Jonas Helgesson, Partner at executive search firm Erevena, discusses why there’s never been a better time for Nordic companies to seize the opportunity to attract international talent.

There’s an entrepreneurial spirit across the Nordics that has long been attractive to international talent. Add to this a business culture that embraces ambition, early expansion, flat structures, flexibility and collaborative leadership styles, and the region should be a major magnet for talent. In many ways it is. However, until recently, the region’s location in northern Europe has prevented it becoming a truly global talent hub.

That’s all changing, as Jonas Helgesson explains: “First, let me give you some background. I have worked on relocating C-level candidates to the Nordics for many years, but it has been tough. Certainly, when it comes to jobs in the technology sector, the region has tended to be eclipsed by the likes of Silicon Valley and London. Yet, Stockholm has the second highest number of billion-dollar tech companies per capita outside Silicon Valley.

“Further, strong technology universities are a feature of this region, and we’ve got some great success stories around innovation and start-ups. Indeed, there’s plenty of data to suggest that the Nordic ecosystem has a much higher survival rate for start-ups than other regions.

A consensus-driven, collaborative culture

Jonas is painting a highly positive picture, so why has recruiting talent from outside the region previously been a challenge?  He continues: “Where other regions have adopted remote and distributed working to a greater extent over the past few years, many Nordic companies have been reluctant to do so. I’m sure this is largely due to its consensus-driven, collaborative, in-person culture. How can you collaborate if you’re not all working together? Yet, it is something that top talent has begun to expect.”

He adds that the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic in this respect has been significant. Forced by circumstances, there’s been a shift in mindset amongst Nordic entrepreneurs. Remote and distributed working, it seems, is now becoming the norm. Jonas notes: “That’s great news for the talent market. I also have a thesis that in the post-Covid world there is a big opportunity to attract talent not available before because companies have not had the infrastructure or processes in place to make it happen.”

Clearly, this shift is not exclusive to the Nordics. It’s a global phenomenon that will, ultimately, change the international job market. Following an analysis of 2,000 tasks, 800 jobs and nine countries, McKinsey & Company stated: “The virus has broken through cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past, setting in motion a structural shift in where work takes place, at least for some people.”

Digital leaders were ready to move to remote working

In the Nordics, with companies now more open to remote and distributed working, there’s no doubt the region’s digital advancement helped bring about the shift. In 2018, a European Commission research paper found that Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands had the most advanced digital economies in the EU.

So, who might be interested in working for an early-stage Nordic company? Jonas says: “In many instances, we’re talking about the people who wanted to work for the likes of Google ten years ago and were attracted by the Silicon Valley culture, with free lunches and nap pods in the workplace. Now, however, they have young families and want to have a better life balance, which is something that the Nordic culture promises. In the US in particular, the Nordics are now seen as a good example of democracy at work.”

Then, of course, there’s the opportunity to work for entrepreneurial and innovation-focused companies, whether established organizations or start-ups. Jonas agrees, saying: “You have to ask why the likes of Spotify kept their headquarters in Stockholm. It’s the world’s biggest music streaming business and the local market is relatively small. Yet, Spotify thought global from day one. I think this ambition to be global from the outset is key for early-stage companies’ ability to attract international talent.”

He cites companies like Zendesk and Klarna as examples of Nordic start-ups that have successfully expanded globally. A strong engineering culture from a product perspective and good finance are all part of that global story. Then there are household names like IKEA and Ericsson. Skype too was built out of the region before moving to London. And let’s not forget that Just Eat was started by five Danish entrepreneurs at the beginning of this century, as was Unity.

In many instances, the range of innovation policies introduced by the region’s governments has helped to nurture this success. It’s fair to say that the Nordic economies are prospering due to start-ups. So, it’s no surprise that public funding is provided both to help launch new businesses and to enable them to scale internationally through agencies such as Business Finland and Innovation Norway

Engaging an international workforce

Innovation, engineering capability, government support and potential for global growth clearly abound in the region. There has also been a shift in what people want to do after leaving school or university. Traditional careers in finance, law or management consulting are being replaced as many start-ups begin in the universities, encouraged by local success stories.

So, how can companies entice international talent to be part of this Nordic phenomenon? “There are three areas to focus on,” advises Jonas.

“First, an ambitious start-up should have an international mindset from day one. The Nordic Market is relatively small, and companies that are successful in overseas expansion are those that have had a multi-geo ambitions from the outset. This is especially true when considering what talent to bring on board and from where.”

“Second, they need to formalise their approach to global talent. Nordic companies need to become comfortable with international salary levels and compensation to attract top talent. If you’re expecting someone to move across from the US or London, they will already know about the region’s high cost of living and taxation. It’s true that many don’t move here for the money, rather they’re attracted by the culture, lifestyle and entrepreneurial spirit. And although compensation is less important to younger talent seeking to work for companies with a purpose rather than just a focus on profit, nonetheless it is still a factor, especially weighing the risk of early-stage companies.

“Third, companies must build an operational strategy and structure to work in a distributed environment. How do you onboard new talent remotely? Have you got processes in place to integrate them into the business?” In its report ‘The future of work after Covid-19’, McKinsey & Company writes: “Remote work also offers companies the opportunity to enrich their diversity by tapping workers who, for family and other reasons, were unable to relocate to the superstar cities where talent, capital, and opportunities concentrated before the pandemic.”

A growing reputation for innovation and start-ups

Without doubt, moving to a more distributed model, will make Nordic companies extremely competitive when fishing out of the international talent pool. But that’s not all. The region’s reputation for innovation and start-ups that scale is also attracting interest from the global investment community. In an article published last year, Georg Ludviksson, CEO at Icelandic digital banking software company Meniga, was quoted as saying: “Over the past decade, the amount of successful and tech-savvy start-ups emerging from the Nordics has been well documented. But I think we’ve only seen a fraction of the international tech successes that will come out of this region.”

According to Jonas, international talent will be part of that success in the coming years. He concludes: “How companies set their international mindset, build their operational models and look at remuneration from a pan-European perspective will be a big factor in their ability to attract this talent.”

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Jonas Helgesson, Partner

Specialisms: Board, General Management, Go-To-Market

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