Saturday, June 19, 2010

Loyalties revealed at the top table

Switching channels today between the World Cup and the ceaseless TV coverage of the Swedish royal wedding between Crown Princess Victoria and Daniel Westling, I was intrigued by the seating plan for dinner.

Despite a host of royals from all over the world it was still the locals who nabbed all the places at the top table for dinner: Sitting to the flanks of the happy couple and their proud parents were none other than Queen Margrethe of Denmark and King Harald of Norway. Of particular interest was how they also managed to find Finnish President Tarja Halonen a space with the privileged few.

Really not unlike weddings the world over - where the 2 kid siblings are reserved the prime seats and the slightly odd cousin is squeezed onto the end. And further evidence, if any more was needed, that the bonds within the Nordic region remain deep and strong.

(I suspect Crown Prince Frederik has been surreptitiously following the Danish game throughout and is probably now knocking back a big one after an outstanding win against Cameroon.)

The capitals are the key

For yet another year the capitals of Denmark, Finland and Sweden share top honours in the annual Monocle Quality of Life Survey as Copenhagen, Helsinki and Stockholm retain their positions of 2nd, 5th and 6th respectively.

Each summer Monocle ranks the world's most liveable cities - "urban settlements where human life can thrive because they are easy to navigate, diverse, pulsing, and full of opportunities" - and with only Munich in front of CPH, and Zurich and Tokyo ahead of its Nordic rivals (even Oslo breaks into the top 20 at 18), it makes a convincing case for a twenty-first century Nordic model.

In the global battle for inward investment, talent attraction, a solid export base and tourism potential, one could also argue that the pulling power of the Nordic capitals more often than not outperforms that of their host countries, and that these 'city states' hold the key to the ambitions of the countries in the region.

After all, these cities are their countries' flagship brands. And when it comes to branding one of the first rules is to promote your best assets in order to get people to buy your wider portfolio (take BMW with its 7 Series helping sell millions of 3 Series models worldwide).

Raises the question whether the political leadership in the region shouldn't consider promoting their own capitals harder at the initial expense, but ultimate benefit, of the rest. My suspicion however is that budgets and decision-making in each country will be decentralised and that a 'Copenhagen brand of Denmark' - no matter how attractive internationally - would be too controversial at home to consider.

Pity if so. I think they could all learn something from BMW.

Svanberg and the small people

The oil spill in the Mexican Gulf is a man-made disaster of epic proportions for which BP must pay a heavy price.

Following this week's Congressional hearings and meeting with Barack Obama recently-installed BP Chairman, the Swede Carl-Henric Svanberg, finally broke cover and offered this apology on the steps of the White House:

His repeated gaffe that BP "cares about the small people" only served to reinforce the isolated position of the company's leadership and Svanberg has been slammed in both the Swedish and international press. He has since responded by apologising for his apology.

Svanberg is already a polarising figure in Swedish society. Former CEO of 2 of Sweden's biggest companies (Assa Abloy and Ericsson), controversy has always surrounded him and though he is respected he is not generally liked.

But there is also a certain unspoken pride in Sweden that 'one of us' has done rather well out in the big world - a similar pride to that of the Finns for Jorma Ollila, ex-Nokia CEO and now Chairman of Royal Dutch Shell (though it is fair to say Ollila is much more loved at home as well as wise in his words abroad).

What is also interesting is that småfolk (small people) is a respectable term in Swedish. It is certainly not derogatory but rather reflective of the basic tenets of social democracy, the psychology of Jante and the Swedish aspiration to be considered lagom.

Problem is, in English it is patronising, offensive and absolutely taboo. And this is where Svanberg has incurred the added wrath of his compatriots: for falling short at the global moment of truth and for embarrassing Sweden in the process.

Whether Svanberg was stupid enough to have spontaneously improvised in front of the world's press to send a message of calm with his halting English or whether he just spectacularly blew a carefully-rehearsed PR moment we will never know. Either way, he won't be forgiven any time soon back home.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The myth of Norwegian isolationism

Determinedly outside the EU, still whaling, oil producing, buying foreign companies, and richer than the rest of the world. Put together.

