“WE HAVE A MASSIVE OPPORTUNITY TO BREAK LONG-LIVED, OUTDATED WORKPLACE HABITS”
“WE HAVE A MASSIVE OPPORTUNITY TO BREAK LONG-LIVED, OUTDATED WORKPLACE HABITS”
UNTIL SPOTIFY ENTERED THE MUSIC MARKET 17 YEARS AGO – ALTHOUGH NEW FORMATS HAVE COME AND GONE – HOW PEOPLE ‘CONSUME’ MUSIC HADN’T CHANGED FOR GENERATIONS. THE NOTION OF A GLOBAL JUKEBOX SEEMED LIKE AN IMPOSSIBLE DREAM. TAKING A LOOK AT THE BUSINESS AND HOW ITS PEOPLE OPERATE, IT TURNS OUT THAT THE INNER WORKINGS OF THE COMPANY ARE EVERY BIT AS INNOVATIVE AND REMARKABLE.
I’m half Japanese, half Swedish, my father was a sea captain and I grew up being home-schooled on the seven seas. That was up until the Swedish school system said that my older sister and I needed to start going to school. When it’s only you and your teacher in every class, you are asked all the questions and saying you forgot your books is never an excuse. It was definitely growing up in a state of constant travel and seeing and experiencing a lot of different countries and cultures that fostered my interest in people, culture and diversity. I settled in the United States for a year following high school and it was then that I applied to study HR management. This was definitely inspired by my unusual upbringing. – I’ve gone on to have an amazingly fulfilling and diverse career and importantly, I’ve never been unhappy in any job I’ve had. That’s partly because I’ve remained fascinated in HR and behavioural science throughout my career.
I went to university in the south of Sweden, a city called Lund, where I studied for three and a half years, two of which were the foundation to behavioural science. After that, I had to decide whether to go on with a Bachelor of Science Programme in Human Resources within psychology, labour law, sociology or pedagogics, and I decided to choose both sociology and pedagogics. After three and a half years at Lund, I studied for a further year doing a master’s. I earned a scholarship for Erasmus and also studied for my thesis in the Netherlands and in Utrecht, which I really enjoyed. With all that study finally completed, it was time to decide where I would begin in the world of work. Back then, to study for the HR Management (P-linjen) at university, you first had to gain at least one year of work experience before you could even apply, and then you have one term or semester where you carry out on-the-job training. Most people secure their first job from these placements, which for me was at a big Swedish truck company.
This was of course my first job in HR and where I did my traineeship. Up to that point, the company had never had to make any redundancies, but when I joined, they were in the process of having to make the very difficult decision of letting 300 people go. My boss and mentor was appointed to make sure that there was a really good programme in place for the people who were exiting the organisation, some of whom had worked for the company for 20-to-30 years. Regardless of age or level, we made it clear that in the future, if and when we were re-hiring, that we would welcome those people to return. There were so many considerations we had to take into account and with my limited experience, it was a sharp learning curve and I really had to adapt to the process and not freeze, so that I could make sure that the people affected were handled with great care, respect and clarity. Amazingly, although many were sad about being let go, they showed great fortitude and many said that they would be very happy to return, when the opportunity arose. Fresh out of university, it was a lot to take onboard, having these really tricky and complex conversations with people of my father’s age. But I learned some valuable lessons in how you treat people, and that you have to take the rough with the smooth in HR. It made me more aware that your actions and words really matter. It’s not about trying to make friends, it’s about trust, honesty and not trying to always paint a pretty picture of any given situation and that when you promise to do something, you deliver. I learned very quickly that study was one thing and real-life was something else. Above all, it’s about being clear and unambiguous. I look back now and realise that all of these formative experiences, where you, through a lack of experience feel out of your depth, are when you learn hard and fast and that learning sticks. Another memory that stands out was that my mentor was really generous with her time and showed me the ropes and gave me the space to make my own choices and occasionally fail. That’s something I have endeavoured to do in my career.
