I would not categorize myself as a “female” leader, necessarily, but that may come from being Norwegian. We don’t really have many issues with equality in the workplace here. So for me, being humble is the most important. Being open and transparent about the mistakes I make, being open about being human, is much better than building a shell. This applies to both men and women.
I had the pleasure of Liisa Andersson. Liisa is the Chief Operating Officer at Urban Sharing, the Norwegian startup behind a technology platform which powers shared mobility concepts, including one of the world’s most efficient bike sharing schemes, Oslo City Bike.
Thank you for all of these great insights! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I don’t think I had a specific career path in mind growing up. I still don’t know what the next five, ten years will look like. When I was younger, my vision wasn’t really, “I’m going to be a veterinarian,” or “doctor,” or anything like that. I think what led me to engineering was that I always liked building stuff, and I always knew that I wanted to make your life and my life better. I wanted to push boundaries, and always focus on something that makes the world a little better than the one I found. I love to learn new things and I’m always open to challenge my views. I suppose that means I don’t know what I’ll be doing when I get older than I am now, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
I think quite early, when I started high school, I was the only girl in my physics class. When I was younger, girls were involved in projects to put female techies on the map. I was sent an invitation to Andøya Space Center for a rocket science project to promote an IT line. At that point, I felt that it was kind of awkward. Why would you just choose me because I’m a girl? I wasn’t the best in the class. I wasn’t doing anything that stood out. I kind of hated it. I think it was the wrong approach, actually. And a lot of my school education has been centered around me being a girl rather than my actual skills.
To put this into perspective: I remember one time we had this session where we had to rewrite all these physics books to be less man-centric. So in cases where we’d read lines like, “Tom is building a new car,” for example, we’d switch the gender to female, to make the books more balanced. I felt that it was really important to neutralize the books, and I thought this was a wonderful thing. I still don’t think I deserved the invitation to Andøya. I ended up declining it, though it perhaps helps that I was already committed to a Norwegian horseback riding championship.
It turns out I was a really bad programmer in school. I wrote code that was way too complicated. I knew that if I wanted to stay in this path, it would have to become my passion. But I also knew that I would never be the best coder in the world.
Here is where I found that passion: I love building projects. I love the connection between humans and innovation, IT and technology, and how they all change the way we look at the world. Often, new technology — self driving cars, for example — aren’t integrated at a large scale, not because we don’t have the ability, but because we as humans have yet to navigate the ethical implications of the new technology.
So, while I still don’t know where I’ll be long-term, I do know that where I am now at Urban Sharing allows me to embrace that passion. It’s a pretty wonderful thing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It would have to be from the first week after we launched Oslo City Bike. When you work behind the scenes, you have no idea if it’s going to be a success or not. We had the bikes out in Oslo before we launched it, and did some secret marketing and private discussions. When we sneak launched, we really spread virally, very quickly.
I think an interesting story that came from that time involves the naming of our bikes. It was in 2017, in the winter, and there was something missing in the line of communication in the service that we had. We were struggling as we were all over the place with serial numbers, frame numbers and all of these batches. So I came up with the idea of baptising the bikes with the 3000 most common names of residents in Oslo.
The response I got internally was not the most encouraging, at least at first. Many thought that it was too difficult to integrate so late in the process when we had so many other things to get right before we launched later that year. But I pushed, and I lobbied, because I thought this was such a key part of really engaging with our users. Our company identity prides itself on being open, communicative, down to earth, and really being a part of the city. We needed something on the bikes to reflect that.
I remember the week after we launched the bikes, with the names written on them, we received a tremendous amount of positive feedback, and I think it really helped build a connection with our users. It’s something that’s become a part of every one of our launches since.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we took on the Oslo City Bike contract, part of our agreement was to incorporate physical RFID cards into the scheme in parallel with the new app we were about to introduce. Now, RFID cards aren’t the most modern way to check out bikes, and in fact most schemes don’t incorporate them at all. But there were a number of users joining our scheme who used RFID cards with the previous scheme that might not have been so eager to switch to our app.
A few of us were responsible for calculating the percentage of users who we thought might use the cards. Based on an analysis of the rate at which users of a product switch to newer technologies, we calculated that between seven and ten percent of our users would use an RFID card. So we ordered thousands of them. We sold seventy. Our users overwhelmingly preferred the app.
What I learned from this was that data and numbers don’t always present the full picture. Our app was relatively easy to integrate, and Oslo as a city generally tends to adapt to new technology quickly. That said, numbers are absolutely important and data is a key part of our product. But ever since then, I always try to look beyond the numbers to see if there’s anything we’re missing.
That said, I still get picked on by my colleagues for the RFID cards mistake.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes us a different company is our ability to adapt and change. To be an organization that is able to adapt so quickly in the micro-mobilty market is incredibly important, as it’s still new, and we’re all still trying to find our way.
As a company, we’re super curious We can be very academic in our approach. It’s always good to have a commercial hat on and look for where the money is, but since we are focused on a more sustainable, data-centric approach, we seek valuation for any decision we make. Will this really help a city? Is this new trend a long-term change or another 18-month bubble?
We’re kind of geeky. We really, really care about our product. We were born digital, so we’re really data-driven in our decisions. And we try to be humble about that.
There are a lot of talented folks in the industry, many of whom can probably do things better than we can in some ways. But we try to open ourselves up to reflection. We look for ways to learn from each decision. We invite others to learn from our successes and mistakes, and we don’t see them as a threat.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Last year we successfully launched schemes using our unique hybrid lock solution in Bergen, Trondheim, and Edinburgh. This year, what’s really cool is the work we’re doing on the next phase of our technology. We’re taking a lot of time to close the loop on new integrations, but also finding a better, more sustainable way to handle e-scooters and other small, electrical vehicles in the micro-mobility space. It’s really exciting.
