From Oslo to California
An AmCham International Leadership Interview with Ole Dahlberg, VP and General Manager, Cell Biology and Biosciences, Thermo Fisher Scientific
Despite the fact that Thermo Fisher is playing a leading role in the global fight against COVID-19, few know that the company has extensive ties to Norway. Ole Dahlberg, a native Norwegian now working from the company’s sunny Southern California headquarters, sat down with us for the latest edition of our International Leadership Interview Series, diving into the importance of corporate leaders being active advocates for diversity, highlighting how Thermo Fisher’s Norwegian operations are playing a critical role in the global COVID-19 fight, and exploring Norwegian myths about US corporate culture.
Yes, a couple of thigs. I was educated in Norway, but even then, during university, we had an excellent collaboration with the University of Maryland. It was my first experience with an international network, and the power of collaboration where you generate results from a network of laboratories and benefit from exchanging information and experience. After college, in my first job, I joined a company where we basically had all our customers outside Norway, which gave me the opportunity to collaborate with people from so many different countries.
Then, in 1997, I was, for the first time, part of a startup company, and I went from a purely scientific role to my first commercial role. In that role, I didn’t have a team so my way to the market was through dealers and distributors. It teaches you to simply reach out and ask for help and build strong connections, A take-away from this experience, is that when you come with transparency and honesty, you can build relationships with people from countries as different as Finland, Germany, and Japan. At the end of the day, we’re all people trying to accomplish the same things. If you ask for help, you build trust. When you give something, you get something in return. Over time, you can leverage honesty and transparency to build lasting international relationships.
In 2003, our startup was acquired by a German company and I joined them, working out of London for a while and then in Germany. A few years later (and a couple of jobs later), in 2008, I was asked by a US-based life science company if I wanted to join them and lead the Norwegian part of the business. That was the first time I worked for a US corporation, Thermo Fisher Scientific, the company I still work for today (I joined Invitrogen, which became Life Technology prior to a merger and then finally acquired by Thermo Fisher Scientific).
I thought that this US experience was very interesting. It’s different, it’s a great experience, but you definitely need some time to adjust. As I adjusted, however, I realized there was just so much we could do together. At that time, we were just 4 000 people – today we are at 85 000 people, so we’ve undergone a huge transformation. It has been an incredible journey.
Personally, I was leading our Norwegian business, which had about 200 employees at that time. We turned it around, and it was great fun. A few years ago, however, corporate reached out and said, “Do you want to come over here? You’d have a much bigger business to develop, there’s a lot more you can do.”
I asked my kids and family, “What do you think?” We had three teenagers, so I knew it would be a big change for them, but they said yes! Now it should be said that we were asked to come to California, which is perhaps a little easier than many other places. Not only because of the weather but because it is a place of embracement. Due to all the innovative work and the global companies there is this flow of people through the state, it’s very international, it’s a place that works with so many different parts of the world.
This is actually a question that I and many of our leaders deal with on a daily basis, not just from outside the company but inside, from our own employees. Internally, we have town halls, we have jam sessions, and at these events they often ask that question because they want to know from a private point of view what your strategy is as their leader.
But you know, this is not the first crisis we’ve gone through. I’ve been in the business for a few decades. We had difficult situations back in the 90s. There was 9/11, which shut down everything. Then we had the great recession in 2008 and a couple of epidemics. The good news is that we are getting much better at dealing with those difficult situations, particularly in regard to how companies exit those situations. What I mean here is that many years ago, it would take companies years to recover after suffering a situation like this. Today, I think we understand much better how to deal with these crises and end up in a much stronger position.
I believe that when you end up in a crisis there are two things you need to focus on: short-term action and building a long-term plan.
That short-term action is almost always about agility and monitoring, ensuring that you understand what you must do throughout each phase of the crisis. First comes the shock, then the first actions you must take as a company to protect lives, people, and the business itself. Next, you reboot into a recovery phase, which is a very long phase – a new normal. And that’s the thing, the business never becomes exactly the same as it was before such a disruption because you hopefully learn and improve as a result.
COVID-19, for example, is quite special in this regard, because you suddenly couldn’t go out and work with customers. That’s where agility comes in – you have to adapt. You start with your employees, making sure they’re safe and that they stay where they are, doing everything you can for them, their families, and their friends.
The second thing is that you need to protect the whole company and ensure distribution. That is hard when you can’t meet with your employees and your customers. Video has been key for us in this regard – it has changed the way we interact, allowing us to build connections digitally. I’m working with some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world discussing how can we get this vaccine to the market. We’re talking about what we need, what our manufacturing looks like, and how our teams work. In fact, we can even bring the camera in, have people walk around, and show guests around. It is truly amazing.
