The Road to Norway

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Saying a final farewell to my Grandmother this week was also a final closing of a chapter. And it was a journey of mourning to a destination that used to be filled with joy.

There are many ways you can travel from Denmark to Norway. And being half Norwegian, I have tried most of them growing up, as we would visit my maternal grandparents for summer and Christmas holidays, and more.

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I have flown to Fornebu, and later Gardermoen Airport. I have twice taken the train from Copenhagen. I have travelled by ferry, Copenhagen-Oslo, Frederikshavn-Oslo, or even Hundested-Sandefjord, where an infamous trip on a ship named Gelting Nord had many of us seasick. On that trip, I would have been younger than my oldest daughter is now. What are the memories that will shape her life?

For me the memory, despite the alternative routes, will primarily be driving on E6, the main road through Sweden from Copenhagen to Oslo. This is our family storytelling, and we have travelled the route often enough to recognize and appreciate the waypoints and notice the changes.

The first section in Sweden would resemble Denmark: flat and uneventful. But before long we would scale the massive Hallandsås, bigger than any hill in Denmark, and with long queues of trucks in the old days before freeway standards.

North of Varberg we would reach the first tunnel: an early harbinger of the mountainous land which was our destination. The number and length of tunnels would intensify as we proceeded north, and has also increased over time. As kids the sport was to hold our breath for the duration of the tunnel.

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There was Gothenburg, the big city we only knew from the freeway: heavy traffic, a tunnel under the river, a high bridge across it, and potentially a pit stop at Burger King.

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There was “the siren in the tree”: a resting area somewhere in Sweden where we once stopped to sleep in the car. During the night there was a break-in at the shop next-door, with police sirens waking us up. We were untouched by the event, but the location became a family landmark.

To pass time, my brother and I would have fun with the place names on the way, such as Mastemyr, Dingle (a giant lived here), Sarpsborg (with an obscure animal called a Sarp featured in its coat of arms), and later the signpost to Åmål (made famous by the Swedish film Fucking Åmål).

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Later, on the very day I obtained my driver’s license, we were on the road again, and my first experience driving without an instructor was somewhere on the E6. Hills were something I had not been trained for.

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As we came closer to our destination, the anticipation would grow: crossing the stunning Svinesund to enter Norway, passing through Oslo, seeing signposts to Drammen, exiting the tunnel near Lier with a view of the city, passing over Drammen, catching the first glimpse through the trees of the house, and driving up the last stretch of gravel to the end of the road and my grandparents’ house.

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It was a wonderful place, with ample opportunities to play inside and outside. But more importantly, it was a place filled with love, warmth, hospitality, generosity, and fun, which my grandparents created for us and for many others.

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The house was sold long ago, a few years after my Grandpa died in 2012. And the final years of my Grandma’s life were such that death came as a blessing. At 97, she had had a long and good life, and will now rest until the grand reunion at the end of time.

The E6 is mostly freeway these days, and while the journey may have lost some of its allure and now its previous primary endpoint, the memory will remain forever in our hearts.

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A land of your own?

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As Kurds in Iraq voted on independence last week, and Catalans in northern Spain attempted to do so this Sunday, it seems like a new wave of independence movements is underway. They are not alone: Scotland comes to mind, as does Greenland (at times), and of course Tibet, South Sudan, Kosovo, and others.

These situations can easily escalate into violence. Ironically, more violence has been reported from Spain than from Iraq.

Reactions from around the world follow the traditional lines: those with nothing at stake support the movements or stay silent. Those who condemn are typically countries who fear similar movements within their own territories.

For the supporters, the right of people to choose their own government weighs heavily.

The US Declaration of Independence states that “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish [a destructive government], and to institute new Government”. And for most free countries, this rings true as the decent thing to do.

But it’s not that simple. The American Civil War was fought because the Confederates were not allowed to secede from the Union. Yes, slavery was the issue of moral high ground, but also at stake was the integrity of the nation. A United States of America would be a strong world power – two Americas would not.

Even for democratic states, it’s about money and power.

Catalonia is one of the richest regions of Spain. It would add even further strain on its struggling economy were the powerhouse of Barcelona to leave.

