uninformed decisions, then we make too few wrong/good decision, and it’s from the quality of decisions, we learn the most, and decisions based on diversity in the teams, decision are broader, wider and more exiting with a higher risk profile. Diversity across cultures, sex and background is the only way to fight blind spots and make evolutionary jumps.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

I decided to become a leader, after reading the book; “Softwar: An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle” – and the energy, the tenacity on building a vision, the luck of creation and frankness of a clever man, subdued by success, inspired me to go all in.

As Larry was more Larry than a leader, then the leadership guideline comes from two important books. The first one from Marcus Buckingham called “first, break all the rules” and secondly the book called Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner.

They are mutually supporting each other, as “first, break all rules” is a book believing in challenging the present and introducing broad banded pay as company culture, so everyone in the company gets behind the vision and all is included.

Brilliant Orange is insightfulness into, how the Dutch made “total football” becoming the most dominant and winning formula in the world, and what makes this book greater than others is, that its sells the corporation of all working at the same time, and you as the reader, embraces these changes with eagerness and as you read on, it feels like looking into a mirror.

These are absolutes for my managers, and latest a Danish book called “ubehag” – feeling uncomfortable, as being an elite programmer, Enterprise architect or athlete, you need step up to the plate of a challenge with win/lose chance, where you feel the discomfort and embraces it, and this is an important subject, with the new generation coming in, as they have grown their skills in peacetime and economical growth period, never seen before.

6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?

I have had the luck to be in companies with some of the greatest leadership programs, and as I have enjoyed and been supported by these programs, I’m also utterly aware that entrepreneurship and risk mitigated contra risk taking, is in the shadow of these programs. These programs have been very successful.
And the latest program called Graduate program, where Salling Group offers a selected group of young professionals to rotate and be challenged by several leaders and gain business insight, has really impressed me.

Growing – I do recommend all 45+ to join a program at Stanford or similar, just to get back amongst books and new thought, and these learnings institutes are at the center of the universe of new ideas, and build the creative confident, that we all are looking after, when we promote people. I despise when a leader shares, “this knows the new generation more about!”, that is an expression of laziness and lack of will to revitalize your knowledge base.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?

During my time at Vodafone, we had an unfortunate incident, when a father of 3 girls and a single supporter of the household, lost his life, during work on a high mast, where he and his team was building. As I prepare to be at the funeral in a rural area of Wales, it became clear, that we would have a difficult time with the insurance, as there was a need to deliver evidence in regard to several safety precautions, that needed to have been followed.

As I stood there at the church yard, with the wife, with 1 girl in each hand, and the eldest one right behind her, the resolution was no way close to being solved. A single call to head of HR and a reassurance, that full pay will be covered until resolution of insurance case was agreed. The devastating loss now had time to recover financially, and being able to share this, and stand by the family, didn’t just make a difference for the family, for 800 builders in and around Vodafone.

The meaningful message is, that all members of a company has the right and delegation to take the right decision, and that is the strength of the company and that delegation, and building a company with layers upon layers of approvals, is removing the company’s ability to be human and rightful in a timely manner, and time is of essence.

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