What is the Nordic Business Forum? Only one of the biggest annual business conferences in the world running for over 10 years now. The main event gathers together over 7500 attendees from over 40 countries worldwide.
It is a business conference on steroids, with the world’s foremost thought leaders taking to the stage to deliver inspiring and riveting speeches. Such influential giants of business have headlined at the annual forum, including, Seth Godin, Amy Cuddy, Simon Sinek, Arianna Huffington, Sir Richard Branson, US President, Barack Obama just to name a few. Upcoming in the Fall of 2019 is this years’ main event where Steve Wozniak and George Clooney will be speaking along with a full line up of business heavyweights.
In this interview, CEO of Nordic Business Forum, Aslak de Silva sat down with Clarence Paller, Director of Public Relations and Corporate Partnerships for LGFG Fashion House. Aslak is a Sales and Marketing Executive who in March 2018, took over as CEO of Nordic Business Forum.
Aslak has an inspiring story, he once was a high-level fighter, a champion even, similar to MMA style, full contact, fighting standing up and on the ground and trying to finish with a submission or knockout. Aslak feels martial arts is in many ways applicable to business. He explains, “My business life is like in martial arts, where half of the time is spent concentrating on techniques that you use. The other half of the time you train your body to be able to implement those techniques that you want to do. The body is under your control; the more you study your body, the better its condition is the more adeptly you can use it. This is applicable to business; you need to work with your brain and keep your condition up. Your nutrition needs to be there so you won’t get tired and you can concentrate. Then you will be able to absorb and apply all the information needed. You need to be able to study all the time, by reading books, listening to smart people and learn from everywhere, 24/7. I think that this is a martial arts way. Meaning, you focus on things that you are passionate about, but you focus twenty-four-seven, not just when you train in the gym for an hour or two.
First, please tell us a little bit about yourself so that our readers get to know you better.
I recently turned 40, I am half-Finnish, half-Sri Lankan, born in Finland. I have lived in five different countries. I used to be a professional martial artist I had a big number of fights under my belt, I have even fought internationally but I injured my knee when I was 22. After that, it was hard to get to the top, although I came back. I was the world champion in the year 2000 in under 60kg weight class, and then I managed to fight a little bit longer, but then in 2002 I re-injured my knee, and it took too long for me to recover from that to become a UFC style MMA fighter.
I went on to teach martial arts at about 20 clubs in the Nordics. And then I injured myself in a way, that the doctor said that if I broke my hand for the third time then I would not be able to write with it anymore.
So, then I turned to the business side, working with several companies as a Marketing Executive. I am very goal oriented and wanted to pick up a role that I felt comfortable with and one that I could envision where I wanted to go. This is precisely the kind of role that I am in now as the CEO of the Nordic Business Forum.
How did you get on board with the Forum and what was your goal when joining?
I was a client of Nordic Business Forum for about five years in different capacities. Sometimes, I would get tickets to just attend and be a part of it. For me, it was one of the many conferences that I attended, for the purpose of obtaining business learning. I thought that if I attend these conferences once or twice a year, that I would keep in pace with the modernity and business trends of the future. The Forum also served the purpose of providing me with the speakers who I needed to follow to learn from and deepen my understanding of business and leadership.
The Forum started to look for a CEO, about a year before I came on board. I was contacted by a head-hunter about the role because I knew the co-founders and I was already helping them before in opening new markets and meeting people. At first, I said I couldn’t join them because I was working for another company that I was super into as well. However, I kind of realized that I am already a customer willing to pay from out of my own pocket for the Nordic Business Forum and that I really love working with people who have the passion and drive for the future, and want to make it big. Then I thought that actually, this was the place and team for me. I knew myself and believed that I could actually succeed in the role. I was already using the knowledge that the Forum provided and thought what better place to apply the knowledge than to the Forum itself. In the Nordic markets, everything is sales and business-oriented and that is my cup of tea. So, I accepted the role and knew it was an opportunity to enhance myself as well.
Tell us about the Nordic Business Forum is and what makes it the world’s most significant business conferences?
We believe that inspiring and equipping business leaders who want to make the world a better place is the single most effective way in which we can make an effect on the whole society at large. Our mission is: “building leaders who change the world”.
Back in 2011, Nordic Business Forum set a 10-year goal of developing the annual main event into the most noteworthy business seminar in the world. Step by step we are pursuing to reach that goal by 2021. At the moment we organize business conferences in Finland, Sweden, and Norway. We provide world-class business content and networking for over 10,000 C-level executives yearly, being one of the biggest business event organizers in Europe.
