"Today we have made those bold decisions"

Former Nokia Corporation CEO Stephen Elop shares his communication strategy



What were your immediate thoughts when you were first approached by Nokia to take over from Olli-Pekka Kallasuvo?
Nokia is a company with a remarkable history going back 148 years. We started out as a paper mill and at one time made rubber boots. By a combination of industriousness and good timing, we moved into the telecommunications industry in the early 1980s and by the mid-90s led a revolution in mobile phones. We have connected more than a billion people over the years. We have given people access to information, helped change economies and brought communities closer together. My first phone was a Nokia. So when I got the call about becoming Nokia’s chief executive officer, I was incredibly excited. I knew the challenges ahead, I knew Nokia faced a difficult transition, but we had on our side incredibly talented engineers and employees with a huge drive to succeed. Accepting the job was one of the easiest decisions I have ever made.   

When you started at Nokia, you began a renewal of the company. How does the communications function help you to achieve this?
The first rule in being a good communicator is to first be a good listener. This could not be truer during a major strategy change. When I arrived at Nokia, before I made any changes, I spent a lot of time listening – listening to our partners, shareholders, consumers, and our own employees. My first day on the job, I asked employees three questions. Using our internal social network, I asked: what should I change, what should stay the same, and what will I not understand? I received more than 2,000 responses; I responded to each one. In many ways, that conversation thread became my first communications briefing at Nokia.


How do you communicate this kind of renewal without alienating your existing customers and other stakeholders?
When you’re making bold changes, it is important to spend just as much energy on changing your culture as you do your strategy. There’s a saying that “culture eats strategy for lunch,” and if you don’t have your culture behind you, you will not be successful in accomplishing a change in strategy. We spent a lot of time renewing our culture and communicating key behaviours that would contribute to our success. And I think our work has really inspired our stakeholders, and they are also benefiting from the change. To communicate effectively with our customers, we have had to be incredibly clear and consistent about why we needed to make the changes that were made. While we are respectful of our past, we knew we had to communicate and execute against a new strategy.

In your speech at this year’s European Communication Summit, you said that when you started at Nokia you had to “challenge mindsets” and create cultural change. Could you describe this process to me?
Cultural change is the hardest part of a transformation. It requires you to fundamentally change the way the company thinks and works. Through a series of exercises, we identified some core elements that came to form what we call “the challenger mindset.” Seeing ourselves as challengers required us to accept that Nokia was no longer the dominant player in our industry, and to be successful again, we needed to start thinking more like a startup. We embraced urgency, and today it takes us six to eight months to bring a new product to market instead of the 22 months it used to take before I joined Nokia. We embraced accountability to drive results. And we embraced empathy, which is corporate-speak for “don’t be arrogant.” At the end of the day, we don’t control the market, our consumers do, and we need to listen and hear what they have to say.   

You also mentioned the importance of articulating a clear path and inspiring others. How difficult has it been to formulate and stick to your plan?
Every step of the way, we have to ask ourselves: is this important to our strategy? If so, we do more of it. If not, we need to either slow it down or stop doing it. That helps us stay on track. We spend a great deal of time communicating our strategy and our progress to various stakeholders: consumers, shareholders, partners, application developers, employees, and so on. That process of communicating what is working and what is maybe not working helps keep us very focused. Equally important is the feedback loop. We measure everything from what our consumers think of our products to how our own employees are feeling. If something is not working, we know it quickly and can respond.

You’ve also acknowledged that forging relationships with stakeholders can be hard work. From which direction have you found most resistance?
As a challenger, we work very hard to win the hearts and minds of our stakeholders. It is a competitive, fast-moving industry. Our stakeholders expect results, and we’re delivering. We’re receiving some of the highest consumer-satisfaction scores in our history and the feedback from operators is just fantastic. Arguably, however, the greatest resistance comes from those who don’t understand or have misunderstood our strategic changes. This is where communication comes in: the more people understand, the more likely they are to be supportive.


Could you describe your communications team?
Our communications team is one of the hardest working teams in the industry. They are also really global in terms of geographies, perspectives and languages. Susan Sheehan, our senior vice president of communications, joined Nokia from Microsoft, where we had worked together for several years. At the global level the team is structured by different business units and functions: Smart Devices, Mobile Phones, HERE (Nokia’s location-and-mapping business), corporate communications, employee communications and media relations. Then we have teams in the regions organised by Europe, the Americas, Asia-Pacific and IMEA, with individuals looking after country communications. Within these roles, some people specialise in analyst relations, working with developers, legal issues and social media. It’s a busy team!   


