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[Interview] Pekka Viljakainen, Author of “No Fear: Business Leadership for the Digital Age” (Part II)


Leading business information architect and IT entrepreneur Pekka A. Viljakainen’s was recently in town to give a talk and promote his book “No Fear: Business Leadership for the Digital Age“, and we were fortunate enough to catch him for a short interview to talk about how business leadership in the new digital era. In this interview, Viljakainen also shares some thoughts about entrepreneurship and globalization.

This is Part II of the interview.

Digital Cowboys from different cultures are likely to work somewhat differently from each other. How do cultural differences play into what you’re recommending in “No Fear“?

Viljakainen: I’m actually flying off to Beijing to launch my book, so this question is particularly relevant.

Asian leadership typically is the “top-down” approach, and “down-to-top” things are generally frowned upon. But the capital of the world is going to be in Asia in the coming years. Also, many Asian businesses are looking to expand overseas into the U.S, into Europe.

If you think that expanding into another country simply means buying up another business, you are going to be screwed as it doesn’t work that way. If you don’t show value creation, the best talent in the business you buy over will leave. The Chinese companies, and other Asian companies, know that. But the tricky part is, how do they change?

What I’ve found is that the best way to do this is to put the best young international talents and their superiors – who are probably from an earlier generation – to work on the same business cases. Putting these leaders on the front line is the trick.

You’ve been to around 75 different countries and experienced different cultures. Which country or culture tend to create more Digital Cowboys than others?

This is potentially a politically sensitive question, but I would say that in parts of the United States people are using technology actively. Having said that you can also find the most narrow-minded people from the U.S – people who talk about wanting to do business in Russia or China without ever visiting these countries. You cannot fully compensate your lack of knowledge about the physical world by using the web.

Some of the European countries are extremely active socially. Danes and the Dutch have been traders for centuries – therefore they are more open minded. Not the Finns though – for example, the Swedes are far more social than Finns and have more international friendships.

The Chinese too – I love their work ethic and culture. They have a healthy respect for learning, and learning all the time is the most important.

Tell us about the No Fear community site that you’ve put together.

With the launch of the book in China, we’ve released 41 video interviews with top business leaders from around the world.

The objective of the site is not to compete with TED or the LinkedIn community, but to collect material, views and content related to this topic of leadership in the digital generation in one place. It is also to promote the book for sure, but the idea is that while there is quite a lot of material around this topic, it is scattered all over the Internet.

Let’s talk about globalization – recently in Singapore there were some push-back against globalization with recent reports on big companies here hiring top talent from overseas instead of using and local talent. How do you see leadership in the new millennium evolve?

I don’t know anything about the reports you’ve mentioned, but my spontaneous reaction to those who ask “Why should there be a need for foreigners?” are idiots. The fact is that you cannot learn to be international without dealing with different people. If a Singapore company wants to operate in Asia, you simply have to live in Malaysia, China, Taiwan and see how the Singapore company can add value to those consumers.

The cheapest way to get that knowledge is to hire those people into your company.

Let’s give you an example – Nokia is a great company, but when there was a speculation who could become the new chief executive of the company, there was no chance of selecting a Finn there. It would be nice to find someone who can understand the sauna culture, the language, all the right jokes and the strengths and weaknesses of Finns. But having Stephen Elop, an American-Canadian go into Nokia and questioning everything – that is a good thing. He’s most likely to be the most hated person there, but questioning how things work is right for the company.

So my point is that any company, in Singapore or anywhere else, must have true diversity in their management. And if there is push back, there is something wrong with society and not with the individual (joining the company).

I say this because Finland, where I come from, is really bad at this. We have one of the best telecommunications networks, and are extremely well connected, but it can be very difficult to integrate people into our culture. I see it as the single biggest issue for Finland’s competitiveness moving forward.

What lessons in this book you think are really relevant to new and aspiring entrepreneurs?

Firstly, there are many videos on the No Fear community that would apply to entrepreneurs, but the one they must watch is the one with Peter Vesterbacka, one of the co-founders of Rovio – the company that made the game Angry Birds. He’s my neighbor. That is directly relevant to entrepreneurs.

But one lesson in the book is cultural diversity. Thinking that you just gather the best young talent and give them iPads, that is not the optimum solution. If you are a young entrepreneur, you should look at having diversity even if you are just ten people (in the company). Having international presence, a good gender and racial mix, different ages, can help to shape and change thinking.

Secondly, at every single step an entrepreneur should be thinking about how to take the company global.

Thirdly, if you are an entrepreneur, you will only succeed if you develop your people. When I was a young manager, I simply recruited talent, gave them tasks and hoped for the best. But I had to put a lot of effort into developing them further (to get them best out of them). Too many entrepreneurs get sidetracked and ignore this aspect of leadership and people development. The quality of a leader is always measured by the quality of his or her direct reports. If your direct report sucks, you can’t be a great leader.

And finally – no fear. There is absolutely nothing to be afraid of this world. Except your mother.

Read Part I here. You can also check out our review of “No Fear: Business Leadership for the Digital Age here.

Book Giveaway!

Win an autographed copy of Pekka Viljakainen’s No Fear: Business Leadership for the Digital Age! All you have to do is leave us a comment below on your thoughts on Digital Cowboys, the new digital generation, globalization and/or cultural differences in employment. The best comment wins.

*Contest is available for people residing in Singapore only.