You better prioritize really well. One of the most challenging things for me first stepping into my new role was prioritization — deciding what I need to engage in, what I can leave up to my team or what we don’t have to do at all. That’s a challenge for all CEOs but certainly for me being relatively new in the role. My perspective now is different than what it was many months ago when I began my new role. Finding that balance is critical and something I’m constantly improving upon. I’m realizing there is so much I would like to personally be a part of, but there is not enough time. I must prioritize, say no to something and have the rest of the team step up and run with a number of things.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Nørregaard. Michael is the CEO of Madison, Wis.-based Sonic Foundry, the maker of Mediasite. The technology helps higher education institutions, healthcare organizations and enterprises create, manage and deliver videos (like lecture capture and microlearning, continuing education, online trainings, etc.). He joined the company in 2013 and during his tenure has held several executive leadership positions including COO, SVP of Sales Operations, VP of Business Development and SVP of Customer Experience and Mediasite Events. Michael has a rich history in IT media and telecommunications industries, having held executive roles in European technology companies for several years. In addition, he was a client manager and sales executive at IBM and a general manager at AT&T.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me. I made a long journey (4,100 miles to be exact) to my position at Sonic Foundry — one that has been extremely rewarding, albeit riddled with some uncertainty in the beginning.
I’ve always been curious and willing to pursue new opportunities or career paths. I think it’s positive to try different things. When the opportunity arose six years ago to move to Madison, Wis. for the VP of Business Development position with Sonic Foundry, I was eager to find out more about the role. The decision to make the move across the Atlantic Ocean wasn’t easy, of course. My wife, Tina, and I talked to our three children, and we were all excited about the opportunity and ready to embrace the question marks.
It was a significant restart to our lives, leaving family and friends behind, and it was challenging starting over in a new country. Things like starting cell phone plans, getting insurance and buying a house were more challenging than normal because we had no credit history in the US. It was as if we were being dropped down from the moon. We had an identity in Denmark. People knew who we were and what we stood for. We were strangers in the US, and we had to prove ourselves.
Over the past six years, I’ve held several executive leadership positions at the company, and last year was honored to be named CEO.
My move to Sonic Foundry was a good fit because of my background in the IT and telecommunications industries. After attending the University of Copenhagen and Copenhagen Business School, I began my career at 24 years old in IBM sales, where I managed some of the largest accounts in the Nordic region. I spent several years with IBM and held a variety of positions from sales trainee to client executive. Remember when IBM had a near-death experience in the 1990s, losing large amounts of market share under poor leadership? I received my first big lessons in leadership and the necessity of change during that time. IBM actually managed to reinvent itself. That and other more recent experiences taught me a lot that I can use in my current role of CEO of Sonic Foundry. I learned about the need for constant development and progress, that success in the past is no guarantee for future success and that you can’t hide from making difficult decisions.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
When I first moved to Madison for a leadership role with the company and as I transitioned recently to become CEO, I was up against a different culture and leadership style. I’m deeply rooted in my Danish heritage, and we’re generally egalitarian and collaborative. This means we believe all people are equal and strong teamwork matters. The American leadership style is more authoritative, and people don’t question executives as much as they do in Europe. I’m trying to change that mentality in order to drive engagement and hunger to make a difference here. I want to show our employees and customers an open mind and a desire to engage the whole organization to stimulate innovation, ownership and passion.
On another note, being a CEO of a public company brings unique challenges in and of itself. I must make tough decisions to balance employee well-being with customer and shareholder needs. The enterprise video market that we are in is competitive and mature, which means we as a company must be creative in product innovation, our go-to-market approach and in pursuing new markets and revenue sources. That is both a challenge and a real opportunity for company development that I was excited to take on. During my first months in office, I worked closely with the leadership team to raise awareness of our situation and to develop and implement a strategic plan to right-size the company and drive additional revenue streams. Although we have only just started, I’m pleased to say that we are already seeing the positive effects of some of the changes we implemented. For example, we expanded our video conference capture solution, Mediasite Join, into the multi-billion-dollar unified communications space. We are seeing revenue for Mediasite Join grow significantly.
Motivating and engaging employees needs to be a big part of the solution, and I work with HR and our leadership to refine our culture. I also want to ensure all employees feel connected to the plan we put in place so they can see how their contributions impact the goals and outcomes. I am excited about the new energy and thoughtful decision making that we drive in the business because of the collaborative environment we are pursuing.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
It’s way too early to claim success or victory. Being open and clear about where we are as a company and in the market is an important foundation for the urgency we need to have and the changes and work we as a team need to focus on. The direction I set as the CEO is obviously important, however, ultimately, we can only be successful if we share the same goals and have a very good understanding of why we need to pull in certain directions. I can only do so much as the CEO, and I’m very dependent on having a committed team.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Being CEO means finding balance. The biggest difference in the CEO role is that it truly covers all functional areas and I find that really exciting and motivating. What being a CEO means to me is that I have to find a good balance between pursuing my own agenda and objectives and at the same time be flexible and available when and where it’s needed.