Similarly, independence for Padania (Northern Italy) would be fatal to the Italian economy.

China needs Tibet, not for economic reasons, but as a territorial buffer to India.

Turkey fears having to give up large parts of its territory to a united Kurdistan, and thus opposes the movement among Iraqi Kurds.

On the other hand, Greenland for instance survives on large subsidies from Denmark, which they would lose with independence. Consequently, any thought of them becoming independent is no real cause for worry in Denmark (even with potential mineral riches).

Scotland is somewhere in between. They have oil, but London remains the economic centre. And yes, dissolving the union would be a blow to any Imperial memories the English might have. But with Brexit, they have chosen their own path of solitude, so they are (self-)occupied for the time being.

So where does that leave Catalonia and Kurdistan? The people in power need to balance morality with prosperity. People’s rights and all that is fine if you have nothing to lose. Will they accept a poorer Madrid and a less powerful nation, or keep on fighting against the will of the people? Only time will tell.

Classical singing: This is what work should be like

How singing in a classical choir presents a compelling analogy for a good corporate culture.

I was in London earlier this summer, as the Copenhagen Chamber Choir Camerata won the prestigious London International A Capella Choir Competition. It was an amazing experience, and once again I am amazed by what can be achieved with this group.


The victory has also led me to reflect on how you can achieve something truly remarkable with a group of very different people. I believe much of the same could apply to a working environment. Sadly, that’s not always the case.

But if the recipe for our success could somehow be copied into a corporate culture, this is the place I’d like to work. So how did we do it?

  1. Know your material

An essential and obvious starting point: we all need to be able and willing to learn, acknowledge the need for practice, and correct ourselves when needed.

If you want to be a professional, you need to be extremely well-prepared, but also humble enough to admit it when you’re not.

  1. Listen to each other

A choir is like a living organism where you need to be completely in sync, even to the point of breathing together. Unless called for explicitly, you should not be able to hear any individual singer. Which is why you need to constantly tune in to your teammates in terms of volume, pitch, and sound. Fail to do this, and the result will be cacophony, not harmony.

The same should apply at work: even if you’re technically right, you need to walk in the same direction as your  team, not just run off on your own.

  1. Follow the leader

A well-performing choir should be an instrument on which the conductor can play and express his/her art. When we all know our material and listen to each other as one, we have the energy and ability to follow the direction. And we need direction. Sure, we may challenge the details, and we often arrive there together, but in the end it is the conductor’s call: there is just one performance, not 25.

At work, we all have contributions as well as opinions. These are welcome, and most decisions should be robust enough to stand a challenge. We also need to respect our differences; individual personalities should not be left at home. But once the shit hits the fan, you get in line and perform at your best.

  1. Connect with your audience

Rehearsal is one thing; but at a performance your utmost objective is to create a space in which the audience may connect with the sublime. Acknowledging the people of your audience, as well as the surroundings and acoustics, is essential. The conductor plays an important part in gauging the mood of your audience, but everyone has a responsibility for making the music come alive and move beyond the edge of the stage.

Likewise, in order to deliver outstanding business results, I believe it is essential not only to have a sound strategy and skilled and aligned employees; you also need people motivated around a shared objective. You could call this a winning culture – but winning not over staid KPIs, but by giving your customers/users/etc. a truly memorable experience.

Can it happen?

In Camerata, most of us are amateurs, and the con amore effect should not be underrated. Still, I believe most people, like me, actually want to make a difference, also in their professional lives. It shouldn’t be that difficult then, should it?

Facebook has grown (up)

Ten years ago today I joined Facebook. Then what happened? Quite a lot, it seems. As with any new, successful technology, Facebook has grown from something everybody talks about to something almost as natural to our lives as electricity.

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In the beginning

To begin with, Facebook membership was for students at select colleges only, but it quickly expanded. I joined soon after Facebook opened up to overseas members. I obviously had to try out this new thing, as I was studying for my MA in Information Science at the time. I was even taking a course on “Web 2.0”, as social media/big data phenomena were dubbed at the time.

