HMD has just announced that it is going to be launching its own branded smartphones in 2024. This raises a question mark over brand Nokia’s survival. It also made me recall what had set apart Nokia in the days of its pre-eminence. Here are six elements that were unique to its culture:

1. Values built bottom up: In 2008, when Nokia was recrafting its values, it did so by having 16 cafes across the world where employees debated and came up with the values which were finally presented to the board. All companies decide values top down but that was never the case in Nokia. Senior managers were evaluated through multi-source feedback on living the values — the feedback could come from anyone who interacted with you in the year. Fifty per cent of the annual incentive was on business results and 50 per cent was on behaviours exhibited in living the values.

2. Flat structure, high trust culture: Every organisation talks of flat structures. Nokia had only six levels between an Area sales manager in India and the global CEO. You had a long rope; it was your choice if you wanted to swing with it or wanted to hang yourself. You were always measured on whether you did the right thing by the company. When Nokia India was a $4 billion company, we didn’t have an internal audit department. When I asked for it, the global CEO said, “We trust our people, why would any of our employees ever hurt Nokia” Some might call it high trust, some might call it naivety!

3. Free to disagree, but once closed commit: One could disagree with anyone in any meeting. However, once the meeting closed with a principle of 60 per cent agreement but 100 per cent commitment, then everyone marched to the same beat. But t—here were no repercussions for speaking up, you were judged on your impact at work. In 2010, Nokia had a global reorganisation. At that time there were about 870 blogs in the company and one R&D engineer wrote in a blog “This reorg is like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic”. No one reprimanded him or tried to correct him, he went about his job in a normal way, something unthinkable in any other company.

4. A premium for culture: In a meeting with the global board in 2006, I spoke about the hot talent market in India and how a 15 per cent and higher salary increase was the norm. The board shut me up by asking me a simple question — “Are you driving a good culture? What premium are you getting for the culture?” That made me and my team think very differently about culture. The company always believed (maybe it’s the North European roots) that you worked for the love and success of the company. If the company succeeded, then all constituents in the ecosystem would succeed.

5. Reverse mentoring and Responsiveness: Nokia had policies way ahead of its time, it had work from home in 2009, it had open offices in 2010 — even the global CEO didn’t have a cabin, it had hot desking in 2009, it had flexi office times to choose from. When Nokia was pivoting to internet services, we had reverse mentoring where young capable and knowledgeable managers in the middle and junior management would coach senior managers. So, we had reverse mentorship from the likes of Zairus Master, Navdeep Manaktala and Prashant Dogra in 2010! To drive agility , we had a responsiveness survey every two months where each department and each department head would be evaluated by everyone in the organisation on their contribution to making the organisation agile. The results would be publicly shared in the organisation without censorship.

6. Humility above all else: One systemic warning in every forum would be — never get arrogant. Nokia wanted its people to be humble and grounded and never get carried away. Even when we had outstanding results, the global CEO would say “Celebrate for a minute and spend the next 59 minutes of the hour planning for the next success.” Nokia had a low power distance culture and never had elaborate PowerPoint presentations. In my stint there, I never ever used a PPT with the global CEO. He would ask for a page or two and would discuss it on a flight or over tea, or dinner. The same was true for global board presentations. You had to send a two page note which would be discussed, no chance of hiding behind slides!

Shiv Shivakumar is Operating Partner at Advent International. He headed Nokia India from 2006 to 2011 and was Senior Vice President, Emerging Markets from 2011 to 2013

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