Delving into the director’s mindset: An interview with Heidi Dahl

For our first interview we’re chatting with Heidi Dahl - Director of Innovation Norway South Africa, a company that describes itself as the “Norwegian government’s most important instrument for innovation and development” and supports “companies in developing their competitive advantage.” All this on their homepage, we knew that we wanted to uncover the hidden gem behind the direction of the company. Why start a local campaign with an international company that is not South African in origin? I’m glad we’re pre-empting the question.

In a climate where cultural pride could easily be held back by 4 lines drawn in the sand, (ironically drawn by anyone seeking to uplift it) it is important to note the extremity to which technology has shaped culture. As a result, once important culturally-driven practices have been deemed unnecessary and dangerously outdated. So how does it all relate to business in South Africa?

Innovation Norway, with its business goals and approach to global innovation, showcases why investment in South Africa is a great idea. Plain and simple. They can go anywhere else, but they chose SA as part of a bigger picture to upscale industry and empower international economies. JA, we’re interviewing the Mother City; and Innovation Norway is every bit a part of it as any local-blooded-small-business is when it comes to a positive outlook for our country.

So before we dive into our interview with Heidi, I’ll greet everyone:

Welcome to the age of the internet - where the lone(too proud)wolf will perish and where partnerships are enriching trails towards a sustainable forward-thinking future! Let’s look at some of the insights that may help you gain a more informed perspective of positivity.

1. On expansion and exposure

During her 20’s Heidi had moved down the Prime Meridian line and worked for various big private companies and combined it with exposure to inward investment, export, banks and tourism boards. Today, Heidi emphasises the importance of her time spent across continents and reminds us that “you have to find the strength in yourself to say I will always be okay” and that “you can never build an international network unless you’re actually there.” So what has Heidi, who has successfully managed 15 offices simultaneously across the European continent, come to learn from her travels?

“It’s very important in business to get a global mindset. The world is getting smaller and you can sit in SA or Norway and think you have a global mindset - and you might, but it’s not the same as being out there. Going abroad is not for everybody, but I believe that anyone is capable if they just take the plunge. Personally, you have to be aware that the first few weeks are always exciting, but then you will also get normal days which won’t be as exciting and you’ll have to pick yourself up - have a positive attitude.”

“Learn to say: Okay, that is life. As long as you have a positive attitude, you can get through it.”

How many SA Businesses look to expand abroad, but get cold feet once the initial horizon-adrenaline wears off? How many local businesses can expand more successfully by simply implementing a positive mindset to stave off any doubts formed by normalcy and figures that don’t represent target growth rates or ROI?

2. Advice for anyone who finds it challenging to be bold

Many people advise us to simply face challenges with boldness and speak up when the time comes. Speaking up sounds practical, but much is lost between the communication amongst mid-level employees and the support from either peers or superiors to hear them out. Do your team members have the opportunities to really speak their mind without your sudden urge to revisit the company budget with regards to bonuses and affordability of employment? We asked Heidi about her thoughts on facing daunting challenges.

“I have been very fortunate, but I haven’t always been bold. I come from a family who had a couple of kids, so you had to speak up; and if you didn’t put your hand up and said what you needed, you wouldn’t get it. It was a survival instinct. I think people have to embrace their fears. You just have to look at it straight in the eyes and you shouldn’t hide the way you feel.“

“People say you shouldn’t feel scared, but if you feel scared then say, ‘I DO feel scared’. You should then think to yourself:

Okay, but how do I overcome it?”

“I have four daughters and tell them all the time that it’s okay to feel a bit shaky. Feel good about it, because that is how you grow. It is allowed to make mistakes, but when you make a mistake ask yourself immediately: What did I learn from it? Then you readjust and say, ‘okay, it was stupid’, but don’t give up. If you have a bad day and feel like everything is falling to pieces, the day after you go at it again. It has everything to do with your attitude and your mindset.