Facebook was thought of as a competitor to MySpace, but would quickly surpass it. As early as December 2007, I would reflect publicly [sic]:

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History has obviously proved me wrong. Back then, we were all poking each other, even though nobody quite knew what it meant. We were playing games, were restricted to the “is” keyword in our status updates, and there was no Like button.

Who has the most friends?

One of the main attractions at first was amassing friends. Suddenly we had a way of staying connected to old schoolmates we hadn’t seen in years, or stalking the lives of people who were really just acquaintances whom we didn’t bother talking to for real. Adding friends became an obsession for many, myself included.

After three years, I could proudly announce:

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Then it stagnated. Somewhat pessimistically, I would reflect one year later:

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Today I have 828 friends. I still add new people when I meet them; meanwhile, others leave Facebook (some die), or they delete me as a friend. These days I also delete friends, and have done so with a total of 76 people whom I didn’t actually know very well.

You can learn all this by downloading your complete Facebook history, which is fun in a geeky, narcissist kind of way. Just my thing. This data also let me compile a chart of when I have added friends, which clearly shows an initial burst followed by a long, steady decline.

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Facebook is everywhere

Meanwhile, Facebook itself has grown. In numbers: expected to reach a staggering 2 billion users this year. In revenue: to almost $18 billion in 2015. But even more importantly: in how deeply it penetrates our lives.

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The smartphone revolution has happened within the past ten years, and there was a time where Facebook worried about ad revenue as users shifted from desktop to mobile. Not a worry anymore. We all check Facebook on our mobile devices, wherever we are. And Facebook are making a ton of money.

In my experience, the news feed itself has become less and less interesting. Honestly, it’s full of clickbait (or fake) news, angry people, and ridiculous videos. Maybe this was always the case, but the volume has multiplied.

On the other hand, it is difficult to avoid the big blue world. Already in 2010, I mused in this blog post about what would happen if we were suddenly without Facebook.

I could check for updates less frequently, but by bailing out completely I would worry about missing important news about friends (in my phase of life, that means especially newborns and weddings), event invitations, and life in general. Not really an option.

And despite some privacy concerns and sub-par user experience, Messenger has become a de facto standard for communication.

Not just fun and games

Amid all the fun, Facebook has also lost its innocence. Any respectable business is present there, presumably interacting with customers and making money. It is also the medium of choice for many politicians, including in my home country of Denmark, but also in less democratic regions, used by jihadists, revolutionaries, and others.

32183194-b955-4167-98b9-a598c510e45eFacebook has an immense power in how it handles content, and how it doesn’t. This became apparent last year when they censored the Norwegian PM posting a historic photo from the Vietnam war.

Especially in Europe, Facebook has come under fire for allowing bullying, hate speech, and other malicious posts. So far, Germany has gone the farthest in trying to rein in the giant, but others are following suit. In an effort to win the hearts and minds of policymakers, Facebook is starting to take the battle against fake news (somewhat) seriously. In times where elections may be decided by hackers and fake news, this is serious business.

This is all a far cry from the fun and games which started it all ten years ago. I will remain a user, not because I love Facebook, but because it does offer networking opportunities to which there is no real alternative.

I might have made a good gay

What does it mean to be a man? With rising equality and changing gender roles, this is an increasingly difficult question to answer.

I was never the stereotypical male. I’ve never cherished the macho role for myself, and I’ve usually found any attempts at all-male bonding activities boring, at best. I enjoy music, cooking, and gardening. And I’ve often preferred female company, being the ‘listener’ and forming deep friendships with girls, not boys. I even attended the bachelorette party of a close friend (and no, not as a ‘hired help’).

Some would say that ‘girly’ attributes like these are kind of gay. Hence the question, would I have made a good gay?

I’m not, as you might have guessed. It’s as simple as determining that any physical attraction on my part is directed towards women. End of story. Other attributes also count in disfavour; I’m not particularly ‘metrosexual’, nor am I an avid carnival fan of any kind.

The bigger point I’m trying to make here is that the stereotypes don’t work. They don’t work for straight men, and I don’t believe they work particularly well for gay men either. I suspect that if you were not the Mardi Gras type, but more of a shy, introvert gay, these events and their role in the public imagination would have made coming out even more difficult than it was already.

