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7 Questions with Kaj Pedersen
7 Questions with Kaj Pedersen
Name: Kaj Pedersen
Current title: Chief Technology Officer
Current organisation: AstrumU
A senior entrepreneurial technology and business executive recognized for strategic leadership, tapped to develop and execute plans to launch start-ups, realign businesses around corporate goals, and integrate business after acquisitions. Recently led global operations for Xinova with offices spanning Asia, Europe and the US, after it acquired Atlas Informatics in a deal driven by Kaj. Prior experiences include leading technology functions as CTO of Pharmacy OneSource (acquired by Wolters Kluwer), Kaj built cloud-based software to alert clinicians of adverse drug reactions in over 30% of all US hospitals in less than three seconds. Previously Kaj was CTO for Bill Gates Investments where he rebuilt the investment management systems and technology organization. Earlier, Kaj was VP Engineering at Quote.com, overseeing the 75-person team that grew the business 20X in 3 years before being acquired by Lycos, where Kaj became GM of Finance. As GM, Kaj led the Finance unit to become the second most profitable vertical in Lycos after search.
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader of a small or medium enterprise?
In the hustle and bustle of a startup, there are a lot of distractions. You need to be able to focus on the things that matter and ignore the noise. Admittedly, everything in a startup is important, especially where there are many tasks that need to be accomplished, and too few hands to accomplish them. It is being able to look at your priorities and ruthlessly support those that allow you to accomplish the objectives that generate the most value in terms of your ultimate vision for the company. It requires an ability to say no to things that do not matter, and rolling up your sleeves on the things that do.
2. How did you become a leader of an SME? Can you please briefly tell the story?
Leadership in a startup comes down to being able to challenge the status quo. I have worked in large companies, but always found the experience less than satisfying primarily because their focus is on securing the top line. This often results in the work becoming less interesting as the focus turns to extracting value from the product line in incremental and risk-averse steps. In the end, the opportunity to innovate is constrained by the short-term focus on quarterly results and protecting the top and bottom lines to meet market expectations.
I distinctly remember the day I felt challenged to become something more than an individual contributor. I was just raising my head from a deep coding task – the source was checked in, and I was finally done. I should have felt accomplishment at the completion, but instead I felt frustrated at the mundanity of the work and the absence of a real impact. After reflection, I came to realize I was being treated as a faceless resource, caught in the middle of an all too common political game between the corporate head office and the branches.
We should have been celebrating, but instead our small team had become a victim of its own success. Our small systems team was providing the branches with cheaper and rapidly deployable PC-based applications, while the head office was betting big on a £60M mainframe project. This quickly led the branches to question the value of the larger, more expensive project. Corporate leadership’s immediate response was to de-prioritize the branches’ projects – my team fell quickly into the doldrums, and my own level of engagement with the firm plummeted to an all-time low.
I could not understand why our corporate leadership was missing the bigger opportunity represented by client-server applications (bear in mind this was the early nineties). I even raised the issue with my direct team lead and his supervisor. Their response was to tell me to stop being so strong-willed, and to get back in line. I resigned from the firm a few weeks later because it was clear the leadership didn’t value innovation, and was never going to adapt to the opportunity appearing on the horizon. A few short years later, the firm was acquired and is now an anecdote in the history of the insurance world.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I try to find a balance that supports my ability to learn, remain healthy and ship software. This means I start my day early to hit the gym, where I can focus on the activities and tasks for my day. After breakfast, I will kick off the morning with email and initial calls to members of the team, before we hit our sprint standups. The rest of the day will be focused on activities related to developing our product and shipping software.
We have a lot of discipline in place to support much of these activities, but there are always opportunities to work with the team across data science, DevSecOps, Engineering and product to ensure we are shipping software in support of our customers and top-line. Other activities will involve working with sales, supporting customer follow ups and ensuring that we keep the lights on with operational activities to support the team and its capabilities.
By the end of the day, I will wrap up by making sure my inbox is addressed on those items that need to be closed out. Using the time to prepare for the following day, before signing off to tune out for the remainder of the day. I enjoy doing something different in the evenings from reading to getting out to engage with others. This switch allows me to sub-consciously absorb the lessons from the day and connect with the world outside of the startup crucible to help center my thoughts and emotions. I always work to get at least 7 hours sleep a night during the week, which means I regularly light out between 10:30p and 11:00p.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
The thrill of seeing people come together around a common goal is hard to beat. This thrill challenges you to the core as you deal with the needs of the individual, while driving the team on a path of successful execution. Let’s be honest – people are messy and frustrating sometimes. When working with knowledge workers, the effort to get them aligned around a common goal is significantly harder, because you’re dealing with people’s intellect and, (un)fortunately, we all think differently.