We pride ourselves in kind of providing the best possible customer experience where you are taken care of from the moment you arrive at the events end. This ensures guests can actually concentrate on the theme of the event and the networking opportunities there.
For the past two years in a row, we had 7500 attendees, the maximum capacity that we could have. Of course, we still want to go bigger. We had about 20 thousand live stream viewers for the previous event; so, we are talking about 30 thousand people watching the content that we provide.
Who are the most influential speakers that the Forum has had to date?
I would say the most influential speaker we had was US President Barack Obama. That said, we have had a plethora of the world’s foremost thought leaders to speak at our event, including, Gary Vaynerchuk, Jack Welch, Sir Richard Branson and now George Clooney is coming in the Fall of 2019. Just to name a few. We are always going for the most top-level speakers in the world.
Which of these speeches had a profound impact on you? What is it like seeing these people in real life?
When you see President Obama, live, it really impacts and inspires you. There are truly so many amazing speeches, but one that really stuck with me was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s where he was explaining how he built everything up from youth to get to where he is today. He explained how he went into bodybuilding and the attitude he had in his early days. How he dealt with the doubters, stayed focused, consistent and persevered. He explained how his mindset transcended the gym and applied to real life. From there his speech covered when he went to the US and how he was not being picked up for the movies, so he had to re-focus work hard even harder for his shot. This leaves you in awe and you realize that these are real stories on what it takes to become big and make it in this world. You understand that you shouldn’t complain, and rather direct that energy to your goals and stay focused, consistent and resolute.
Another speech that really stuck with me was Simon Sinek’s where he spoke of starting with why and finding purpose. This is so important for a leader, and especially in a CEO’s position. I think it is very impactful when you actually hear what is the difference between telling people what to do but rather as a team finding the purpose together. This is a game changer in leadership and building successful work cultures and organizations.
Another greatly impactful speech I heard was the one by Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. From his speech, you understand the difference between how you build a good organization and how you build a great organization with results. His speech touched on, that if you make it to the top, then being able to identify what things to look for and spot what things to watch out for and not do. You understand that there are actually a lot of things that you could do wrong, even though you have made it to the top. It is these kinds of speeches that really make you have that ‘aha’ moment.
I also want to say that Gary Vaynerchuk speech has stuck with me, he said that you need to develop yourself all the times, and what you think is relevant today may not be relevant tomorrow. I totally agree I think you should always be prepared for what is coming tomorrow.
From the speeches and speakers have you identified patterns of success or key themes of success?
The pattern is a kind of positive optimism that you will make it, but also diligence and being able to do the hard work. It begins with setting a goal. Working hard is not enough as this can be interpreted as anything. The key is to be diligent enough and stick to the plan. Then, if something happens, you need to come up with something new and work even harder. Working hard means doing things efficiently, well thought out and consistent. Part of working smarter. As I mentioned, working hard can be interpreted in a million ways, it is the results that count. Results are formed through habit, consistent, diligent, well thought out approach and not cutting corners. A lot of people go into business conferences or read literature looking for a quick fix, but there is no easy solution that gives you sustainable results. You might see a quick peak and a quick drop at best. Therefore, you need a more comprehensive experience, which gives leaves you inspired and motivated to the challenge.
A lot of successful people state that they take challenges as opportunities and try to find ways out again. I also think this is something from martial arts, we call it a peaceful heart; when a situation puts big pressure on you and you need to stay calm, to be able to see what to do next. Successful people also live in a situation and they are not threatened by it. Successful people do not dwell in the past or project their attention to the future, rather they direct their energy, time and resources in the present moment.
What drives you: a quest for monetary rewards, desire to help people succeed, or both?
Money comes when you succeed. It is not a sole driver for me, but money is important in life, and I have a family and money is a means to support them well enough. What motivates me, especially in this job is that I am aligned with the mission that we have as a company – to build leadership that would change the world.
I think this stems from my upbringing. My mother used to be a university teacher, a lecturer, and I used to teach martial arts myself. I enjoy helping people to become better in the field that they want. This is it’s something that I am super passionate about. I am always very happy when the team I am a part of succeeds. This is the biggest motivator, to see individuals and teams grow in many ways and make it big, as a team and a company. This fuels me every day.
How do you deal with adversity and what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in your tenure so far?