Lastly, you have to work to build trust with your employees, even when not meeting them face-to-face. For example, I have a new finance leader and I still haven’t “met” him, even though he’s my right hand! We work together for several hours every day, so eventually we’ll get there. The good thing is that people are willing to adjust, and they are very motivated to help and make things better. That’s just so motivating, and that motivation is what keeps me going.
One of the mistakes we often make when we experience a crisis is that we believe it’s a short-term thing. Everybody starts working, and they work very hard. At Thermo Fisher, we did the same thing. We realized we had to scale extremely fast as we had the technology for the COVID-19 testing. And as you saw from the news, there was a huge increase in demand – going from about 2000 tests per week to millions of tests per week.
This pressure is truly special. It’s one thing to put together instrumentation, to bring together all the consumables you need to run that test, but there’s a lot more involved. You have to make sure it’s user friendly, ensuring that anyone can use it, and then make it available globally. Then there are supply chain issues. On top of all this, we are receiving calls from the White House or other governments at the same time, and they’re asking for the latest update.
With all this pressure, there’s only one solution. You have to bring everyone in the business together and divide and conquer.
But there’s a catch. When you go from the third or fourth week of the crisis to the twelfth week, people suddenly start wearing out. It’s critical then to also think with a long-term perspective, while still looking back at what you have accomplished and recognizing how impressive what you’re doing together, as a team, is.
For us, we not only had to rapidly scale up production, but also education on the treatment side. We have hundreds of thousands of customers and before COVID, only a few wanted to work with vaccines. Now, a lot of them are working with vaccines and therapy, so we needed to quickly educate them, establishing channels where they could take part in seminars and lectures digitally. That also meant that we had to collaborate with our industry competitors since we realized we couldn’t do everything ourselves. We’ve worked together to help them understand how to use the technology we provide.
I don’t think it’s well known in Norway that the core technology for one branch of Thermo Fisher is tiny magnetic beads, beads that can be mixed with any type of biological sample and pull out a specific biological molecule. That has huge implications because you can mix it with different substances to pull out antibodies to see if you have had a COVID infection or you can pull out a DNA molecule and see if the virus is still active. We make those beads in Norway.
Now, what is unique with this technology is that there are many companies that can make magnetic beads but there are very few companies that can scale the technology while maintaining the same size, quality, and performance – the Norwegian branch simply excels at making these products consistent, which is critical.
The secret behind Thermo Fisher is that we know that there is a great need to perform tests all over the world, and with these beads, you don’t have to put new instrumentation into the market, you can make use of existing platforms. This Norwegian technology already works in instruments that are already used by hospitals, science labs, and companies worldwide to run COVID-19 tests. The Norway team had to work extremely hard – they had to scale to millions of tests a day.
It’s just such a cool part of the business. They’ve been around since the beginning of the 80s as a part of the HIV/AIDS research going on back then, and they have since been a part of some of the most exciting ways of providing diagnostics and doing therapy ever since.
Another thing that helps me with seeing things from a different angle is mentoring people. I’m leading diversity and inclusion programs in Thermo Fisher, and that’s something I am deeply passionate about. I am mentoring African-American leaders, mentoring women and people of color, and that really helps you see things in a different way.
The great thing about mentoring is that you have enough time to build up a level of trust, so they truly open up. If I meet with someone just once, for example, they will just tell me, as their vice president, what they think I want to hear. It takes a few meetings before they open up, start telling the truth, and explore things like how they feel, things that make them feel uncomfortable, their passions, and, also, what they think of their leadership team. I additionally make sure to take these perspectives to the various leadership networks I am a part of and share them with other leaders – they’re often surprised by what they hear.
It’s truly about being transparent with people, but you don’t do that often as a young leader, because of the fear of failing. Over time, however, you begin to lose that fear, and you realize you don’t need to be perfect. In my case, I can go out there if something goes wrong, be transparent, and say, “I just really wanted to try this thing!” They may say “you’re a little stupid” or something like that, but at the end of the day, you got something going at least. I think experimenting, therefore, is just a fantastic way to develop yourself as a leader.
Lastly, all leaders need to have a 360-degree perspective when it comes to leadership development. If you just get input from the leaders above you, you’ll go wrong. You need perspectives from the people that work for you and you need perspectives from people from other industries. If I go out for a drink, for example, there’s a good chance that my tablemates are not from my industry. I ask them for advice, advice that comes from their world or industry, but advice that I can still bring into my world to think about an issue in a new way.
