The Amrop Digital Interviews: Caroline Søeborg Ahlefeldt, Denmark
"'Leaders for What’s Next' for me is about finding leaders who can navigate the transition towards a sustainable approach and make sure that companies serve societies and help with the new challenges we all have."
Caroline Søeborg Ahlefeldt is a Partner at Amrop Denmark and a member of Amrop's Global Digital Practice, bringing over 30 years of experience as a seasoned executive and Board professional.
We spoke to Caroline about her extensive experience in the technology sector and boards, being a member of the national prime minister-lead Disruption Council in Denmark, seeking out the opportunities to link technological development with sustainability and the rewarding chance to use her vast experience and network in her new field – executive search.
Q: You’re an entrepreneur with extensive experience in various fields, such as digital services, publishing, education, design, sustainable fashion, and more. Can you talk a little about working in these industries and how this experience motivated you to make the choice of joining Amrop?
A: I think the reason why I'm in the Digital Practice group is that technology and the way we use technology has been at the center of everything I've done since I started my first company when I was 23. It was back in 1992 and that company was one of the first internet companies in Denmark. So, the 90s, for me, were all about the emerging possibilities when it comes to internet education and I've taken that knowledge with me to other businesses – creating a design agency, co-founding a publishing house, working with sustainable fashion – technology was always very present, at the core of everything we did. I’ve worked on launching festivals, one of which was celebrating sustainability, and again, it was clear that technology is a huge part of both why we are in this situation with climate change, as well as plays a huge role in the solution to it. At the same time, I've had a parallel career where I've been a professional board member of over 25 companies, including Denmark's largest retailer and LEGO. In most of them I've been able to chip in with some knowledge about technology and strategy – to help determine which direction things are moving in.
Q: You were appointed as a member of the national prime minister-lead Disruption Council in Denmark from 2017-2019. What was the purpose and the goals of this council and what was your role in it?
A: The former prime minister of Denmark wanted to create this high-level council which would discuss how the country should react and prepare itself for the emerging technology, which was developing so rapidly and would disrupt our society in many different ways. There were a number of high-level CEOs from the leading banks, leading professors from academia, heads of unions and industrial organizations, and they also invited entrepreneurs, and I believe that I’m very much seen as an entrepreneur within the digital realm. It was all highly interesting because we had to discuss and reach a common understanding in a room where you have so many different interests representing – challenging and exciting.
Q: That sounds fantastic. As a female leader has it been your goal to mentor and inspire, and what has been your approach when it comes to that?
A: Certainly. For me the most important aspect in my work is sustainability, but creating a sustainable world for me means also creating a just world. And I believe that it means that we should have a more equal representation of the sexes, and as diverse a representation of people as possible in general. But it’s always been close to my heart to make sure there were women represented wherever I worked – wherever I had any kind of say over that. And, unfortunately, I can’t help but cast some criticism on my own country Denmark, which strangely enough has this self-perception as being an incredibly equal society, whereas in reality, when it comes to equal rights and equality for sexes, we’re about number 35 in the world! In the top 3 you see countries like Sweden, Iceland, and Finland, but Denmark is nowhere near them. So, I strongly believe that in order to change the culture which additionally has this false and deceptive self-perception, you need to work with legislation, like they’ve done, for example, in Norway.
Q: Thank you for that. Can you say a couple of words about joining Amrop? Making the move towards executive search is something of a career change for you, isn’t it?
A: It’s a very good question, which all my friends are also asking me: what are you up to? Why such a change of career? I think there are many reasons. I love working with people and I’ve worked with so many – I’ve co-founded six companies and I’ve been on more than 30 boards, which has given me a lot of experience. So, when it comes to pattern-recognition, a deeper understanding of the issues that can occur in an organization, what goes on in those rooms where you have to make decisions, and power struggles, I think I now have it all under my skin, and enough experience to be able to predict how it all would play out. There’s a vast difference between what you read in books, learn at the university or MBA courses, and how you deal with all that in reality. So, the fact that I can now utilize all this knowledge that I’ve gained over the last 30 years gives me great satisfaction. I’ve only been with Amrop for a couple of months now, but I’m very excited to be working with so many different industries, and I have a very broad network as well as a somewhat broad insight into many different company structures, ownership structures, and so on. And in all my dealings with clients thus far I’ve been able to reach back into my history – to pick our relevant experiences, as well as relevant people from my network which I now have the need to get in touch with, and that’s very satisfactory. And it is satisfactory because as a serial entrepreneur I’ve been always focusing on the next thing, always looking forward. And now I suddenly can view the 30 years I’ve put into my career as a treasure chest, which I can open and pick out whatever is valuable and relevant for each case.
Can you talk about the types of projects you’re taking on, the industries you’ll be focusing on?
The tech sector and digital practice are very close to my heart – it’s been my line of business for my whole career, where I’ve had experience with different boards – from very large companies to startups, scaleups, family-owned and listed companies. Other important fields to me are board services and the financial sector. I’ve worked closely with capital companies and venture capital – I was also on the board of the Danish National Venture Capital fund. Currently I’m on the board of one of the largest banks in Denmark and have just been appointed as Head of their Sustainability Committee – it’s the first time a large Danish bank actually has one. And I’m lucky because this combines several of my interests as you can’t move any financial institution without technology, but you certainly cannot do it also without looking for the kind of role it should play in the society going forward, meaning that sustainability and ESG are very much on the agenda.
Sustainability is itself an interest of yours, isn’t it?
Sustainability itself has been my focus for many years and I sincerely see it as both a logical necessity for this planet and all of us, and also as the greatest business opportunity there ever was. We must electrify everything that can be electrified, transform all energy production from fossil-based to green, and so on, so there are many transitional processes going on. And if you can combine that with AI and quantum computing, for instance, you have an explosive number of challenges which need to be managed in an optimal way. And that’s what also links it for me with Amrop’s motto which is “Leaders for What’s Next” – finding leaders who can navigate this transition towards a sustainable approach and make sure that companies also serve societies and help with the new challenges we all have. I think that’s incredibly important.
Since you already mentioned this need for leaders who’re able to take companies through transitions – what, in your view, are the most essential qualities in someone who’s to take on a leadership position, especially in the digital sector? What would you be looking for?
I think we are now reliving what I experienced in the mid-1990s – we’re reliving one of the greatest technological revolutions we’ve ever seen, which is the AI revolution. And people who are tech-savvy and understand the tech space, they really must be attentive to the new possibilities of this realm, because it will have completely new rules. There’ll be new opportunities and new threats, of course, and we need to navigate this space. When the World Wide Web came out we all had to find out what to do to get a website and what we can do with it; then came E-commerce and then we had Web 2.0 – we had all that and we had to get used to it. And now time is even more of the essence – understanding in depth what large language models can do, what Microsoft’s new co-pilot can do for office workers and so on – there’s so much going on which is important! The digital space is very much affected by AI, and AI and technology has a lot to do with climate space, sustainability space as well. So there are multiple aspects of where the new challenges are, but they are also new opportunities for the people in the digital realm, and they need to be able to take these opportunities and make the most of them.
Explore more Amrop insights
The fastest path to the CEO roles: stereotypes and reality
Getting into leading positions is one of the topics surrounded by the greatest number of myths and prejudices, thinking about leadership and the path of professional growth. The stereotypes and reality are so different from each other that I decided to summarize my observations on what is the fastest way to get to the desired management position.
What Has Changed for SaaS Companies With Growth Ambitions?
Given the current investment environment, executive search experts can bring a lot of value to SaaS companies, which struggle with remaining attractive to investors.