Adversity is something that happens in life, and I always look for it. Sometimes I am paranoid when everything is going well, so it worries me that perhaps there is something that I did not foresee and could arise. I choose to be prepared for different scenarios and possible situations that can arise and know if they do arise how to cope with them. I always tend to look at the big picture. Again, I think it comes from my martial arts background. When a fight starts, you are more worried and tense if you don’t feel contact. When things start happening and you are in contact with your opponent, that is when you are in the zone and know how to react. That is how I work with adversity as well.
When I started here, the company was going through an intense period of change, a lot of which was unprecedented. The biggest change of all was that one of the founders stepped down as CEO to be the Chairman of the Board instead. This left the company operations in a bit of disarray. What’s more, the founders’ leadership style was to have the final say on all the decisions. When I came in, I didn’t have all their knowledge and history at my disposal to make smart decisions quickly. I also had to make the role my own. After all, I was hired because they saw potential in me to grow their company in size and strategic leadership. I had to get to work and build up that kind of confidence from the team I was working with and for them to trust that I was working for them, and this required making them work in a way that they were not used to. This meant changing the working culture to a more empowering environment so that people start making their own decisions and are not afraid of mistakes. Changing work culture was adversity in starting this role and that was not easy to go through, but now we are there and things are looking great.
There is a saying that company culture eats strategy for breakfast. Can you comment on it?
This is a great saying. For many people in organizations, there is a culture of being afraid to make decisions because of worrying about what would happen if they made a mistake. This is a fear-based organization where people worry and are scared and hence, they are reserved and don’t often step up with ideas or decisions. People fear that if they make a mistake then they will be blamed in front of everybody else, then what happens is that nobody wants to make a decision that they are uncertain of. So, they are afraid of taking risks. I think Amazon had – a constitutional ‘yes’; if nobody said no, then the decision is always yes. When I stepped in as the CEO of the Nordic Business Forum, this was one of my first orders of business. To bring about a change in attitude and create a nurturing environment where people were braver to experiment and take risks than they were in the past. This is a fundamental shift in an organization and a huge undertaking to do. Even if you tell the people you can do this, initially, they may not and it takes time and building up for them to get to a point where they feel comfortable. You can’t change culture immediately.
Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?
I don’t know about mentors that I would look for, but I am always reading books and listening to speeches. Seth Godin, for instance; I can’t say he is my mentor, but his lessons have guided me through some of the most defining moments in my career. He really says very smart things that allow you to change your thinking and see a bigger picture. In that way, he always challenges me to see different things. I love that kind of thinking, that you always need to be looking at the types of things that other people don’t see. That is what being a CEO is all about, by assembling teams and creating a culture and always looking for things that nobody else sees and then you can take care of and help the whole team.
What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of your organization?
Setting up the rules of the game of how we work. Of course, there are decisions that are money related, or who will be the speaker, where we are going to go, and setting up a vision. However, I think it’s more like, ok, what’s acceptable and what’s not, and then making that the standard. This way the whole organization knows where we are going. Other important decisions include picking up people and putting them in roles where they can succeed and as a team, we all make it big. A CEO can’t do everything and can’t be involved with everything; hence, the CEO needs to make sure the right people are in place who can make their own decisions and contribute. These people are smarter than the CEO in their own ways, and as a unit, everything comes together. The key for a CEO is to find these people and let them grow and take responsibilities. You need to be able to let things go from your table and have the faith and trust in people that they do the job at a high level.
What have you learned in the last year that will inform this company in the next year?
The way we work is that we have three cities, Helsinki, Oslo, and Stockholm, each city has one event a year. The whole year we work for one single day or two-day events. For each event, we need to deliver the utmost best customer experience. There is high pressure on sales and execution. As a team, we just need to trust that we are doing the right things. We need to deliver the best product we can to be at the top of the game, but at the same time we need to be smart enough to see that if we are a bit behind on sales, then we need to set a different plan on how to catch up the gap and not only meet targets but shatter them.
What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?
I take half an hour every morning to develop myself on a certain theme. Now I am working understanding the strategic part of the business and how to build different scenarios. I learn from the stories of how other companies were being built and how they overcame struggles when they encountered them to get to where they are today.
At other times, I may be working on marketing, sales, leadership skills, etc. I spend half an hour each day on that. In general, I am into many different things. I try to follow the media to see what is happening and to build general knowledge. On top of all that, I am always attending different business conferences, listening to podcasts, and so on. I always have a desire to be learning.