The sentiment of picking yourself up after a bad day or month can seem very obvious, but how many start-ups start to count these days and justify excuses regarding surrender? The critical error here is that they’re counting. There is no count, no tally, no popular vote. It’s falling and it’s getting back up. If the moment ever rears its misaligned head and you feel like not getting back up, then you have to remind yourself that the bird will catch the worm tomorrow. Your small moment of crisis needs to be looked at straight in the eyes and faced with the full intent of you readjusting and going at it again. I’m not saying embrace failure. I’m saying that it’s not failure keeping you down, it’s fear. Face it. Embrace it. Overcome it.

3. On being audacious

In August we looked at the shift from a negative Audacity towards a positive Audacity. What thoughts can you share on being Audacious?

“Being audacious - it’s a difficult and polarising word for many people and to change that attitude takes a lot. If you ask people they might rather think it could be negative, offensive, rude or aggressive - all the things I don’t like.

This point should not be overlooked. Informing positivity requires of you to alter a viewpoint on a certain subject. The subject (like a country) can seem extremely negative on the surface, but we need to make the shift towards a positive mindset where painstaking problems become promising possibilities.

4. On role models & mentorship

“If you wanna grow as a person, it’s very difficult if the only person you’re looking at is yourself. It’s very difficult to grow, because where do you go? Look at others for inspiration. Different people inspire you in different ways. Role models change over the years and you should have different role models for different stages of life. But beyond role models it’s very good to have mentors early on in your career. Where it’s better to have sponsors in the middle of your career.”

“Mentors will talk with you, but sponsors will talk about you.”

5. Thoughts on strong leaders

In recognising Heidi’s impressive career we felt it pertinent to hear what characteristics she believes to be critical to leadership roles.

“Positivity is one thing that really is so important - having a positive attitude. They need passion through their commitment to what they are doing. Honesty, integrity and to be really good communicators - know how to listen; that’s why we have two ears and only one mouth. They need to be able to delegate and empower others. Positivity is SO important when you think about these things.

There exists a certain mindset that leaders are, in the majority, great speakers - great speakers have good speeches - they are always passionate and inspiring. It would be a shame however to mistake an overactive voice box for great leadership. The integrity of a leader to listen and adequately respond is what sets the better among us, apart. On the other hand, don’t mistake the requirement of someone to listen as a requirement for them to agree with you. Be humble in your integrity, learn from others - especially when you disagree with them.

6. On the next generation - opportunity & circumstance

Generation Y is a blunt one. We can definitely refine our tact and cultivate our respect for differing opinions - especially the more vocal among us - but it is crucial for both Gen Y and Gen Z to consider how we are currently perceived by Gen X. These considerations are what will empower us to assess our own understanding of perception when we rise to leadership positions - the sooner we learn, the more we can build on our way forward.

We asked Heidi to share her views on whether she believes that our generation is on the right track - here is what she had to say:

“Definitely. The next generation is much more open - you guys just know that you’re gonna have to do what it takes to make things happen. I have two daughters and two bonus daughters and the first time the twins came here, we went out to eat. And they said to me, can’t you see it? Are you blind or something? Look around! They were really upset, because in these restaurants were only white people - they said ‘do you think this is okay? Is this alright?’ Of course it’s not okay. So they would not put up with it. That generation - that is where the big changes will come. Because you’ll force it through. This country has such great opportunities and that’s the only way you’ll move forward.

This is an important tip of the hat to self-assessment, because saying that ‘you’ve got what it takes’ is not enough. Our generation needs to take a good hard look at the way we’re moving forward because simply being pre-dominantly passionate, does not make us good leaders. We need to expose ourselves to each other’s critical issues and break the mould of oblivious leadership. Yes, we might not put up with outdated societal norms, but there’s a fine line between being passion-puppets and being proactively aware of the changes that need to be addressed.

Thanks to Heidi who gave her time to sit down with us and provide a director’s perspective on South Africa. We trust that this interview will allow more people to inform their positivity practically and help to build towards a more sustainable optimism.

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Kind Regards Johan Bronkhorst Co-Founder & Director