Well, the next stage was definitely a change of scene and another new set of experiences. There were two roles advertised at an oil refinery in Sweden, one for an HR Business Partner role and the other as Manager in organisational design, leadership development and L&D. Naturally, considering my experience to date, I felt more drawn to the HR Partner role, as I thought org design was out of my remit. However, after the interview process, I was very surprised to be offered the other role and I kept thinking there was some sort of mistake. I even said, “you know that my only leadership experience is from being the captain of my sports team”. In terms of early experiences, as a woman in my late 20s, I was something of a rarity, as this was a very male-dominated world of engineering. Almost all of my colleagues were men in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Understandably, I was a little concerned that they wouldn’t take me seriously enough or listen to my ideas, as this was my first managerial post. Then the CEO of one of the refineries became CEO of the whole group and he very persuasively encouraged me to move from the west coast to the HQ in Stockholm, to cover the same role, but for the whole group. He also said that how I had set up the org design and L&D department was the way he wanted the whole HR function to operate and, above all, he wanted the HR department to be closer to the core business. So, my career ascent was on a sharp upward gradient and it brought me into the realms of HR strategy and planning and away from the practical and hygiene HR issues. It was at this time that a change in my mindset occurred, which was the difference between a job and a vocation and it was a defining moment. I was still only 29, but my confidence in my capability was growing. The CEO said, “Your old job is still available if you want to go back, but I need to make one culture out of what used to be four different brands and I want you to help me do that.” I accepted, and it was successfully implemented with remarkable ease. I had a meeting with the CEO, who didn’t really comment on the progress, but what he said has stayed with me: “The logo for the company is a picture of a bear. I want you to give the bear a soul.” This was a really compelling way of saying that he wanted me to take ownership of the employee experience and build the employer brand for the future.
Back then, I felt as if I was being expected to punch way above my weight and it wasn’t always a nice experience. But now that I’m older, I realise how very lucky I was to have people who saw my potential and believed in and trusted me. Of course the pressure came from not wanting to disappoint, and so I always felt the need to not just accomplish the objective, but to go the extra mile. That has not only moulded me as a person, it has also shaped the way I work with younger and less experienced people who have joined my team over the years. It’s important that you don’t become complacent in your role, no matter how much experience you have under your belt. Early in my career, I was told that I was good at building rapport and that my energy and genuine interest in the core business beyond the HR function is what will take me far. You take the praise and build on that of course, but you also have to not shy away from acting on the criticism too. One thing is certain, if I hadn’t had the chances in the early days to work with managers who saw potential in me, I think my career would’ve looked very different. I was also told early on that whatever you do, do something and if it’s wrong, own it and just do the right thing the second time round. Sitting on your hands and holding your tongue serves nobody, and those small issues can easily become bigger ones, so it’s better to act straight away. I also learnt that empathy is good, but you can’t lead only with that. You have to dare to take a stance. My advice, based on my own experience, is that if and when opportunities come along, seize them. Mix it up and never be too comfy and complacent. I went from trucks, to oil, to commercial TV, to telco, to banking, to retail and now I am here – in the sector defining Spotify.
I find it incredible that there are still leaders and decision makers out there that don’t believe that diversity is important, despite all the research, science, data and lived experience that proves that it is essential when competing today. Businesses need to mirror their customers and society as a whole. It’s the hard yards in DEI that count – you take a couple of positive leaps in the right direction and then there’s a backlash – for sure, it’s a hard trail, but we must never give up. When I joined Spotify, 17 percent of our workforce were women and we’ve now increased that to 44 percent. Is 44 percent good or bad? It sure is better than 17 percent, and while a 50-50 split would be mathematically neat, it’s not really the driving motivation, and quotas don’t really work. To manage diversity in a sustainable way and for the long term takes time. Part of our DNA at Spotify is innovation and disruption, and if everybody in the room thinks the same, there’s not going to be much creativity or innovation. For us, diversity is part of who we are in terms of age and gender diversity. We are making good progress, but we can do much better when it comes to ethnicity and race, in terms of intersectionality and representation.
In general, there is an improvement in the way that businesses and the wider society perceive mental health, but there is definitely still a stigma and all employers have a profound duty to remove that. Diversity is foundational to creating a safe environment, where people feel represented and can talk and call things out without fear of retribution. In our organisation, we call it ‘Heart & Soul’ and I am proud of the work we are carrying out in this space. When it comes to hitting diversity targets, it’s not about lowering the bar to make things look better, it’s about raising the bar and, to mix metaphors, cast the net far and wide and to constantly look for new waters to fish in for talent that doesn’t fit the typical criteria. In hard times, it’s tempting to stick to tried-and-tested, but if you use the same old methods and pools, you just end up recruiting the same types of talent over and over again. To achieve a more diverse and inclusive workforce, you need to work hard and invest the time. You need to accept that the work comes with a tax and a challenge, but if you are committed to cracking the DEI code, it will reap rewards.
