Stella Bida, in conversation with Aslak de Silva, CEO at Nordic Business Forum, International Keynote Speaker, Board Member
Summarised conversation transcript
This is a summary version of the conversation. More details, stories, and amazing insights are mentioned in the video!
STELLA BIDA: Hi everyone and welcome to this new edition of the Conversations of Excellence. I am very excited today to be welcoming a leader of exception. Aslak de Silva is the CEO of the Nordic Business Forum, but he is much more than that. I remember meeting him a couple of years ago, and I saw in him someone who embodies the type of leadership which is meant to change the world. Aslak, welcome to the Conversations of Excellence!
ASLAK DE SILVA DE SILVA: Thank you, Stella. Happy to be here, thanks for the nice comments.
STELLA BIDA: Before we actually start the conversation, is there anything that you want us to know about you?
ASLAK DE SILVA: I am half-Sri Lanka, half-Finnish. I'm living in Finland, I was born here. I lived in five different countries, worked with different companies, and used to be a former martial artist. But after several injuries, I started working for the professional and business side. I’m married, with two kids, two daughters. I'm living a happy life in Finland, happiest country in the world - I think for the last three or four years in a row now!
STELLA BIDA: I'm quite actually curious to ask the first question around martial arts. What has that part of your life actually taught you about leadership, that you think you would have not known had you not done that?
ASLAK DE SILVA: Many people tend to be surprised when I share about it. Of course, there’s self-discipline, you learn how to control yourself, your emotions and the ones of others. But I'd say that, if you look from a leadership perspective, seldom people see that actually receiving feedback and guidance is the most precious thing. Even though I had a Black Belt, that I was teaching, knowing that anybody can comment something that's valuable for me was precious.
Let me elaborate on that. If you go on a fight and that somebody is punching you in the head, and you tend to have your hands down, anybody can actually comment and let you know that your hands are down, that you're in a danger of being knocked out. It doesn't matter if it's your master, your coach, or anybody in the audience. If you lift your hands up, you are more likely to protect yourself from the next punch that's coming.
Anybody can give you guidance, and help you to become better, to see things that you don't see. It’s necessary for you, in order to take better actions or decisions.
STELLA BIDA: That's very interesting and I'm actually wondering why you picked that skill among all of the other ones you've learned from martial arts?
ASLAK DE SILVA: I think that when somebody comments that we're not doing something well, or that we're doing something wrong, we don't always feel good about it. We want to do everything perfectly, especially when leading a team.
When we learn how to receive feedback, we can understand that there's nothing personal. As a leader, if you are able to revisit your thoughts, feedback helps you in becoming a better person.
Of course, coming back to martial arts, you can learn from being punched in the face many times. But I think that it’s better to take feedback before something bad happens. Then, you don't need to endure the pain of doing a mistake.
STELLA BIDA: Change was already a challenge before covid. According to you, what are the skills that leaders need to pay attention to more now more than ever?
ASLAK DE SILVA: What I feel is that first of all, we are Human Beings, and it starts with that. You can't lead or help people unless you understand the emotions at play, where your team is at. I think that's the most challenging part for me.
I'm interested in the team, and the success comes from the team. I think that now, especially in this moment of change we are all going through, things have been polarised. There are new parameters to take into account for people. Those who said before that they can handle stress at work might not feel the same anymore. They might discover that there are other dangers and insecurities, and now be worried about their safety and their jobs.
Another change people might be dealing with is in discovering how they perceive themselves, their strengths, their weaknesses. These might have changed, their emotions and feelings might have changed, and leaders need to be conscious of about that. We all have good and bad days, but now, we also have special days, different days and changing days.
My role as a leader is to make my team feel good, and make the conscious decisions so that together as a team, we know that we can make it, and feel good about the calls that we make, regardless of the end outcome.
STELLA BIDA: Do you think that sharing our insecurities as leaders allows us to keep the trust and emotional bonding within our teams?
ASLAK DE SILVA: I do agree with that, but still need to comment that there might not be insecurities with every leader. But I'd say that open and honest communications on a situation, and sharing things that might not normally be shared, is important.
I also love the insights of Jim Collins, when he talks about the ‘Stockdale Paradox’, by saying: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be”.
What has changed with us now for example, is that previously we were very cautious about making mistakes. But now, we are pushing ourselves to learn how to fail occasionally, because if we don't fail in a place where it doesn't matter, we will think that we will fail when it actually matters.
Coming back to martial arts, why would you go to a fight that you know that you're going to lose? It's going to hurt, but you know that you can learn now when it actually does not matter as much to win, as during a world championship, or something more important.
There is a change in mindset which needs to occur. It has been a challenge with the team to accept that, but now we are confronting it together, and that has helped us a lot. We are much more able to deal with ambiguity. We are learning that we will not be successful every day, and sharing that with the team, with one another, is very important.