How did you brief your communications team when you first started at Nokia?
From the very beginning I made it clear to the team that I am a strong supporter of communications and very open to receiving and providing feedback.  I think this commitment was reinforced by my leadership style: frequent employee town halls, meeting stakeholders wherever I travel, while trying to be remarkably open, honest and direct.


It is often mentioned that you are the first non-Finn to be named chief executive officer of Nokia. Have you had to adjust to a particular way of thinking or working?

It has been a great transition. As a Canadian, I have found the cultures of Finland and Canada to be remarkably similar. We also share a mutual love of ice hockey. One of the things that immediately impressed me about the Finns was their strong will to succeed. Finns share this unique tenacity, this ferocity to fight even through the toughest times. In the Finnish language, this will is known simply as, “sisu,” and people possess it in abundance. Finns are also very welcoming of outside cultures and ideas. To capture that spirit, at Mobile World Congress, one of our industry’s biggest events, Nokia hung banners around the conference floor inviting people to our booth to spend time with us and our products. The banners read, “At heart, we are all Finns.” I think that sums it up nicely.

How have the communications team helped you in preparing yourself as a communicator?

When you’re going through a change, you have got to not only get people on board – you have to prepare them to go the distance with you because a transformation doesn’t happen overnight. Nokia’s communications team has really helped me set those expectations and build belief from our stakeholders. It begins with a clear, consistent message supporting an overall narrative. We spent a lot of time in conversation with our stakeholders; it’s about that constant dialogue. We want to educate, engage and energise people. We want to show them how we’re offering superior experiences. We want to build belief in our future growth and innovation curve. We want to motivate and inspire our own employees. Results matter too, and the communications team holds me accountable. Before a product launch, you better believe I’ve put in the time to practice my keynote – lots and lots of practice!    

Do you feel that today’s business climate requires that chief executive officers become more adept at (and visible as) communicators themselves?

Absolutely – it’s never been more important, and consumers expect it. It is important to set the tone from the top.  Also, there are new ways we must communicate. Employees respond well to you being active on internal blogs and company social networks.  Consumers appreciate hearing from you in email or on Twitter.

It is said that you read every email sent to you, one example of your open approach to communications. But can openness have its drawbacks?  

I receive a lot of consumer emails a day, and I try to answer every single one. I draw a lot of inspiration from hearing from our consumers. Just the other day, I got this great note from a consumer in Boston, Massachusetts, who shared some remarkable sunset beach photos he took with his Nokia Lumia 920. One of Nokia’s core values is how we “make it great for the customer,” and that very much influences my open style to communications.   

You are an engaged and engaging communicator. Could you pinpoint a time in your life or career that helped shape your own style of communication?

My father didn’t have to give a lot of speeches during his career, but I remember very clearly the effort he put into those times when he did need to speak publicly: careful scripting of the speech, summary points carefully written on cue cards, and lots of practice. Some things don’t change over the decades!

Your “burning platform” memo has become a template for chief executive officer communications. How do you feel about it taking on a life of its own?

When I joined Nokia, our employees already knew some aspects of our problems. It was all there. I really just spent a lot of time listening and doing a bit of synthesis. People wanted change, and they wanted to hear the truth. At the same time, we recognised the need to help understand the seriousness of our challenges – in totality, far more challenging than any one individual may have assessed. The memo was a way to express the need to do something significant when faced with challenging circumstances. It was a way to help prepare us to make some bold decisions.

Do you think the memo achieved what you wanted it to?

Today we have made those bold decisions. Today Nokia’s products are front and centre in the consumer-choice set. We’re building the third ecosystem. We just launched the most innovative cameraphone in our industry’s history, the Nokia Lumia 1020. We have a 99 dollar smartphone, the Asha 501, with battery life that lasts up to 48 days. In 2012, we filed more patents in Nokia’s history than any year since 2007. So I am really proud of our teams and what we have accomplished, and it began with a crystallisation of the seriousness of the problems we faced.

Finally, Nokia Conversations is a great example of a company creating media content. How important is it for Nokia to become its own media producer?

I described how our communications efforts have focused on engaging our stakeholders in an active two-way dialogue. I am particularly proud that this focus from our communications team has resulted in Nokia Conversations, our corporate blog, becoming one of the most popular corporate-communications conversation sites in the world. While we actively work with journalists and analysts, consumers want to hear directly from us. They want to be part of the experience, so we invite them to join our product launches via live webcast. More than 40,000 people watched us launch the Nokia Lumia 1020 live. We also spend a lot of time engaging with consumers on other social-media sites. Nokia’s Facebook page has more than 11 million “likes.”