Diversity from Denmark: The Value of Recruiting Collectivists like Mikkel Svane

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Jul 10, 2015

shutterstock_235536577When Zendesk’s CEO, Mikkel Svane, moved to Silicon Valley in 2009, he and his Scandinavian co-founders experienced culture shock: hiring Americans. No one prepared them for this phenomenological challenge, so they learned by experience how to hire top talent in the States. Specifically, they expanded their capacity to intuitively read people, because they found in Americans a notoriously boastful workforce. Americans tend to “tout their abilities,” says Svane in Startupland, his 2015 book on Zendesk’s startup story.

Svane found value in hiring Americans, and it paid off. I decided to turn the value proposition around by asking, “What value can Americans gain in hiring Scandinavians like Svane, who come from a collectivist culture?”

Research reveals that recruiting collectivists brings unique value to American companies.

Hiring is Different in Denmark: Collectivism

Hiring Americans was a challenge for Svane and his Danish co-founders (Alexander Aghassipour and Morten Primdahl), because of the ‘Law of Jante,’ which is “a Scandinavian mentality that urges people to be modest.” The Law of Jante fits within the broader cultural mentality of collectivism.

Collectivism, according to Managing Business Ethics, “emphasizes collective purposes over personal goals and group harmony over individual achievement.” In addition to Scandinavian cultures, which are at least historically collectivists, many Asian and Latin countries are considered collectivists as well. Their cultural background adds to unique characteristics in the workplace. For example, This American Life tells a story of how a collectivist mindset contributed to the assembly-line success of Japanese-based Toyota.

Americans are not collectivists; we’re generally categorized as individualists.

The Value of Recruiting Collectivists: Diversity and Innovation

So what value do American companies gain in recruiting a collectivist?

First, collectivists bring diversity to the workplace and that’s hot right now. Current employees want more diversity than currently exists in most workplaces. A recent Glassdoor survey “revealed that more than half (57 percent) of people think their company should be doing more to increase diversity among its workforce. One in ten (14 percent) don’t think their company needs to do more.”

Second, candidates are looking for diversity. The same diversity survey above showed that “a full two-thirds (67 percent) of active and passive job seekers said that a diverse workforce is an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers.” That means whether a company wants to retain current employees or recruit new employees, it will do well to hire for diversity.

Third, collectivists tend to cultivate innovation throughout the team, not just in their own workflow. Collectivists characteristically think in terms of the group more than the individual. So while talent acquisition is important, look at the broader ROI, which lies in how they lead teams, especially innovation teams.

For example, Carl Waldekranz, Scandinavian CEO and co-founder of Tictail (the “Tumblr of e-commerce”), says while the Law of Jante can be limiting, “It creates very flat hierarchies. Although I have the title of CEO, [Tictail] is being built by every person in this company. That just creates an environment where innovation can come from all places.”

Recruiting for innovation teams? Recruit a candidate from a collectivist background, from a country like Denmark, Sweden, Slovenia, Portugal, and Bulgaria. While times are changing, these European countries (in addition to some Asian and Latin countries) have a history of thinking in terms of the group over the individual. This is important especially if you are recruiting for a senior level position, because humility listens to ideas from all levels.

You never recruit a candidate just because of cultural background. That’s called racism. However, when you do recruit a candidate from a collectivist culture, they will bring desired diversity to a company, which statistically impacts employee satisfaction, attracts new recruits, and brings a certain kind of leadership-humility that encourages innovation from employees “below” them on the org chart.

Svane’s Story of Hiring Someone Smarter

Svane’s story offers a great example of how collectivists add value to a growing team in his book Startupland.

Zendesk needed a new VP of engineering in order to go to the next level, which meant that Svane’s two co-founders (Alexander and Morten) would report to this new hire. With the help of HR and recruiting expert Nancy Connery from, they found Adrian McDermott.

Svane quickly realized that McDermott was more experienced and smarter than him. Hiring him was a huge challenge for Svane’s pride, but he made the hire anyway. His decision was pivotal, because McDermott took them to the next level; he now leads a team of over 300 people all around the world.

The three co-founders of Zendesk maintain the collectivist modesty, which looks more to the interest of the group than of the individual. This modesty helped them hire someone smarter and more experienced than they were. That story is an example of the value added with modest leaders. Collectivists are taught to release employees to innovate beyond their own individual capacity.

How do you effectively recruit a collectivist? Start by knowing that collectivists do not usually brag. Recruiters will probably have to dig to find how the candidate rises above the crowd in terms of talent and accomplishments.

Scandinavians Like Svane

Svane’s modesty allowed him to hire someone smarter than he was. Zendesk went from zero to $1b worth in their first seven years; it now has 50,000+ customers. Perhaps some of its success in the Silicon Valley startup scene is because Svane and his Scandinavian counterparts were first been broken by the Law of Jante. This produced a collectivist-type of modesty, and it brought that modesty to hiring in America. Thus, Zendesk’s story has more to teach than the importance of learning to hire in a new culture; perhaps the great lesson is that modesty from group-focused leaders, regardless of cultural background, can make for great teams, not just great hires.

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