What I Learned Managing Thousands Of Nerds In Russia, China And Germany

Revenge of the Nerds

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In 1998, I sold part of my company (which I had founded in 1986, when I was 13) to the Finnish IT services firm Tieto. Two years later we made it a full merger, and I joined the Tieto management team.I was used to managing 200 Finnish nerds, with whom my straight-ahead approach (my nickname is “Bulldozer”) got great results. But Tieto was growing rapidly and going global. Before long I was managing thousands of nerds in Russia, China, Germany, the U.S., and other countries.

And it wasn’t working. Tieto gave managers a leadership score (formal name: Leadership Index/VCC Value Creation Capital) every year, based on surveys of the people who worked for and with them. The best score was 100; I had started out, in 1998, in the 90s. By 2002, I was down to 54. A year later, not long after Tieto’s leadership (myself included) decided that anyone with a leadership score under 25 should be fired, I got a 27.

It was a true leadership nightmare. Despite my years of experience, monetary success, and the fact that I had not changed a thing in my daily executive routine, I was lost. To figure out what had gone wrong, I traveled around the world and met with my employees, usually in hotel meeting rooms. “What the heck is wrong with my leadership?” I asked them. The answers varied a lot between countries. With people in China, whatever I asked, they said, “Yes sir.” But there were some common themes:

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This post originally appeared at Harvard Business Review.