Much of what defines the Norwegian national character is based on how they isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Purposefully independent and proudly so. They don't really need the rest of us, but will occasionally venture beyond their own hallowed borders to humour us - and make some more money for Norway in the process.

Yet this little factoid from Mary Hilson's book caught my eye: Norway has followed more EU directives than (EU member) Sweden.

Just don't let the Norwegians know you know.

Fatherhood and divorce - the missing link

Interesting article in The New York Times last week detailing the eye-opening, eyebrow-raising (for Americans at least) Swedish policy when it comes to paternity leave - 390 paid days in total for both parents, but 2 months exclusively for fathers.

The Times explains that although women apparently still take 80% of the time off, the gap closes every year and today 85% of Swedish dads are taking parental leave - all the way until the little nipper is 8 years old.

There are other benefits as well - not least in terms of being among the few countries enjoying increasing birth rates in Europe and highest female employment levels in the world.

What it is also apparently doing is redefining the role of the male and perceptions of masculinity. "Its a new kind of manly. Its more wholesome." explains Birgitta Ohlsson, European Affairs Minister.

But what I found most interesting was how divorce and separation rates had fallen in Sweden since 1995 (the year the first legislation in favour of paternity leave was passed). This is the exact reverse of what is happening in almost every other European country.

Put the guy at home more often and happier families emerge? Anathema to the more stone-age traditions I was brought up with, but certainly worth a try.

Hands up, wait your turn

In the dog-eat-dog world of Anglo-Saxon business it is those with the loudest voice and the least social manners that generally get heard in the boardroom. In stark contrast the Nordic countries have a very different protocol for approaching business meetings:

Meetings are formally initiated and allocated a timekeeper/moderator based on democratic agreement. The speaker is then afforded the luxury of an uninterrupted presentation.

Reminiscent of being back at school, all comments from the floor must be preceded by the raising of one’s hand. The moderator will note the name in their little book and allow the speaker to continue. Further hands may be raised and more notes scribbled. Only when the speaker is finished can the others make their point. All in correct order.

The problem here is that by the time everyone with their hand up has had their turn, the discussion has gone off on all sorts of tangents and no one can quite remember what the original point was. Still, no one seems to be that concerned and the meeting progresses neatly and ambiguously onwards.

What's the insight? For a successful meeting its not necessarily what is decided that is most important, it is more that everyone needs to have been able to contribute with their point of view in an orderly fashion.

It used to drive me mad, but now reminds me of a cute quote from a Swedish colleague “You have 2 ears and only 1 mouth. Use them proportionally”. If only every visiting foreigner understood the same. Audience silence does not equate to agreement, it just means they had no one to put their hand up to.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hej Hej Sommartider!

As summer erupts in a riot of botanic colour and energy across the Swedish countryside, the Swedes transform as quickly as the pulsing ground beneath their feet.

Summertime is sacred and cherished in Sweden, an almost magical gift where every last drop must be embraced joyfully. A time where the Swedish people's deep historic connection to the countryside is restored and the Volvos and Saabs stream out of the cities to pitch camp in the countless summer cottages in forests, by crystal lakes, empty beaches or the endless archipelagos of the West and East coasts.

You can really fall in love with Sweden at this time of year. And Swedes do so without fail every single year. Hopelessly, unapologetically.

Summer is written into their stories and myths from the Vikings to Emil and Pippi, into their traditions from Valborgsafton to Midsommar, and into their songs and music. Indeed there is one song that perfectly captures that buoyant optimism of those long summer days. An anthem to the joys of the season. A song that softens even the coldest Swedish hearts and turns them all into one, big teary-eyed family. Sommartider (Summertime):

Sommartider is written by Per Gessle (one half of 90's pop Roxette) and played with his Swedish band Gyllene Tider. Whatever you may think about Roxette, you can't deny this guy can write a popular melody. Sommartider is so popular it has been rereleased twice since its debut in June 1982 and this version was recorded in front of a sold out Ullevi stadium in Gothenburg - Sweden's largest outdoor venue.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Is 'Going Nordic' back in fashion?

