Company news 5/8/17

Captain of growth says leaders must come down from their ivory towers – He himself has abseiled down the Helsinki Olympic Stadium tower

Sami Karkkila is taking Finland’s best IT leadership practices to the world

 

  • This is a free translation of the article written by journalist Enni Mansikkamäki and published in Kauppalehti, #1 business daily in Finland, on July 27th 2016.
  • See here the orginal version in Finnish and photos
  • At the end of the article: Video of the Olympic tower stunt mentioned in the text

 

A little over a year ago, Sofigate CEO Sami Karkkila was staring down from 72 metres, sitting on the edge of Helsinki Olympic Stadium tower. Harnessed and with a security wire attached to his back, Karkkila began to descend the tower, face first.

“I’ve done many crazy things, but have never been so scared as I was then. Below, I saw an ambulance and thought it wouldn’t help much if I fell.”

The motivation for the stunt – inspired by the Amazing Race show – wasn’t merely hunger for excitement. Together with the CIOs of Neste and Pöyry, to name but a few, Karkkila wanted to inspire companies to seize the changes in the IT field.

“Our message was that modern leaders can’t stay up in the ivory tower. They need to come down and give everything they got. No one knows where and how fast digitalisation will go but it’s the time to embrace the changing world.”

Before, IT management was seen strictly in its own box. Now, with digitalisation, it has become an essential part of everything. Karkkila finds it strange that for many companies, digital business is still a separate entity from other business areas.

“The problem is that IT and business are often considered as areas apart from each other. In order to really find the best ways to exploit digitalisation, business and IT need to work in close cooperation. The companies bridging this gap will be successful in the future.”

Sofigate has developed its IT management competence into a Finnish export product. According to Karkkila, it’s time to spread to the world the best practices of IT management, created with the help of various organizations and companies.

“It’s easier to collaborate in a small country like Finland. In bigger market areas, it’s harder to build communities to develop best practices together.”
Karkkila believes that many companies need support to take the leap in to digitalisation. Competent IT management can open doors to new growth possibilities. However, a great deal depends on a customer’s needs and readiness to accept help.

“The big difference between the markets in Finland and Sweden is that Swedish companies are more eager to accept help. In some cases, customers want to begin with the whole package, whereas sometimes cooperation is launched when our expert goes to a company for a half-day assignment.”

Karkkila spends much of his working hours meeting customers. Sofigate’s motto is customer first. He believes that right actions with customers lead directly to good results.

“My colleagues would describe me as someone who doesn’t look at the score board as the first thing. It’s more important to do the right thing and produce work of good quality. Results will follow.”

Sofigate’s innovation centre is located in Otaniemi, only a few hundred metres from the student residence where Karkkila spent his very first years. He inherited his father’s interest in technology and was planning to follow in his footsteps to become Master of Science in Technology. As Karkkila has been building his career, he has taken after his father and grandfather who both were experienced management professionals.

In addition to technology, Karkkila felt equally attracted to business. To combine both areas, he decided to study Industrial Engineering and Management.

But it so happened that Karkkila was pulled into working life before he had the chance to graduate. He abandoned complementary studies of logistics in Gothenburg and took a job at Ericsson, and eventually found himself working at Telecom Finland, currently Telia.

“I have always been amazed at how easily everything just happened. Back then, it wasn’t even particularly easy to find work. I got the job of my dreams at Telecom Finland.”

Even at the beginning of his career, work was already taking him around the world and he never got the chance to continue his studies. He would spend over a hundred days per year travelling around Asia, Australia, America and Europe. Karkkila feels, however, that he has continued his learning path in practice as he jumped from large corporations to the captain’s chair in a growth company.

“At Sofigate, we challenge each other in discussions more than people do in most companies. Employees often come to meet me to challenge my views. I have never before experienced such a working environment.”

The turning point of his career took place three years ago. After building an international career in large companies, he was ready to take the next step and move into more influential circles in Europe. The family had discussed moving to Germany, which seemed to be a natural next career step. Karkkila faced a hard decision when Juha Huovinen, founder of Sofigate, told him that he was looking for a new leader for his company – one that would make it grow.

“I found the opportunity very interesting, but the decision was hard and I took my time thinking about it. In the beginning, I didn’t even have the courage to tell my family about the offer I had got. If I could travel back in time and see Sami trying to make a decision, I would pat him on the shoulder and say that he’s making the right decision.”

Joining a growth company meant working in the discomfort zone, in an environment that was changing rapidly. But Karkkila found himself inspired by challenges brought by growth.