This means you have to communicate at much higher levels than is usual, as you strive to find common ground upon which you can bring a team together to deliver. You need to be comfortable with seeing others’ ideas and approaches being presented to solve the problem, often in lieu of your own. Many managers make this mistake, often early on in their careers, to own all aspects of the decision making process. Quite simply, this is wasted effort that usually results in execution failure.
Instead, I embrace the diversity of the team and leverage its capability to solve a well-defined problem. In return, I have found that these teammates will become engaged in our environment, where they will feel cherished, nurtured and challenged. The lesson learned from this is that you are required to demonstrate trust, integrity and personal consideration towards everyone on your team. Getting this right will result in both delight and positive surprise at the results from your team.
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?
The book that left an impression on me was Michael Wolff's Burn Rate. At the time, it was a microscope on the early days of the internet, where there was a gold rush around the development of the internet. The entrepreneurs, the investors, the players and other cast of characters that all came together in pursuit of wealth and fame. It demonstrated the positive and negative aspects of pursuing risky ventures and how those who succeeded (and there were not that many in the grand scheme of things) helped to shape the internet by the early noughts.
It was a period of significant ambition, learning and skullduggery in the pursuit of massive gains. However, despite this it helped me understand how one should engage in a startup venture, particularly when it came to leadership based on the premise of an idea yet to be proven. It requires an understanding of how to build trust around values and applying this to everyone you engage with from the investors down to the people you hire to help bring the idea to life.
Burn Rate also allowed me to understand that even with a failed venture there are valuable gifts that come from the experiences. The lessons you learn in making things happen, the relationships you develop along the way and the thrill of the roller-coaster experiences that you lived with during the startup's journey.
This helped me to understand that leadership is about building something out of those around you. In the end, if you have done it right, you will be tinged with pride (and smiling) when you see these individuals outgrow you to take on new challenges and opportunities. There is simply no better reward than that as a leader.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in an SME?
At AstrumU, we look to our values as the benchmark for developing our leadership in the company. However, it starts with the hiring, where we focus on the three Cs (Culture-fit, Capacity to Master and Capabilities). We have to build our company values from the ground up, which is why we focus on hiring from the get go.
By focusing on a person's alignment to our culture as a priority, we know that we will be bringing on someone who is prepared for the topsy-turvy journey of startup existence. The next focus is on their capacity to master, especially in an environment where adapting is critical to our ability to secure success. The last area is their capabilities for the current opening we are looking to hire against. Capabilities are the least important in terms of the other two Cs because we recognize that our environment is going to change...constantly, so their skills will change as well.
In hiring the right talent, we then look to see how they take ownership and looking to make an impact in the company. We also look to see how they collaborate with others and can they bring people along with them in the pursuit of the deliverable. We will compare them against our capability matrix to see how they compare against our expectations for the role. We will want to see if they have humility to know themselves.
Assuming we see all these things, then we have a unique program (unusual for a startup) where we will provide them with coaching in combination to our overall development of the team capabilities. Our goal is to have a succession plan to support the company's growth, while remaining true to our values.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader of an SME so far?
Leaders build trust through transparency, and accountability through action. When you do what you say you are going to do, and stand by your commitments, those around you will feel safe to do the same, modeling the behavior and standing by theirs. When you expose those around you to your process, they will expose you to theirs. Both of these actions work in conjunction to rapidly develop a team’s productivity.
I recall my first day at Quote.com, when two members of my team asked to meet with me. It was my first interaction with both individuals, and their first act was to tell me that they were resigning! They were spent, frustrated at the lack of leadership and wanted nothing more to do with the company. Wow! How do you stop two talented individuals walking out the door, before you have even warmed up the seat?
I looked at them both and calmly asked them to hold off on their decision for one month. My commitment to them was that if they did not see any improvement, then they were free to go and they could count on a good reference from me. It was then up to me to repay that trust – which I did. They both ended up staying with the company for several years afterwards, and we are still connected even to this today. The simple fact is that I kept my word and these two amazing individuals rewarded me with commitment to the mission.