In the five years that have passed under CEO Pernilla Dahlman’s remarkable leadership, Daresay has seen a five-fold increase in sales, has been profitable every year, and has doubled the number of women and co-workers with a foreign background. With all of these amazing accomplishments, the company has been bestowed with a Gaselle award for the second year in a row. In this sincere interview, Pernilla tells you all about the pros and cons of her liberal and inclusive leadership.
Five years ago, Daresay recruited a new CEO to take the company to the next level. The recruitment process took longer than usual, but then again, the owners weren’t looking for the typical CEO. They wanted someone who values sustainability, diversity and humanism, rather than just economic growth and flashy status markers.
They eventually found the perfect candidate for the job in Pernilla Dahlman, a marketing director from the tech and design industry with a background in business development and change management, who previously worked at the global engineering group Sandvik.
Fast forward five years and Daresay has received its second straight Gaselle award, presented to the country’s fastest-growing companies by Dagens Industri, Sweden’s financial daily newspaper. During Pernilla’s leadership, company turnover has returned a five-fold increase, and employee diversity has also expanded, especially in relation to women and an international presence: among the company’s ninety employees are twenty-two different nationalities, with a perfectly even gender distribution.
Daresay has received a Gaselle award for the second consecutive year. What would you say are the three main reasons for success?
From a macro perspective, the urgency for organisations to digitally transform is clearly beneficial for us. Today many consultants focus on thinking about, understanding and writing different reports on the topic. For us, it’s more about speed and accuracy, methods where you can get started quickly and move forward fast with the help of end-user validation.
In addition to a favourable macro climate, everything we do is ultimately about delivering fantastic services to our customers. But in order to do that, of course, the organisation must have certain conditions in place. So over the past five years, I have worked to systematically introduce these conditions into the micro-environment.
How did you do that?
It’s all about creating a culture of innovation – building a safe, permissive, inclusive, and transparent environment where each employee can grow to his or her full potential. This applies to their customer projects as well as their contributions to the company. Prioritising diversity is central in making this happen; a strong innovation culture has a natural element of diversity out of which innovation is born.
The company is not run according to a completely capitalistic paradigm. I have a dedicated mandate from our board and holders to build an efficient company that acts entirely based on these values. Of course, I have to deliver healthy profitability, but maximising and making huge profits is not the main object.
“The company is not run according to a completely capitalistic paradigm. I have a dedicated mandate from our board and holders to build an efficient company that acts entirely based on these values. Of course, I have to deliver healthy profitability, but maximising and making huge profits is not the main object.”
Pernilla Dahlman CEO, Daresay
So, profitability isn’t a goal in itself, but a means to achieve sustainability in a broader sense?
Exactly! My personal belief is that soon enough, companies will have to account for sustainability. Future generations of job seekers will be looking for work based on the values of the company and on the social impact they compel. There are already rankings that measure the social impact of companies on the world. I think such considerations will grow in significance.
When you started working here the company had already had some success, but it had also had some growing pains, with relatively high staff turnover and a narrower offer that didn’t quite reflect the clients’ needs. Now the offer is more extensive and covers technology as well as design and strategy, with a clear altruistic profile. It’s always easier to push through change in periods of success, but it seems that you have had good internal support for your philosophy from day one. How did you experience it?
Everything began with the owners and I discussing our common value base. We had a rather long recruitment process with many meetings, where we talked about things I wasn’t used to talking about in other job interviews: For example, a very important topic was how we view people. The owners were very clear on the matter: “We do not believe in CVs and titles; we believe in people, diversity, and that everyone is unique”. In this view, we had a lot in common.
I think it’s a good match – a humanistic and value-driven person like me, and a design-driven organisation. There are the same basic values: we’re both humanistic and people-centred, and we appreciate humility and respect for the individual. We believe in making designs and products to promote a good cause, not designing something that’s not optimal for people to use.
Do you feel that the employees also buy into these ideas?
Yes, I do. And of course, that has a lot to do with the recruitment process we use. We actively listen for certain markers. Our recruitment is value-based. People who do not buy into the idea tend to self-sort out at the second interview, because the match isn’t there. If you’re with us, you’ve already passed that test. But there are always disadvantages to everything. There are very obvious drawbacks to this, too.
This total freedom and the trust that everyone can contribute to the organisation and its offerings, it’s a rather loose and liberal leadership that isn’t super effective in the traditional sense of the word. It doesn’t provide an optimised machine that delivers exactly the same outcome every time. This can be seen as time for innovation.
In what sense is it time for innovation?
There are quite a few projects that we take on that end up on a shelf somewhere and never reach end customers. One example is parts of what we do in our so-called “Lab”, where employees who are between customer projects develop new ideas.
In Labs, there are no hard and fast rules about how the process occurs. Personally, I find this type of environment constructive – it’s a kind of meta-learning that goes on all the time, whether or not it’s geared toward an end-point. We might learn something in a Labs project that never reaches the end customer, but then we’ll use it for a customer project the next time around. So I think we build a kind of value there anyway. But of course, there can be friction, too; some employees find it hard to work in such a free, somewhat unstructured, and very open environment. Some people need more structure and follow-up.
You have also opened offices in Umeå in northern Sweden, and for a period you had an office in Dubai with about fifteen employees. What lessons have you learned from the expansion both domestically and internationally?
I believe in learning by having a presence in different parts of the world and in different cultures. And just as I believe in diversity on site, I believe we have a lot to gain between all of our hubs. When we opened the office in Dubai, we misjudged the amount of effort needed to establish a business in that market; we simply didn’t have enough knowledge. This was a learning experience that will be useful for the future, because within our diversity and multiculturalism, we have a built-in desire to expand abroad; so we’ll do it again sooner or later. This time it was just a bit too early.
We opened in Umeå in part because the company originated there but also because several of our employees are interested in being there. Additionally, there are great schools focused on design and technology in Umeå. Having a presence there benefits us greatly, and we’ve had a much easier time establishing ourselves there than we did in Dubai.
Even if Daresay has been successful, the industry as a whole has had some problems in terms of profitability in recent years. Why is that, and what conclusions do you draw from it?
Firstly, the level of customer readiness to purchase our services has changed in recent years. Ten or fifteen years ago, it was completely new to buy design-driven development. Along with many other agencies and companies, we’ve driven our mission for a number of years, and we’ve developed an excellent customer base. More recently, the market has matured, our offerings have matured, and the ability of customers to recruit their own specialists has increased. So to a certain extent, the customers do more themselves today, which means that our offer has to become more niched, more premium.
What the industry must do at this point to stay relevant is to reinvent ourselves and how we work. For example, I think the industry in general is not particularly effective at articulating value for the customer. We’re passionate about our way of working and our philosophy, but we tend to forget to connect the high value we deliver to business KPIs.
“To a certain extent, the customers do more themselves today, which means that our offer has to become more niched, more premium”
Pernilla Dahlman CEO, Daresay
What does articulating value mean to you?
We need to establish the connection between what we deliver and the long-term business value that our services create. We can’t drone on about our process and why it’s so great – we have to demonstrate how it creates a long-term business value for the customer. A major part of that is highlighting the financial impact.
But articulating value is also about specialising and developing a superior product. For example, we’re probably one of the world’s best digital product developers around. Working with a multidisciplinary team from our company gives you a distinct added value, which will outperform every other way. That’s premium.