During my lifetime, homosexuality has entered a new era of normalcy. One part of this is the important question of legality: a journey from being outlawed, punishable by death; to branded as disease; to grudgingly accepted; to legally recognized marriage and adoption.

Another issue is how queers are portrayed by the public. When I was growing up, making fun of gays was still OK, and while vulgar at times the jokes were essentially not yet politically incorrect. Homosexuals were the butt of many a joke (pun intended), and for sure nobody wanted to be gay (sometimes including, sadly, even those who were).

Things were slowly changing in the 90’s and 00’s, though. A classic Seinfeld episode from 1992 repeated the memorable quite “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”, illustrating how people wanted to accept, but couldn’t, yet.

Soon we would see movies with gay lead characters, but they were still defined by their sexuality, centred around being gay, instead of having an unrelated plot where some people happen to be gay, just as others happen to have red hair.

Imagine asking a redhead, “So you have red hair – what’s that like? Has it been difficult for you?” The ultimate test of normalcy is when something is no longer worth discussing. And we’re slowly getting there, at least in Denmark.

It’s not quite the same in the rest of the world, unfortunately. The second UN Human Rights Council report, released in 2015, lists a number of discriminatory practices and concludes: “the overall picture remains one of continuing, pervasive, violent abuse, harassment and discrimination affecting LGBT and intersex persons in all regions.”

For this reason, sadly, I am happy to be heterosexual. And I could add that I am also lucky to be a white male living in one of the world’s richest countries. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. Let’s call an end to stereotyping and judging, shall we?

Wars of Misinformation

The presidents of Turkey and America are using the oldest trick in the book to offset their personal insecurity. And it is probably working.

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“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” Sun Tzu

We all recall the infamous Irqai information minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who blatantly and hilariously continued to deny that Saddam Hussein’s regime was coming to an end.

“There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!” he said. And on another occasion: “The American press is all about lies! All they tell is lies, lies and more lies!”

Fake news

Something you would expect from an enemy – but what about the sitting president in a democratic country?

Donald Trump’s attacks on the press are more than just shouting. They are a very effective example of deflating your opponents’ arguments. Fake news is a real problem, and the phenomenon might have been a contributing factor to his election. But by labelling real news as fake news, the incentive to attack fake news is diminished, because he is muddling the picture.

Who’s the terrorist now?

In Turkey, President Erdogan has just won a huge victory in securing power to himself, and limiting democratic restraints. But this has only increased his tendency to rebuke any criticism. His Nazi comparisons and name-callings have not ended. Rather he stooped as low as branding Nikolaj Villumsen, a Danish MP monitoring the election, a ‘terrorist’.

Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen was quick to call out the accusation, adding to the international pressure rightfully placed on Turkey these days.

This is not child’s play

Name-calling your enemies is a classic strategy, and something informed and well-educated citizens ought to see through. Heck, it even features in children’s literature. I’ll give you two examples:

In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the final instalment in the Chronicles of Narnia, a monkey conspires to present a fake Aslan (the creator-Deity lion) who issues orders that destroy the nation. Our heroes discover that the fake Aslan is in fact a donkey in disguise, but before they have the chance to call the bluff, the monkey himself announces that an impostor has been found, and the real Aslan will show himself no more. Thus they have nothing to gain by showing the impostor. “She understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.”

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge is faced with the news that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has returned. In denial and/or out of fear, however, he instead launches a smear campaign against the sources, Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore, branding them as nutters and liars.

We should not fall for this. More importantly, leaders in free societies should not stoop to this level. It is a sign of weakness and fear not worthy of a leaders.

One might add: “If you want to know what a terrorist looks like, Mr. Erdogan, you should look in a mirror.”

How to build a global network of sources for internal communication

The story of how a voluntary ‘Write Club’ improved news coverage in Maersk Line.

In the beginning of 2013, I took over the role of internal news editor in Maersk Line, a global company of some 20,000 people. A very fun and interesting job which I held for three years, finding many good stories and meeting  a lot of talented people.