STELLA BIDA: How do you build a mindset which allows people to truly share themselves in times of change, without the fear of destroying things on their way? How do you create that safe space, for people to share? I have the feeling that sometimes, it can be a challenge for some team members who may not be fully expressing themselves, to allow that deeper transformation or change?
ASLAK DE SILVA: I think it comes down to understanding passion and purpose. When both are aligned, and that everyone shares it within the team, we are all in a feeling of trust that we're going to make it. Building that comes down to taking into account the human factors, we need to face each other as humans, and the remote setting we are in today does not make things easier.
I think it’s the leader’s job to make the best out of everybody and the best out of the team. The leader has to get people together and share. I've said to my team and I say it to myself too daily - that if I don't believe that I want to be part of this journey, I need to stop being part of the team. So there needs to be a level of honesty as a leader too. The team will be successful, if the leader really wants to be the part of the team.
Sitting together in a virtual circle, sharing our thoughts, allows the team to bond. When we bond, we start making a difference, we start changing.
STELLA BIDA: My next question is a special one. Aslak I must admit that I was very moved by the opening of your daughter at the Nordic Business Forum of 2019. I saw her and thought that she's going to change the world. It was beautiful, powerful. What have you learned about leadership or about yourself during that experience with your daughter?
ASLAK DE SILVA: That is probably the proudest moment of my life! To see that happening, especially when the audience starts clapping, seeing everybody being quiet when she starts to speak and says: “I'm eight years old. I'm your future”. Seeing how that sinks into the audience, that was very emotional.
This experience actually taught me a lot, and in angles that I didn't realise before. We knew of course that she had never spoken in front of people before, and that she was going for a tough crowd, with a stadium-sized audience as a first gig.
She wasn't worried about stage fright as we adults would normally be. She was more worried on whether or not people would be happy and accepting. She was more worried about the outcome in the end. That was a surprise. Referring to martial arts, it’s about how we prepare for a fight, so it's actually the same. We dealt with any self-doubt before the opening day. As with martial arts, the day of the fight, we are more worried about whether we will win or not, rather than how we look. That’s what I’ve realised during that experience. We adults are often afraid about the moment and stage frights, but she was not.
During this experience, as she was practicing her speech, it wasn't about correcting the mistakes. It was more about balancing out, and then receiving help from professionals, training on the little nuances to take into account for her speech.
It was also about letting my daughter know that she is the star, that she is the one performing, she is the one getting the applauses in the end. I did everything so that she could feel good about herself.
Looking at the big picture and as a father, it could have been easy to tell her not to do it, she does not need to do that. But we were there helping her to overcome her doubts, building her confidence, being there when there were moments of giving up. Of course, it was hard to see her during the difficult moments, but we were allowing her to grow to the position, supporting her until she was ready.
Now, she still remembers the experience, and asks when she can do it again. We managed to do that and she nailed it!
STELLA BIDA: Aslak, if you could have a conversation with your little self of 10 years old now, what would you tell him?
ASLAK DE SILVA: I would probably smile and just be there for him, observing what he is doing, and ask him if he would like me to answer any question he might have.
I'm not sure that telling him to be brave, and not worry about his decisions would have changed much for him in the long term.
By being just present for him, I think that this would have had more impact. He would be moved by the person attentive to him, and interested in him, letting him ask questions and answering to them, just enjoying the moment. I think that would have had a bigger impact, and that I would have remembered that moment. I think this would have had been more valuable for the 10 y.o. than just meeting a wise person.
STELLA BIDA: Wow, it's interesting! It seems that that the 10 y.o. Aslak would value your presence more than anything else?
ASLAK DE SILVA: I believe that in my role as a CEO, I need to run the company - but that's from the owners' and boards' perspective. They've hired me for that. But the team hasn't hired me for that. The team has hired me to be there for them, and to support them to succeed.
It is through my presence that I can best support my team.
It is the same for my 10 y.o. self. He feels that there is somebody who really cares, and is there to help him, support him, and values the moment they are having together, now.
I think that presence has bigger impact than anything. Impact starts with presence.
STELLA BIDA: Before we end our conversation, is there anything you feel is important to bring forward that we've not talked about, in order to build the leaders who are going to change the world?
ASLAK DE SILVA: Well, I'd say that anybody can be that person who makes somebody feel special. So if we all start with that, I think that we are all going to be in a better place. We can all take one person, show presence to that person today, even if we are in a remote setting. When you start enjoying when others are happy, you become happier yourself. Sharing positive feelings together, and emotions, makes you smile. I smile more now than I would have smiled being working here alone!
STELLA BIDA: Thank you Aslak for this conversation.
ASLAK DE SILVA: Thank you appreciate it.