We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost

von Karsten Drath

In 2013 during the press conference to announce the mobile phone branch of NOKIA to be sold to Microsoft, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop ended his speech saying “We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost”. When he said that some claim to have seen tears in his eyes. I personally doubt that since he was also pretty relaxed about laying of half the employees of Nokia during this transaction. Maybe his package of 19M€ has helped him to overcome his pain. Anyway, one year later also he was fired from Microsoft.

Knowing vs. Learning

Since their first mobile phone in 1987 Nokia has been a respectable company which over many years even defined and dominated the entire industry. Who of the Generation X will not remember the legendary Nokia 6210 which had a battery life standing even an intense business week and which was robust enough to survive being dropped from two meters’ height? Don’t even think of trying this with an iPhone or Samsung.

Sure, success is good for your self-confidence and it may make you bold and go big. However, sometimes it also entails a certain sense of entitlement. At one point Nokia was known in the industry for a certain kind of arrogance which prevented them from learning from the outside world: “We are Nokia we have all the engineering know-how in-house!”

At that point Nokia confused “knowing” with “learning”. 

Learning Agility is not an option

However, in today’s fast moving world it is now longer about “knowing”. Market dynamics, technology and regulations change so quickly that knowledge about how things used to work is increasingly marginalized in importance. At times it can even be counterproductive. In fact, in fast-changing times “learning” is not an option anymore. It does no longer just separate the good from the average companies, it has become a question of mere survival.  If you are not leaving your comfort zone to try out something new, to feel clumsy, lose performance or even fail then you are most certainly setting yourself up for failure in the long run. This is true for companies as well as it is for their leaders.

The point is that you don’t have to do it. You can continue doing what made you successful in the first place. You can even become really good at it, just like Nokia. However, while you are still optimizing yourself the competition is changing the rules of the game and then change becomes increasingly hard. If you are forced to change then you are in an uphill battle.

The principles behind learning agility are shown in the below illustration. 

Agile Leadership needs Trust 

What does this mean for leadership? Complacency with the status quo, arrogance and a sense of entitlement are natural enemies of curiosity and agility.  On the other hand you can also not ignore the fact that people can only stand so much change. So how do you get people to follow you in times were nothing is certain anymore? The answer is trust. More than ever a leader in today’s world needs to earn the trust of his or her people. To the degree in which reliable structures and predictable environments are diminishing the more trust needs to be there in order for people to give their best, keep on learning and not play it safe. To earn trust agile leaders need to show more of who they really are. They need to connect to their people emotionally and be credible as a role model.  But also today’s leaders need to trust their people more. Given the rapid changes in the industry traditional hierarchical thinking just won’t cut it. It is just too slow. Leading in a disruptive world requires more empowerment of people and more cooperation across organizational silos. 

Trust is the untapped resource

After all reengineering, restructuring and rightsizing simple and plain trust is the big untapped resource to maintain your competitive edge as an organization and as a leader. But how do you do that? How do you make people trust you? How do you reflect upon your leadership style or even develop it further? Well, you can try it by yourself, attend trainings or mimic role models. And you can work with experts who have specialized in helping leaders improve their leadership behavior. Like us.

What else would you recommend doing?

Karsten Drath works with top managers and their teams to improve their leadership effectiveness and resilience. He is a certified Executive Coach and Psychotherapist, a published author and keynote speaker, and is one of the Managing Partners of Leadership Choices, an international consultancy focusing on leadership development at Top Management level. Looking back on more than 15 years of own leadership experience in several international roles he knows the challenges that come with the executive lifestyle and also how to cope with them.


Check out his latest book
Resilient Leadership – Beyond Myths and Misunderstandings