With the job I also inherited certain challenges: readers had told us that content was too HQ-heavy; not surprising, since less than 10% of the workforce were based in Copenhagen with me.

Of course there were some who preferred the ‘corporate’ voice with only official, sanctioned content. I, however, sided with the majority who enjoyed a more ‘grass-roots’ feel, while of course staying true to corporate strategy and values. It was my job to balance the two.

What I needed was people from around the world who wanted to write, and preferably had some potential in the area. I had some connections, but not enough, and not always the right people. Furthermore, I had no formal mandate, so participation would have to be voluntary, which in itself can be a challenge in KPI-driven culture.

Do not talk about Write Club

The idea came from my predecessor, as did the name. Not everyone got the pun, but that’s ok.

We launched Write Club by advertising to an existing communication network and by word of mouth. Per design it was not clear exactly how it would evolve, since I wanted to gauge the mood and interests of the people who joined.

The general idea was this: bring people together who want to improve their writing skills, give them special attention and coaching, and hopefully they will deliver content along the way. I had typically between 10 and 20 people on the roster, with varying commitment  and skill levels.

What did we do?

A few main features kept the network alive. Roughly once a month, I hosted a webinar with an agenda typically like this:

  1. Editorial update from HQ: What’s going on in terms of strategy, what types of stories am I specifically looking for.
  2. Assignments: Especially in the beginning I would give the members short assignments, both for me to gauge their skill levels, and for them to improve. In the next call, we would then review their homework and have a general discussion.
  3. Theme of the day: Presented either by myself or a guest speaker, this would take them through topics such as interview technique, building a storyline, or where to look for stories. Always encouraging participation and discussion.

In addition to the webinars, I would do my best to hand-hold the members and give special attention to their assignments and eventually their story projects. I would encourage everyone to look for stories, and actively follow up on their commitments. No raised fingers, however, since this was all voluntary, so it was up to the members to decide if they wanted to write ten stories per year, or just two.

On a few occasions my travels made it possible to meet one or more Write Clubbers in person, but for the most part our interaction was purely digital.

We did get to know each other quite well, however, and an extra benefit was when two or more members would collaborate on a story. It typically started when I heard their pitches, and if two stories were similar, I would encourage them to join forces. So instead of publishing one story about sales training in Korea and one about the same Poland, we would have a wider feature story about sales training with sources from Korea, Poland, and perhaps a third country.

Whenever a story from a Write Clubber was published, we would put a discreet Write Club logo in the corner of the story, which eventually led to people asking about the club and how to join.

What were the results?

I don’t have access to the data any longer, but we did put out a lot of stories from corners of the world which had not previously been covered. Most of these stories performed above average in terms of readership and interaction. And when we surveyed the readers a year later, many people commented that they appreciated the increased variety in voices and geography.

For the people who joined, it is my opinion that they improved their skills, some of them considerably, and I believe they were grateful to be part of the project.

Eventually, Write Club outlived itself. Organisational changes meant that I would increasingly rely on dedicated communication professionals in global regions as sources and writers. But building on the success of Write Club, I made sure to schedule regular calls with these people to ask them what was going on in their region, discuss potential stories, and continue the dedicated coaching on writing.

What did I learn?

People are happy to join. My biggest worry at first was whether anybody would actually take the time to participate, and if my coaching was enough to make their efforts worthwhile. This worry was quickly put to rest, however. Since the Write Clubbers had joined out of interest, they were quite keen on the project, and the opportunity to improve their skills, and see their work and their location featured in global news, was enough for most.

You only get what you put into it. I was kept busy by many other tasks, and Write Club was not always my first priority. So while the members were engaged, the network needed my constant initiative and nurturing to thrive.

What might seem like extra work pays off in the end. Dealing with volunteers requires extra attention and patience. Some writers were nearly prolific, but others needed a lot of work in terms of editing. For these individual stories, it might have been faster to write them myself. But I wanted the variety in voices, and I wanted people to learn. Fortunately they did improve, and when Write Club was at its best, it was delivering quality content which I could definitely not have done all by myself.

Want to know more?

Feel free to drop me an email.