Follow the Leader: The Unexpected Leader

I’ve worked with Malin Liden for several years now and the one thing I immediately noticed about her is that she is so appreciative and supportive of her team.  She gives recognition when she can for their hard work and she gives them multiple opportunities to be creative and then lets them fly.  She supports them in taking risks and she allows them to learn from their mistakes. Big lesson here – trust and support your team. 

The result is success – the team is very successful and has high stakeholder satisfaction.

In my eyes, this is the sign of a strong and confident leader.   What surprised me most when I sat down to speak with Malin was that she never saw herself as a manager or even a leader.  As Malin told me during our interview, her role started as nothing more but a square on an org chart. She was given an opportunity and grew the team from scratch.  It was her entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity that made her team a success.

My conclusion?  Sometimes the best leaders are the unexpected ones – those who aren’t trying so hard to be leaders!  Their actions speak louder than their words.

Read more from our interview below.

1. Who are your biggest career influences?

This is easy – Carmen O’Shea. She always set a great example and much of my leadership style was developed by watching and learning from her.

Editor’s note – Carmen is Malin’s former manager and you can learn more about her by reading the “Follow the Leader” segment on Carmen O’Shea.

2. Biggest career success and defining moment?

The moment when Carmen gave me the chance to lead was a big turning point in my career. At that time I didn´t know or even believe I could lead. But she saw my potential and believed in me for both of us and showed me the way to a career path that I am now thoroughly enjoying and that continues to challenge me providing new opportunities to grow every day. The biggest success was definitely the external ITSMA award I won one year after Carmen gave me a brand new area to define and grow from scratch. Getting the external confirmation that what I built was not only a success for us but also a best practice within our industry community was truly rewarding and a big motivation for me and the team.

So my defining career moment was meeting Carmen, I would never have been where I am today without her and I am truly grateful to her for recognizing my potential and believing in me more than I did. I now try to do the same and identify talent helping people around me realize their full potential.

3. Biggest lesson learned?

I have 2:

#1 – Use your assets and resources smart! There are many ways to do things and it is much more effective to build on your strengths than trying to be great at things that are against your nature. I think women often think that we have to fit a certain format to advance in our career and be recognized as leaders. We´re looking at the leaders we see thinking we too have to be assertive, tough and strong in a very male type of way to be successful. The fact is though that we have often have other abilities that make us at least as good leaders without having to excel in areas that may not come very natural to us.

I´ll give you an example to show what I mean: If you are not comfortable in conflict you may not need to spend a lot of time on learning how to manage direct conflict because chances are that you have qualities that will make it very unlikely that you will end up in a lot of conflict. So build on your diplomatic skills and work on your confidence instead of practicing direct conflict. If you work on confidence and diplomacy you will minimize the risk of ending up in direct conflict while still ensuring that your counterparts will respect you. In fact, I find that you get much further and achieve much better results by confident diplomacy, convincing, winning people over than by just pushing really hard and being assertive in a conflict situation that may not even have been necessary.

#2 – Explore your possibilities confidently and when you know what you want, ask for it! I never wanted to be a leader, actually never even saw myself as possibly being able to lead (reason: see learning 1!). However, I was very lucky to work for an exceptional leader who recognized my potential way before I did and pushed me towards my career opportunity helping me see that I not only can but actually really enjoy leading. Unfortunately you can´t depend on just doing good work and hope for someone like her to recognize your potential. There is just too much competition out there and too many others who push themselves forward so if you do not make sure you´re seen and make it clear that you want to develop, advance and take on more responsibilities you will likely stay where you are.

4. Your “big 3”?

  • Toot your horn – Coming from a Scandinavian culture where highlighting yourself is not necessarily positive this is not something that came to me easily and I also think that women in general often have a hard time putting themselves and their work in the center of attention. But it is such a powerful instrument to motivate those who have worked with you to achieve the results and it is critical to advance. Never count on good work (and you along with it) being recognized automatically, make sure no one has a chance to miss it!
  • It is not all about me. When tooting your horn, don´t make the mistake to focus all the attention on yourself. A real leader lets those who have done the work shine. In fact, I find that leaders who let their teams shine, shine much more brightly themselves than those who take the teams work and promotes it just as their own. There is no better way to motivate people than letting them earn the credit for what they have accomplished. And there are few more effective ways to de-motivate people than taking the recognition from them. So: help others be successful and shine with it and you will shine yourself.
  • Business first. Sometimes we´re asked to do things because a certain “stakeholder wants it” but my experience is that it always pays off to challenge the reasons why we are asked to do things if it is not clear how they´ll support the business. Always focusing on the business makes you a credible business partner and will position you where you want to be with your work. Especially in large organizations it can be hard to keep focus on what really makes sense and will move the needle for the company. Thinking about the end customer and those in the company directly interacting with them has always been a leading principle for me that has served me very well in my career.

5. Where you’d like to go next?

I have put in a lot of thought and energy in developing leadership skills that build on delegating responsibility based on empowerment and core values as opposed to delegating tasks and still be operationally responsible. That is one of the hardest but most important things about leading and the ONLY way to scale: Let go of things and give others the freedom to approach them their way- maybe differently than you would have done – and give them the opportunity to learn by making their own experiences.

Having developed my leadership style and set up my team based on this foundation, the next logical step that I am aiming at is to go from being a manager managing a team to a manager managing managers. That step will make it all the more critical to excel in setting core values for a team, inspire, motivate and basically create an environment for the team to be successful. Thinking further ahead, some day I would really like to start my own business, I have many ideas on what I would like to build that business on but haven´t finally decided yet. If I do it and it succeeds I´ll be sure to share my story with this community first. J

About Malin Liden

Malin Liden leads a group within SAP Services Marketing responsible for suppor ting the SAP Services business by aligning marketing and sales. She established this as a brand new area within SAP in 2006 focusing on enabling product and services sales groups to position and sell strategic services according to their specific roles in the sales cycle. Under her leadership this has grown into a global program spanning from general awareness activities to the entire SAP employee base, over training license and services sales teams as well as managing the customer reference program for the services lines of businesses. In 2007 the sales enablement approach was presented with the ITSMA diamond award in the category “Improving Marketing and Sales Collaboration”.

Prior to this role, Malin spent 7 years in marketing and communication roles at SAP and other global IT companies. She has a master degree in international business and a double bachelors degree from Sweden and Germany.

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