- You better prioritize really well. One of the most challenging things for me first stepping into my new role was prioritization — deciding what I need to engage in, what I can leave up to my team or what we don’t have to do at all. That’s a challenge for all CEOs but certainly for me being relatively new in the role. My perspective now is different than what it was many months ago when I began my new role. Finding that balance is critical and something I’m constantly improving upon. I’m realizing there is so much I would like to personally be a part of, but there is not enough time. I must prioritize, say no to something and have the rest of the team step up and run with a number of things.
- You must prove yourself every day. I was named CEO of Sonic Foundry in the summer of 2019 after our leader of 8 years retired. Working strategically with the organization, the leadership team and our board about our operations, our focus, how we work as a team, our creativity, innovation etc. is an on-going effort, which is important. I believe that out of the box thinking, willingness to adapt to change, setting new directions and looking forward is critical.
- You can’t just change the world in one day or with one sentence. Just take your time. It’s OK to not have all the answers right away. The decisions we make as leaders take time to materialize. While we have to be impatient and show the right sense of urgency you and your team have to absorb and process the situation.
- Don’t forget to do what you like, too. Make time for your interests, professionally and personally.
- Wisconsin winters are quite cold. That’s all I have to say about that. No one warned us…
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Be motivated and passionate in business and in your personal life. Set goals and pursue them hard. Be willing to share your thoughts and have constructive conversations and conflicts — and constantly learn and develop. Be willing to celebrate and acknowledge successes whether big or small. Maintain a good work/life balance — make sure you give it your best in both areas.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve received a lot of help throughout my career, especially through my friends and family. I worked for five different companies in my career and all have helped me significantly develop as a person and professionally. However, there is no doubt that my wife has been the most important person helping with my personal and professional development. She has always been very supportive, encouraging me to take on new challenges even though it meant uncertainty or some sacrifices. I’m extremely grateful for her support and inspiration every day.
The best example of this is our move to the US to take my job with Sonic Foundry. That meant her giving up on her career as a language teacher in Denmark. I try to support and encourage her in her career every day too. For example, she at some point took on a very challenging and exciting role as a personal assistant to the Danish Prime minister. I had no hesitation in supporting her to take on that challenge.
Most recently I much enjoy the creative conversations with my three kids where we support and mentor each other.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Like I mentioned, I am deeply rooted in the Danish culture and have brought that mentality to my role of CEO in a US company. My wife and I received comments that it was a bold move considering our age to move to the US, but my family was excited and ready to embrace the adventure. That, to me, is part of what it means to be Danish. We understand that we are a small part of a big global society. We put great importance on being open, direct and facing reality. I am trying to foster fun, learning, creativity and innovation with the team at Sonic Foundry.
I am working every day to make Sonic Foundry as successful as possible. Our employees are incredibly thoughtful and hard-working day in and day out. Having an environment where everybody’s opinion matters is important to me. When I took the CEO position, I scheduled time with every single employee to talk about their goals, concerns and ideas for how to make the company better. I’ve also been having one-on-one calls with customers to create a personable, friendly environment. I would strongly advise any new CEO to do the same because it informs many decisions and helps to build a strong, open culture.
Personally, my number one goal is to help my kids be happy and motivated — helping them bring their best foot forward in everything they do.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I hope to leave a legacy of an innovative and engaged organization pursuing the same goals that help our customers be very successful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I think there are already many important initiatives and movements out there that have great potential for changing the course of the planet. I’m a big advocate for education and training at all levels. It has the potential to globally improve lives, reduce conflicts at the micro and macro levels and make our quality of life better on a broad scale. That’s why I’m so passionate about Sonic Foundry’s Mediasite video technology. It is helping schools all around the world, including in poor bandwidth areas, gives students access to high-quality education.
For example, one of our customers, the University of the Free State in South Africa, is creating lecture videos for 95 rural high schools. Those schools have historically had a student fail rates of up to 80 percent. The university’s use of Mediasite video is revolutionizing education across the province, with some schools reporting pass rates jumping from 17 percent to nearly 100! It doesn’t get any more rewarding than that to be part of Sonic Foundry.
Another important movement is how we take care of our planet. This includes reducing pollution and protecting animals. More than any other moment in time, we as humans have the potential to negatively impact the entire planet with very dire consequences. We must be conscious of our power and take responsibility more seriously. Nature and wildlife are big stimulators and important for me.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Follow the company on Twitter and Facebook @Mediasite. From time to time I’ll also make blog posts at mediasite.com/blog that give updates in relation to our technology. You can also find me on LinkedIn.