“I am a growth person, it’s in my genes. For me, growth means new opportunities and breaking boundaries – even though it scared me a bit.”
Juha Huovinen has a bold vision for Sofigate’s future.

The company is aiming at a turnover of €100m and a headcount of 750 employees by 2020. Since Karkkila’s arrival, during the last two-and-a-half years, Sofigate’s staff and turnover have doubled and the company has also launched its business in Sweden.

Karkkila says, however, that there’s still some journey to make before becoming a truly European company. The target of €100m requires not only recruitment but also non-organic growth leaps, such as acquisitions, partnerships and outsourcings.

“I am sincerely admitting that I don’t yet have all the answers that we need to achieve our goals. Writers often say that I know the idea of this book but I don’t know yet how the story goes. I feel the same way about Sofigate.”

“A CEO needs to go all in,” Karkkila remembers thinking during the first event of Sofigate’s IT Academy.

Every Sofigate employee participates in IT Academy to master the best practices of IT management. Although Academy consists of a heavy package of information, learning happens through practice and real customer cases.

In IT Academy, employees are challenged to test their limits.

“I jumped on the stage to perform a dance, wearing a dark blue suit. As I was dancing, I tore my trousers so that my white underpants were peeking out. At that moment, I felt I really gave my all. I had to fix the hole with safety pins before the next customer meeting.”

At Sofigate, personal development and breaking boundaries are more than IT Academy activities. The company has started a year-long game, Sofipoly, where employees adopt Sofigate’s concepts via gamification methods.

“Gamification means playful competition but it also helps us to strengthen our operating model. It’s amazing to see how people enjoy themselves and, at the same time, they are doing exactly the things I want them to do.”

Spontaneity and dialogue. These are Karkkila’s two main principles for taking Sofigate forward. His objective has been to create a systematic and goal-oriented way of leading people, without bureaucracy.

“Leadership is very spontaneous. It is about trying something and then going back. I am constantly testing my leadership skills but, at least this way, I see what being present as a leader really means. Instead of slavishly following strategy papers, we constantly make important decisions.”

Karkkila is a strong believer in dialogue, which he sees as the catalyst of change. To build a great dialogue, people need to be outspoken and have the courage to raise difficult issues.

“At Sofigate, we challenge each other in discussions more than people do in most companies. Employees often come to meet me to challenge my views. I have never before experienced such a working environment.”

 

Karkkila’s mantras

  • Success is never random. Success requires a lot of systematic work, spontaneity and courage.
  • Growth is a decision. It’s not automatic. Owners must agree on the targets for growth and adopt necessary means.
  • You have to understand the value of an expert. Experts need to be given responsibility and shown trust. If top experts don’t get the chance to develop themselves, they will go and find another working place.

 

Sami Karkkila

  • Career. Sofigate’s CEO from January 2014. Business Area Director at Atos between 2011 and 2014. Sales and Marketing Director at Siemens IT Solutions and Services between 2010 and 2011. Director of Business Process Outsoucing at CGI between 2006 and 2010.
  • Education. Student of technology. Studied Industrial Engineering and Management at the University of Lappeenranta.
  • Born in Espoo, in 1973.
  • Other positions. Chairman of the board for Sofigate Group companies, such as Sofigate Services, Sofigate Tampere and Sofigate AB. Member of the board at Sofigate Group.
  • Family. Married to Arja Karkkila. Two sons.
  • Hobbies. Water sports, such as windsurfing and surfing. Running. Ball games.

 

Sofigate

  • Company. Offers IT and digitalisation management as productised services.
  • Founded in 2003.
  • Owned by management. The main owner is Juha Huovinen, the founder of the company.
    Customers. International companies such as Kone, Neste and Pöyry. Sofigate’s services are used by more than half of Finland’s TOP100 companies and many large public sector organisations.
  • Turnover. 27,9 million euros (2015). Estimate for 2016 is 35 million euros.
  • Staff. 200 employees (2015). Estimate for 2016 is more than 250 employees.

 

Captions
See photos in the original article in Kauppalehti.

  • In tough company. In June, London Stock Exchange Group identified Sofigate as one of 1000 fast-growing companies to Inspire Europe. According to Sami Karkkila, it was an unexpected honour for the company. Photo: Satumaari Ventelä.
  • Hundreds of solutions. Sami Karkkila believes that daily decision-making is the key to success. “It’s strange to see companies that still build one strategy and stick to that. A great strategy requires 200 good decisions per year.” Photo: Satumaari Ventelä.

 

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