Our culture is fundamental to us, and diversity, inclusion, equity are not pillars of the business that merely sit within HR functions. They are at the core of our business, both on-platform and off. We operate a people-first culture and, for that to thrive, management needs to buy into it. That doesn’t mean operating a top-down culture or bottom-up for that matter, it means looking at the issues holistically, leaning into people’s backgrounds, their cultures and experiences and providing them with the right tools and a safe environment to feel seen, be heard and adapt accordingly. That’s what keeps us relevant, now and in the future, but it does come with its challenges. It’s not easy and people feel pressured to find the right balance as cancel culture is so rife. Society is changing rapidly and while we undoubtedly live in a more open and accepting world, even enabling gender pronouns is controversial. There is always more work to be carried out, there really is no final destination. I believe that meaningfully moving the dial requires patience and pragmatism. It’s a marathon not a sprint.
Spotify has just celebrated 17 years and we’ve been on a trajectory of hyper-growth all throughout that time. I joined in its seventh year, when we had about 800 employees. Today, we’re around 9,000. Daring to be a value-driven company built on trust was my top priority when I joined, and now we stand tall as the world’s number one audio platform. That was achieved in part through the creation of a company and brand that is well-loved both internally and externally, allowing us to attract the best talent. Creating a trust-based leadership culture was also on the agenda and to support that, we introduced a Manager Service Level Agreement that defined our leadership criteria – principles that guide how we recruit, develop, assess and deploy our leaders. Creating a clear direction with a sense of belonging and defining our culture was pertinent as we grew quickly from a Swedish-born start-up into a global platform. Daniel Ek, our CEO and Founder, is close to the business and at the heart of what we do. In the scheme of things, it is still fairly early stages in the journey, meaning it still has far to go. We have a culture in which people feel confident to share their thoughts and ideas on any aspect of the way we operate – ultimately, a good idea is a good idea whoever came up with it. In the early years, we quickly realised that if we invested in our people, individuals would grow, and in turn, so would the company. Not everybody’s journey to success is the same and nor do all employees want the same thing. But you can always promise to take care of them and support them, no matter where their journey takes them, professionally and personally. We were one of the first to introduce a global ‘work from anywhere’ scheme, giving employees the opportunity to choose between a home or an office mix. We are now present in 184 markets, representing hundreds of nationalities. We introduced a global parental leave policy where all full-time employees have six months of full parental leave to take until their child is three years old, regardless of the new parent’s gender or family construct.
Post-pandemic, we have a massive opportunity to break long-lived, outdated workplace habits and take a fresh new look at the way we operate. The pandemic made us all think about our employees – we call them bandmates – differently. Everybody went through different experiences in the pandemic and it will have left its mark – whether you sadly lost friends or relatives or were homeschooling whilst trying to do the day job. But the collective mindset has changed insomuch as we supported and looked out for each other during that dark time and that has prevailed – it has changed the relationship between employers and employees for good. I think we have all re-evaluate, what is important, what our priorities are and how we balance work and home life. We’re continuing to listen to our employees and one thing is certain, that flexibility and freedom is something that they don’t want to give up. It was important that it was their input that informed on our Work-From-Anywhere programme which we called #WFA, which, three years later, I can say that in practice has been a success. We’ve been able to make more diverse hires in pockets of the world where we don’t have an office and people don’t have to leave their community to progress their careers. We have more than 45 offices across the globe, so for those who are looking to return to the office for a quieter or more creative and collaborative space to work, we offer that with flexibility too. So, our belief chimes with Anne-Marie Andric & Helen Lidström’s statement when they worked at Microsoft, that “work is something you do and not a place you come to”. There’s no question that if you find the right balance and calibration, this will make companies more attractive as an employer and will lead to lower attrition.