I would say that there are a couple of different ways to look at that. From a team leadership perspective, I don’t find it very different. That might be because I have already been working with Americans for a while in Thermo Fisher, and when I’m at work, I don’t really think of myself as working at a typical American company – I work in a very typical Californian company. That means we’re highly diverse, with a lot of Europeans, for example, so it’s unique in that regard.
When it comes to leadership, however, that’s where it’s a bit different. In the US, it’s intense. You are more empowered, but you are also much more accountable. Many of the people leading a part of the business in most major US corporations are leading organizations that are equivalent to large Norwegian companies.
When I, for example, report to our company leadership, it’s a bit like reporting to our board of directors. I don’t need to necessarily ask permission to do a lot of things, but I better do it right. It better be something that makes sense. From a Norwegian adjustment perspective, we’d need to go very deep into the analytics, much deeper than we’re used to. Secondly, you have work with a different sense of intensity as you don’t get the time that you do in Norway.
You also need to take action. That you not only talk about a strategy, but that you implement that strategy, generate results, and follow through. Follow through is very important because you will be held accountable for whatever you do. You will also be held accountable for things you haven’t done, and no one is going to ask you if it’s fair or not fair. It might not have been your problem in the first place, but it will definitely be you who needs to solve it.
It’s important to note, however, that people really do step up and take responsibility. That’s one of the reasons we can scale so fast in the US, building businesses from scratch to a size you just don’t see very often in other parts of the world.
I’ve also been working with and in the US for years, and the culture around business has changed a lot in that time – and for the better. Corporate America has become a place that values talents much more than before, they understand much more what’s important to people. I think there’s a bit of a myth in countries like Norway about US corporate culture. It’s just not as brutal as you’d think. You work hard, that’s for sure, but it’s fair. It may not be as codified as it is in Norway, but the way people are treated is often much better than what people in Scandinavia believe.
On the other hand, if you look at what is driving evolution in global corporate leadership and development, a lot of it is coming out of the US. But the thing is, evolution also takes more time in the States. It is much bigger than Norway, the population is much more diverse. In addition, in Norway, you can bring people on board faster because there is a system that takes care of people, and that’s just not the case, to the same extent, here in the US. If you ask people to make a change in America, you have to make sure they feel safe.
I’m a skier, I simply love to ski, but if my job was a sport, it wouldn’t be skiing. In many ways, it’s like open ocean sailing. There you bring together a large crew of twelve, fifteen people, and this group doesn’t really know exactly what will happen in the course of a competition. Because of that, they have to work together, they have to be prepared to step into another role at any given time. It’s not like soccer, where if you get injured, they can just replace you with a substitute. You can’t do that, however, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. You have to work together to fix the problem right there and then, you have to help each other, they have to help the weakest at any given time to move things forward. They have to make the right short-term and long-term strategies, select the right gear, and so on.
I actually discussed this with my wife before the interview. We were out walking, and I said I got this interesting interview question, and I asked her what she would say. Her immediate response was that it is just so different between the US and Norway.
But here’s the thing – the challenges we have are actually the same. If I only had five minutes, therefore, I would discuss two topics.
The first would be global participation and working globally. Despite the fact that we all have our own unique local challenges, in today’s world, these challenges cannot be solved without a global approach. I think this issue is incredibly important and makes a huge difference. If we don’t work better together on a global basis, we’ll be in huge trouble in the future. For example, with COVID-19, we could’ve done a much better job if we worked better together globally.
The second is that I believe it is really important to have strong social systems. That means building a place where people feel that we are taking care of their health, safety, and education. We see that the lack of education leads to challenging situations, such as discrimination, resistance to change, and problems working together. Now I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “social system,” as that term is so negatively loaded and people are afraid of it, but the safer people feel the easier it is to implement changes because they aren’t afraid of change – they know they’ll be taken care of.
Every year I put together strategic five-year plans, and the funny thing is that things never go exactly as planned. For example, I went back to the plan I made last year, and that plan didn’t say anything about COVID-19 or a pandemic more generally. I’ve been a part of Thermo Fisher as it expanded from 4 000 to 85 000 people, through a number of mergers and acquisitions. This expansion and these additions happened not as a result of looking for more profit, but because we needed to bring together manufacturing capabilities, great science, new technologies, and the ability to help customers globally – and that’s been an amazing journey.
We see scaling as one of the most important challenges going forward. It’s about bringing therapy, diagnostics, and new scientific solutions to the market quickly. I think that Thermo Fisher has a very important mission and place in the scientific and global communities, so I’m sure these advancements will continue for the next five years.