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.

Everyone is staring at their phone, on the Seoul Metro, Seoul, Korea November 2010

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.

How Swede it is…

In a little while, I will compare the King of Sweden to Donald Trump. And not in a flattering way.

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Hang on, wasn’t there a line in a song about him?

She had a dream about the King of Sweden // He gave her things that she was needin’

Who would have thought that Cab Calloway was being prophetic when he wrote Minnie the Moocher back in 1931?

Scandinavian socialism

Scandinavia has attracted the attention of left-leaning politicians in the U.S. for a while. The ‘social democratic’ generous welfare states inspired both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and some of their supporters.

While the attention is flattering, it is also not entirely true. In the book Debunking Utopia, Nima Sanandaji – who migrated from Iran to Sweden as a child – argues successfully that the success of Scandinavia is due more to culture and homogeneity than to generous welfare; in fact, the success of these countries was in place before the mushrooming of welfare, and was severely hampered when public spending was at its highest, in the 70s and 80s.

The threat of immigration

Furthermore, he argues that the welfare system, especially in Sweden, is under threat by heavy immigration. It is no wonder that large swaths of refugees (like Minnie the Moocher) would flock to the place where the King gives you the things you need. But immigrants actually fare and integrate better in America, where the incentive to work is higher.

In Denmark, immigration and integration of foreigners has been on the political agenda for decades. But in neighboring Sweden, the discussion was ignored, explains Sanandaji: “Being against open borders became synonymous with being a racist. […] favoring open borders was the only legitimate political view in the country.”

The only political party who attempted to raise the issue, was ignored by the political elite. As were the issues, such as crime and financial strains. Gang violence and shootouts have been significantly higher in Swedish cities than in Denmark and Norway, for instance. And more and more people have become wary of the situation.

Of course there is a case to be made for the humanitarian cause of helping people in need. But ignoring the costs – monetary, and societal – in the name of political correctness is ridiculous.

Trump and the King

So when Donald Trump mentioned problems in Sweden last week, some were quick to dismiss him as making up things again. It also didn’t help that Fox News featured as expert a ‘Swedish defence and national security advisor’ that nobody in Sweden had heard of.

But Trump-bashing aside, international media did start looking into Sweden and found that their rosy image did not hold true any longer.

And that’s when King Carl XVI Gustaf entered the debate. “Without media that works seriously and carries out good criticism of its sources, that doesn’t work,” he said. Fair enough.

But he went further than that: “It is important to present the good examples. There are so many positive developments.”

With all due respect, Your Highness, that is not within your mandate. Dictating what the media should and should not report on is exactly what Trump has been doing the last month. And while his attacks are more brash, the danger is the same. People in power should never interfere with the press, no matter their agenda.

William McRaven, a retired Navy SEAL, recently called out Trump’s attacks on the press, calling them “the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime”.

I agree. More than ever before we need a free press, with investigative reporting that highlights real issues and challenges prevailing sentiments and political correctness. In Sweden, as well as in America.

Flying to Chicago

Tomorrow night I will celebrate a silver anniversary: crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the 25th time. And no route has more significance than Chicago-Copenhagen (ORD-CPH), a journey that has impacted my life. This is a story with several chapters.

1986 (CPH-AMS-ORD-SBN)
I am six years old and have never before set foot in an airplane. The world as I know it is changing: we are moving to America. I will have to learn a new language and am somewhat worried of the great unknown, but flying is certainly an experience.

We are in KLM business class, sitting on the upper deck of a 747. My brother and I each have a window seat, and are treated to a visit to the cockpit. Security worries were fewer back then.

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Our final destination is not Chicago, but Berrien Springs, Michigan, which will be our home for four years. We are there temporarily, living in a basement apartment for much of the time, but as a child temporary means less. This is our home, and this is in no small measure where I grew up. The city of Chicago is huge, with as many people as our home country, but several hours away – the place we go for school field trips, occasional Christmas shopping, and most importantly the airport, our connection with the old world.

1990 (ORD-AMS-FBU)
I am ten years old. No business class this time, and the flight itself is less memorable. But after four years in Michigan we have been looking forward to returning to our native Denmark, bringing back a larger world-view and amazing memories. My connection to America remains, but the memories begin to fade as I grow older.

1997 (BLL-FRA-ORD)
I am sixteen years and in high school. My parents have gone back to Michigan for a nine-month period, while I remain in Denmark in boarding school.
This trip brings up many feelings, missing my parents an important one of them. Once again there is a fear of the unknown, since I have not travelled alone before. “Landing card – what is that?”

But more than anything else this is a trip of nostalgia. As a teenager, seven years seems a lifetime, and coming back to America also means coming back to a lost childhood. Seeing the Chicago skyline from the airplane (“skyscrapers!”) is something I will never forget. (For some reason, I listened to Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto for the first time during that flight and will forever link this heart-breaking music to that memory.)

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This trip and a consecutive one a few months later rekindle my connection with America, make me feel somehow different from my Danish peers, and also teaches me the pain of distance. A few years later, my parents will move to Australia, settling the fact that long-distance is here to stay.

2010 (CPH-ORD)
Many years have passed, and the third chapter of this story has my parents once again living in Berrien Springs, Michigan. But this time with more permanence, here to work, not study, and with a house of their own. Not very far from where we lived in the 80’s, and with a basement which resembles the apartment which was our home.

Winter 10-68

Since then flying has become mainstream and cheaper, and with a direct Copenhagen flight visiting for just a week at a time makes sense. I have also married, and my wife joins me on her first trip to America, enjoying the sights and attractions of rural Michigan in winter (you don’t need more than a week for that).

2014 (CPH-ORD)
Several trips later, this one is different yet again. My first-born daughter is with us on this her first flight, for an extended Christmas vacation. Flying long-haul with a baby is indeed possible, and we manage fairly well, but it’s not quite as relaxing as going by yourself.

Christmas 14-05

The trip once again brings back memories, and singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in my childhood church my daughter on my arm is probably for me the most sentimental one.

2017 (CPH-ORD)
We have come full circle. Now I have two daughters. Flying to Chicago in February means not a lot of other passengers, so the trip itself is easy.

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But this trip is also the definitive end of a chapter. My parents will finally move back to Denmark later this year, which means that I will have no reason to visit Michigan again in the foreseeable future. This prospect by far outweighs any sentiment I may have had to this place. And with the current political climate in the U.S., it is with some relief that I sever the connection for the time being. America has shaped me, and will continue to be a part of my story, but closing the door as others open up is not a bad thing.