Talking to one of Denmark's more connected business leaders this week he explained how the recession has convinced many local organisations to take a much more regional approach in order to keep their ships sailing forward. And in some cases, just floating. I have noticed the same: Whether it be structural, organisational or otherwise, the strategy of "going Nordic" is less option and more obligation in the new economic environment.

The same can also be said for their governments. Last month's paper from the Nordic Council of Ministers "Global Pressure - Nordic Solutions?" details how the Nordic countries need to react to the impact of the financial crisis and the long, slow road out of the darkness by working closer than ever together.

Of particular interest is the insight into how exposed the Nordic countries are to events outside their control:

"In the long-term, the Nordic countries are facing the tensions of how to manage the structural policy imbalance between high exposure to global shocks but low influence on the decisions about the policy and regulatory context in which these shocks emerge. Co-ordination is crucial for a group of relatively small economies to gain or retain appropriate influence."

The paper goes on to explain the risks of losing the region's unique competitive advantages in R&D, innovation and a highly skilled workforce if efforts post-recession are not fully co-ordinated and integrated.

But it concludes with the very real concern that the "consensus-oriented nature of Nordic decision making (might be) good for action once agreement is reached, but bad for timely decisions to get there."

Hold on, did I read this right? Are the Nordics thinking of importing faster, less consensual, decision-making processes in order to restrict the importation of other, less appealing foreign vices?

I think we need to discuss this first...

The allure of Nordic women

Walking on Gamla Stan the other day, my Danish wife and I dropped into a lovely gallery and started talking to the Argentinian owner about what he was doing here. Despite having come across so many foreign men in the region who came here because of the female population, I still find it impolite to assume the same applies for all.

But it wasn't long before the Argentine was happily explaining how he met his future wife on day one of a Swedish vacation. 7 years ago. Reminds me of a charming Spanish guy I worked with recently who had a similar experience. He claimed to rate Stockholm over Madrid and was already on to his second Swedish girlfriend.

The cynic inside me would suspect Nordic women are on some kind of secret intra-government mission: To capture foreign men and bring them back to the region to help make it more cosmopolitan. Either that, or they just aren't attracted to their local male counterparts.

Whatever the reason things are not going to change any time soon - we are willing victims. I think it was best summed up by a visiting friend, one night in Stureplan, who exclaimed: "This is like being backstage at Miss World!".

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Nordics at the Shanghai Expo

It is always interesting to understand how a country perceives itself by observing how it promotes itself abroad.

At the Shanghai Expo, the Nordic countries are out in force. All delivering some of the most impressive architectural pavilions of the event. But what is the message they are each aiming to send? For context, the theme of the Expo relates to the rapid urbanisation of China and the world and is called "Better City, Better Life". The Nordics have embraced it enthusiastically.

Sweden's promise is Spirit of Innovation:

Reinforced by sustainability and communications messages, the pavilion is intended to portray an open and harmonious society that enables its citizens to play freely at the cutting-edge of creativity and innovation.

Denmark has gone for something called Welfairytales, depicting a place where modern society and welfare make classic fairy tales come true.

Though it appears very Copenhagen-centric, the messages and images of happiness, togetherness, sustainability, bicycles and water are very enticing. Not least this beautiful-looking clip celebrating family life in the city. Indeed they are taking the Expo so seriously, they even allowed the Little Mermaid to swim down and represent her country.

Norway, meanwhile, is Powered by Nature and focuses on how the dramatic and diverse natural environment influences and inspires the citizens of its surrounded cities. Be it sea, mountain or forest, Norwegians are staking their claim to being powered by nature and the pavilion is constructed entirely of Norwegian pine and Chinese bamboo.