Apart from daily activities, I tend to have a few times a year, where I spend full days in conferences, training and reading books. These are like training camps, where the focus is to take a bigger step and challenge your old way of thinking by learning something bigger. This is also a good time to reflect on the past and make changes that are too big to make during busy working hours.
Learning can come from kids even. They live life in a different way than I do and you can take from them a new perspective or outlook on doing something. You need to be open to learn from everybody and see the world in all kinds of different ways. All the meantime, being focused on yourself and understanding that I need to develop one aspect and then continue. Learning has to be directed and focused effort. Being all over the place is not effective.
Nordic Business Forum set a 10-year goal of developing the annual main event into the most noteworthy business seminar in the world. Describe how the goal is becoming a reality and what else needs to happen to achieve it?
It is hard to measure, but what we want to see is continued growth on attendance. There are bigger business conferences in the world than us at this stage. Our goal is to become the biggest for business owners and C-level executives. For the Fall 2019 main event, we will have seven and a half thousand tickets sold, but we have three events and the other two have to grow to the same caliber as well.
Another metric of success is becoming more international. We had 47 different nationalities last year at the main event. We want to increase that. In order to be the most noteworthy forum in the world, we need to be the most international. People need to travel to see us or tune in through the live stream.
International media coverage and social media including tweets, posts, comments all are major components to the growth of the Nordic Business Forum. The more attention we have from the world’s press as well as activity on social media is vital in growing the Nordic Business Forum and growing our company as a whole.
Who would be the top people you would like to see at future Nordic Business Forums?
For sure it would be people like, Jack Ma, Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos. These are the kind of caliber people that we want to see come to the Nordic and speak. Of course, there are other business gurus that we would like to see.
Is there any room for collaboration with other forms and people doing a similar thing for the future?
We are pretty open actually sharing information and collaborating. We know event production and being cutting edge to make the best possible experience. For example, we have figured out how to make catering for 7,500 people simple and fast, while also reducing food waste. We have mapped out the most efficient check-in routes to minimize our customers’ waiting time upon arrival. We have even planned out the logistics of our toilet lines so that people do not need to cross their legs for too long! We are incredibly good at those logistical things. Whereas, another company may have an affinity for something that could be beneficial for us. It is about working together to create the best possible experience.
What advice do you have for other CEOs?
Being able to work with millennials is big for any CEO. In my previous company, it was very nice because I got to work a lot with them. Before working with millennials, I got used to everyone waiting on my direction and expecting I would guide them through everything. Whereas, with the millennials it was different. I recall making a marketing plan with them. What we did is we opened up a Google Docs sheet and then made a table of contents there, and people started working on that immediately. I was blown away at what was happening. They kind of divided themselves by the skillsets of each team member and they would all start working on their part. During that process, when they didn’t know where to go, they asked for my help or they asked for my opinion. However, a lot of stuff they could do on their own and they never needed my attention there.
Observing this, I understood how these different people think and what kinds of capabilities they have. I saw the value that they could bring and gave them the chance to trust themselves. Being supportive of them and letting them shine, while also pushing them. I noticed some were still not exactly trusting of themselves and the self-confidence part was not there. I was helping them to build self-trust and self-confidence. I would suggest books, podcasts or people for them to follow that would help if they were struggling with something,
I took these lessons to heart when I joined the Nordic Business Forum. We work with a guideline called SEE THE DEAL, which come from words: Smooth, Energizing, Experience, Take ownership, Have fun, Embrace curiosity, Do it with heart, Exceed expectations, Always give your very best, Let others shine. This a very powerful way to work as a team and ensure that everyone brings in value, but also gets recognized for the efforts. It feels good to be part of a team with such a great approach.
In one year, they were so good at marketing that they doubled the revenue of the company. It was because of the millennials. It was their first job ever, and nobody has trusted them before, but when you give them that kind of trust and let them kind of build themselves up, step by step to be a professional, that is what works. That is what I am always trying to do. I am always trying to trust that people are better than you think, and you just need to find that talent in them and work with that.
The result is that they are super motivated and committed to you, they trust you and will do great things for you. With companies who don’t treat millennials this way is what happens many times where the young worker gets frustrated and they go off and do their own thing. Many start-ups began this way.
Having more experience than a millennial doesn’t mean that you know everything better. Rather, it means that you have experience of something that can help them. As a CEO you are just there to help them to succeed. When you understand that everything gets better and your company can grow leaps and bounds.