The Amrop Digital Interviews: Bo Ekelund, Sweden

“Focusing on impact and merging strategic industry insights with leadership acquisition expertise across different technology sectors is the true strength of Amrop’s Global Digital practice.

Bo Ekelund is a Partner at Amrop Sweden and a member of Amrop’s Global Digital Practice.

We spoke to him about his extensive experience in the telecommunications field, being part of the close-knit group of people bringing digital connectivity and the first mobile operators and digital mobile phones to life. Bo deals with board and owners of companies and the challenges as digital leaders enter into several new sectors on a daily basis. Our clients face an environment where technological advancements are rapid and decentralized, leadership need to be able to fully capitalise on that.

Bo Ekelund

Early in your career you were a young executive and part of ground-breaking developments in the telecommunications sector. Could you talk us through these experiences and the advantages they’ve offered you?

I started my career in the telecommunications industry – in the early 1990s I was part of the team at Ericsson that brought the first digital mobile phone to the world. At that time, it was basically a start-up environment. Initially, the project of developing the digital mobile phone was as close to a skunk project you can get. I had a chance to experience how a global company is built – from a garage gig to a world leader.

Besides the fact that in tech you are best served by a strong strategy and still need to make progress every day, there are three main things that this experience taught me.

First, the challenges of growing an industry or a company internationally, how important collaboration and common standards are, and the pains of rapid international growth.

Secondly, the opportunities of a connected world. We knew in the early 90’s that all that can be connected, will be connected. Today we are still at the start of that development.

Thirdly, innovation is more than just a great idea. Apple, for example, invented and timed the launch of iPhone and iPad very well, but many innovative devices discussed in almost every design centre at that time never made it through to launch. The focused efforts, the culture context, the collaboration, the monetary incentives, the competence, and foremost the right leadership is required. I for example question whether Apple would have made it without a close collaboration with AT&T. This impact is why our work at Amrop is so important.    

You and your industry peers must have had a chance to collaborate across the whole ecosystem, be part of developments launched by other industry players?

That long ago, people in the mobile industry knew each other by forename and although competitive and fiercely intense at times, it was a large global family. Yes, together we managed to build some of the services and consumer brand names on the internet and mobile industry today. Some of the people I worked with went on to found or be part of founding some of our largest and most promising tech brands of today. Look the ad-spend of Verizon for example, a whopping 3.5 BUSD in 2021. For an operator like them, however, the consumer is just the starting point.

What was the next step for you?

I had gained good executive leadership experience, so I took an outside view on the internet and mobile world, and between 2007 and 2016 I built a boutique international tech advisory firm, eventually made an exit, and then focused more on working with larger tech transformation projects for leading private equity funds and consulting firms. Together we lead large-scale transformation of industrial companies where tech was considered a great upside, often in both products, services processes, and organisation. The bottom-line results were mind-blowing and made me more convinced about the importance of leadership.

After that you joined Amrop, right? How did you decide to move to the executive search field?

At first, I wasn’t sure whether my experience was suitable for executive search. But then, through conversations with other partners, the thought about the impact of placing the right people in the right jobs really clicked for me. Amrop help lead and transform companies, it’s corporate renewal and improvement on a different scale compared to what I’ve been doing before. We ensure impact by finding the right people who in that particular context will bring the results the clients want; it’s not just hiring a new CEO.

What qualities, do you find, are essential in leadership positions in the technology/digital sector?

Today its much about courage and creativity, alongside the idea of capital effectiveness which is always there.

The industry and the technology advancements are decentralized, so you have new, brilliant ideas popping up everywhere all the time. It’s also a system which is highly connected so when you connect several brilliant ideas you’ve got instant innovation - you can suddenly do things you never envisioned before, sometimes even at the speed of light. So, it is possible to transform a company and become an immediate competitor to another company within a week. And unless you are aware of the larger ecosystem and the fact that some of the best ideas might be popping up elsewhere - if you don’t have that mindset, your organization can get disrupted and become irrelevant very quickly.

Thus, the key thing for the leader in these companies, as well as in some of the industrial companies, which are becoming connected, is to have an idea of experimentation – and how much to spend on it, the ability to see the bigger picture and to understand what kind of market they are in, what is the company’s value proposition, and what is the job that they should be doing. At the same time, they should be able to think about who else could do this job and what the competitors are doing. It is crucial to have a horizontal view of things: to look at who your end customer is, who else is addressing them, and is there someone among my competitors, collaborators, suppliers, or partners who I can work with to improve the results for that end customer; that’s horizontal thinking.

Do these leaders necessarily need a tech/digital background?

The way I see it, you don’t need to be an engineer, but you need to have a creative vision of who you are serving – for the job to be done you need to understand what the particular technology can do. Because if you don’t understand what it can do now and down the line, you probably don’t know how to find the right partners and what kind of questions to ask them and how to drive the process of these collaborations. You need to be creative and bold, and you need to understand that you can drive companies on strategy and vision, and then maybe how to finance it.

You need to have tools to run your board or company and you need to understand how to collaborate with other companies in the best possible way. If you have the upbringing or the background in the sector where they have experimented a lot and done a lot of these things, it will certainly be helpful.

You are a core member of Amrop’s Global Digital practice, what benefits does our particular setup bring to clients?

Three things come to mind. First, a stronger client partnership. Our clients move so fast, no person alone can keep track of all the relevant developments. We work with some of the best owners, boards, and management teams worldwide, and all of us work with different opportunities. In our unique setup, each client team is highly empowered and has all the tools required to improve every day. To continue to provide top executive search and leadership advisory in a fast-moving environment internationally, we continuously challenge our understanding of the context of available leadership talent, our clients, and their industries. When our empowered teams collaborate on these demands, or shape new ones, we acquire better understanding of what leadership is required for each opportunity. Particularly when it comes to tech – new industries are indeed shaped, and new leadership is required.

Secondly, real impact. We don’t qualify candidates on short-term results, but for results in years ahead – we make sure that we hire people who can deliver what the clients will need between now and the future, and we hire for impact. We go about finding the people who are motivated to bring that impact to the bottom line, and in order to do that, you need to understand the client’s situation really well. Within the Digital Practice we have unparalleled reach, we merge views of different industries, our competencies and ensure we understand these client’s impact demands in a broader context. Bringing the knowledge of international experiences and real impact together across different sectors is one of our true strengths.

Thirdly, effectiveness. There have been some incredibly successful projects lead from within the Digital Practice, and it makes perfect sense in a truly global industry. I’ve always worked globally, my colleagues have always been international, and I can safely say I’ve always had the best ideas when inspired by international collaboration. Our clients are becoming more and more global and attracting local talent to global roles often requires an effort. Our global view and the approach we have is incredibly helpful and suitable.