Finland go for the rather duller generic promise of Sharing Inspiration. When reinforced by "Well-being, Competence, Environment" aspects, the Finnish proposition is not exactly mouth-watering. The website is also heavy on text and, with no sisu to capture the imagination, the theme could probably have been applied to half the countries at the Expo. At least the Finns have a stylish pavilion, Kirnu, to wrap it up in:

Last but not least, Iceland promise Pure Energy - Healthy Living. Looking like an ice cube and with a focus on the untamed land that provides Icelandic city-dwellers with rich resources in water power and geothermal heat, the pavilion is another Nordic masterpiece. Interestingly, visitors to the Iceland pavilion in only the first month exceeded the country's total population. Its nearly enough to forgive them that volcanic eruption which cancelled my business trip to Florida and almost certainly ended my Eurobonus Gold membership.

Similar themes? I think so. But for good reason - the Nordics lead the world in modern city living. In fact it was only last year that progressive lifestyle bible Monocle placed Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki in 3 of the top 6 of its rankings of the world's most liveable cities. It is just down to personal preference which splash of national colour you want thrown in.

Incidentally, all Nordic countries sit together in a section of Zone C on the Expo site, thus further reinforcing their similarities.

Hygge, Sisu and Lagom

3 words. Each with no direct English translation, but each that define the essence of respectively Danishness, Finnishness and Swedishness:

Hygge - Closest equivalent translation is "cosiness". But it means much much more and the Danes seem to use the word for almost anything: Let's have a hyggeligt time; that's hyggeligt; we had some hygge; let's hygge ourselves. Basically, if you are at someone's house, sharing a drink, some food, some conversation, with the candles on, or a log fire, or both, and its dark and cold outside, and you have a nice, warm glowing feeling inside you - that's not the Carlsberg, that's concentrated hygge.

Sisu - Perhaps best translated as "strength of will in the face of adversity" or, even better, "the ability to sustain an action against the odds". As I said before, Finns have it harder. They drew the short straw when it came to dividing up the earth and it is now their lot to suffer in that distant, inhospitable northern land that is halfway up the road to nowhere. You won't be able to convince them they have the best education system in the world or the highest levels of literacy, God put Finns on this earth to struggle resolutely and that is exactly what they are going to do.

Lagom - Best translated as "not too much, not too little". There is simply no better word for understanding Swedes, their middle way between capitalism and socialism, their choice of cars (black, discreet) or clothes (black, discreet), the way they drink (except when on holiday), even the brands they buy (Filippa K's understated style or Lätt & Lagom's buttery promise). Ostentatiousness and success are dirty words over here. Being lagom is what everyone aspires to.

So if you want to invite them all to a party, make sure its cosy in a tough and distant kind of way. But don't overdo it.

We will fight them on the (empty) beaches

Saw an interesting statistic this morning on exceptional website NationMaster. It comes from the World Values Study and, though the data is a little dated (1990s), reflects the intense national pride that exists within the region.

For those of us living here the sightings of national flags is a daily - more often hourly - occurence.

But when asked if they would fight for their country, over 86% of Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and Finns said they would willingly. Which makes them the 4 most fiercely patriotic countries in the world.

Contrast this with two-thirds of the French, less than half of Germans or just a third of the Italians. Even the more militarily-active Yanks and Brits don't enjoy such mass enthusiasm for mobilisation.

(Valkyrien painting is by Norwegian artist Peter Nicolai Arbo from 1865)

Marriage is poison

Now I am often told that the Nordic languages can be short on vocabulary and how English is always so much richer (or should I say, fecund), but couldn't someone have come up with a better word for marriage than the one for poison - gift?

I know marriage can be hard to stomach at times, but surely something more romantic would have encouraged more people to settle down sooner. Perhaps that is why so many people here avoid marriage for so long: Swedes and Danes get married older than any other country in the world - over 32 for men and over 30 for women. While Norway and Finland are not far behind.

Henrik Schyffert, Swedes and alcohol

Picking up on my previous post about the complex relationship between Swedes and alcohol, kinetic comic Henrik Schyffert together with Svenskt Näringsliv recently produced this short film for foreigners to better describe the paradox of Swedish alcohol politik and actual reality.

Full like a Kastrull is just one of a series of "information films" - notable also for Schyffert's unique and hyperactive form of the Swenglish language - from this unusual 'collaboration'.