With every new generation that enters the workforce, there have always been criticisms that youngsters are lazy and entitled, which is completely untrue. Why wouldn’t you hold your employer accountable and ask for a change? We spend so much time at work, it’s important that your values align and you feel that your company is a positive global citizen. I firmly believe that while we continue to face challenges, we are making progress, but this can be slow. As we move into the next phase of LLMs and generative AI, there is potential for even greater progress across the HR function to support and align. Obviously, there are ethical concerns and potentially scary consequences with AI if not applied responsibly, but these technologies open up a broad range of positive opportunities, including re-humanising work and focusing on creating the skills, meaning, culture and creative behaviours that remove any bias and democratise skills building. Career progression is a great example of the potential for AI in HR. Traditionally, this has relied heavily on whether you have a supportive manager or is about being in “the right place at the right time”, but technology allows us to level the playing field in so many new and different ways. Here at Spotify, we have created an internal talent marketplace – mirroring our music platform – where creators are on one side and listeners on the other. Similarly, we have employees on one side of the marketplace and career opportunities on the other, ranging from mentorship to new job roles. By using AI, we are able to adopt a more systematic and unbiased approach to matching people with these opportunities, rather than relying on where you happen to sit in the office, who your manager is or how much exposure you’ve had to senior leadership, which are the factors that have often dictated career progression in the past. I am not suggesting that we remove the human element entirely, this will continue to play an integral part in career development and progression – but the technology simply ensures that we are consistently scouting the right talent, succession planning and offering equal opportunities for all. There are plenty of managers who naturally factor these things in – we like to call it the gardener philosophy – and they acknowledge that they are managing Spotify talent rather than their own “plants in the company garden”. In turn, they recognise their role in enriching the soil, making sure the sun is shining and offering enough water to the plants, before giving them away in full bloom for the good of the garden. The marketplace is intended to work in harmony with people management, ensuring that everyone can access the right opportunities, whether they are managed by a gardener or not. AI can also help us remove bias from talent acquisition, so long as we do not train it with the old data, in which case it will just pick the same type of band members or leaders that we have picked in the past. It is important to refresh the data, to ensure that we do not over-index on certain demographics.
In many ways, Spotify was inspired by a downward spiral in the music industry. Twenty years ago, piracy was commonplace around the world and particularly prevalent in Sweden, due to fantastic computer maturity. It has always been a highly technical country and while this infrastructure was the foundation of many successful start-ups and tech companies, it also led to high instances of illegal downloading of music. The founders of Spotify, Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon, recognised that most people would like to pay for music if it was just easy enough and, in streaming, they found a solution which was both easy for the consumer and made money for the creator. It was a gamble at the time, because consumer behaviour had three facets back then: you either bought a CD, downloaded or you ‘borrowed’ the music from a friend or the creators. With Spotify’s dual business model, Daniel and Martin had struck a balance and customers were given a choice as to whether they subscribed to the platform or listened with ads between the songs. Crucially, creators were paid for their art, either way. The concept of streaming was new and it took investors time to understand – and although consumers quickly realised that not paying for Spotify meant listening through commercials, artists and producers took time to understand the two business models. We presented Loud and Clear a couple of years ago – a platform where we inform users about how the streaming economy works and how much revenue Spotify generates for artists and creators. This is the foundation of our ethos today and ensures that more and more creators can live off their art. All-time payouts to music rights holders are now approaching $40 billion, underlining how integral we now are to the music world.
One of the things we’ve implemented successfully from an HR perspective aligns closely with the broader business strategy. We’ve changed the organisational design and operating model, from a music audio streaming company to an audio-at-large platform – shifting the load from the left leg to the right. The key to this success is being 100 percent clear and transparent to everybody, inside and outside the business, about why we shift. In the past, when we moved from a more functional structure into business units, then into a matrix model and now verticals, it has always been a very quick step from decision to operation. It is normal for a company of 9,000 plus, to consult with a wide range of people, but to actually move to operation in two weeks is something I believe is unique to Spotify. We do it quickly for efficiency of course, but also to increase throughput on what we do. From internal conversations to earnings with the CEO and CFO, we have always been open and transparent about changes compared to most companies. For a long time, we have been a one-child family and music continues to be at the core of what we do. But a few years ago, our second child came along and as the new-born, podcasts needed to be a major focus for us. Now with child number three, audiobooks, we will need to trim our sails again. As the business matures, our focus increasingly shifts to enhancing the product and ensuring that we show up in the best way for existing markets, rather than the rapid global expansion that we’ve seen in previous years. With these changes, there will inevitably be changes to our culture. If you truly believe that your people are your culture and the culture is your people, this means there will be deliberate changes to create a relevant culture, and the ideas, customs and social behaviours – and ultimately how we run the company – will be a continuous and ongoing project.
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