We’re looking at ways to make these vehicles not just recreational, but have a real effect on the mobility ecosystem. For the project we’re working on, we’re connecting all the dots, between smartphones, GPS, satellite information and closing the information loop for our bikes. Our vision for this project is to create technology that works with every device and vehicle and removes as many hurdles as possible in any city.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
First and foremost, I would not categorize myself as a “female” leader, necessarily, but that may come from being Norwegian. We don’t really have many issues with equality in the workplace here. So for me, being humble is the most important. Being open and transparent about the mistakes I make, being open about being human, is much better than building a shell. This applies to both men and women.
For those working in tech, people around you will have all sorts of specialized knowledge that you won’t have. If you’re open and listening, and if you adapt to new knowledge, you’ll be able to collaborate and build something unique together.
I don’t know if this advice would apply outside of the Nordics. We have more of a culture of equality here, and an extensive social-welfare system. However, I think, even if you’re working in an area which isn’t quite so progressive, it’s still important to be humble and show that you’re human. You should aim to be transparent about what you know and don’t know.
That said, don’t be afraid to have an opinion. You’re a leader, you’re in charge, and sometimes you need to make decisions based on limited information. So be aware of the information you don’t have, try to fill in the gaps, but also know when to make a decision even when gaps remain.
One more piece of advice: Do your best to help your colleagues reach their potential. Accept that people have different skills which may not be the best fit for their position or even for the company. Try to help those that are stuck get unstuck, and don’t always assume the solution involves keeping them in the same task or role.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Personally, I love to have things organized. But I also think in a creative organization with a flat hierarchy, it’s difficult to be as organized and detail-oriented as one might like. I don’t have time to be in everyone’s business, nor do I want to be. I have a lot of trust in the people around me, and that they’d ask for help if they need it.
I’ve found our cross-functionality to be an asset. We organize ourselves around a problem and seek a solution, and we enable each other to contribute as best we can. If you have the same people in the same room with the same background, you may not be able to find the solution, or at least not the best one. It’s surprising to find out how a different person would approach the same issue, and it’s this part of my job that I love.
Sometimes we have new recruits who are unfamiliar with this sort of hierarchy. I try to spot them early and, instead of telling them where they are doing wrong, I try to help find a place where they would be a good fit in a project, or see if there’s anything I can do to help them meet their goals. It may just be the project they are working on isn’t a good fit for them, and that’s ok. There are other projects that may be more suited to their skillset.
One more piece of advice: Learn mistakes as a team. Run retros to understand how both you and your team could do better. Be honest with yourselves and be forgiving, but in all cases you should treat every mistake as an opportunity for improvement.
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 about that?
Our former CEO Axel Bentsen has to be the person who has pushed me way beyond my comfort zone and always has my back. In the summer of 2015, Axel called me and asked me to lunch to talk about this new bike-sharing project he got involved with. He had put in for a tender in Oslo, and wanted me to come in and help get things running. I told him I was quite happy where I am. No thanks.
We met for a second lunch a little while later and he made a similar pitch, and I again told him that I wasn’t interested. During a third lunch, Axel asked me, “Come on. What is holding you back? What is blocking you from making this decision?” I told him I wasn’t really sure if I could engage myself in bike sharing. And then he looked at me and said, “Liisa, come on, you can engage yourself in anything. I know you too well. You can find a way to get engaged in this, too.”
And he was right. I am engaged. More than that, I am truly passionate about what I do at Urban Sharing. The micro-mobility industry is fascinating. I love what I work with, what I do. And I could always go back to my old job if I really wanted to. So far I have yet to find a reason to.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
A lot of cities have soaring population rates, a trend which isn’t going away anytime soon. People in those cities need a way to move. But there’s not a lot of space, and not everyone can access a city’s existing assets. With new technology, we can improve the ways people interact with their own city, and with each other.
So finding more efficient, optimized ways to fill in those small gaps with reachable and sustainable options is very important to me. We bring in elements from the future, and we help cities find sustainable solutions for that same future. We’re already seeing some of these changes in Oslo. It’s pretty great to see.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1) Accept who you are as a company instead of where you think you will be, and hire accordingly. When we first got off the ground, we hired someone who I envisioned would be a great fit for the direction we were going. And if we were to hire him now, he would be perfect for a lot of the tasks we need to get done. We weren’t ready to use him yet, however, and we as an organization were not yet a perfect fit for him. He left not long into his contract.
2) Take time to breathe. You need people around you to remind you to stop, think about it. Leave for twenty-four hours and come back to it. If you make decisions that will impact people’s work life, you should always take a breather, even if it’s just thirty minutes. You manage people.
3) Don’t promote someone to a leadership position based on time, but on ability. Knowing a lot about a product or having a lot of skill in an area does not mean someone will be the perfect team lead. Find other ways to enable people to show off where they’re talented, or where they have the framework in which they can do a good job. Otherwise, you’ll just be disappointed and they’ll just be frustrated.
4) Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something. Do say you’ll take time to research and return with the information needed. It’s not a bad thing to say, “we’ll figure it out and get back to you.”
5) Enable people to do great things. Don’t shy away from talking about the job or accomplishments of your team members. Stop saying “I”, say “we”. Don’t be afraid to tackle conflicts or make sure the group is moving forward. Sometimes you need to accept there will always be some level of disagreement, then move on. And sometimes that means moving on to a different path, if that’s what’s needed.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think a movement I would love to be a part of would involve bringing meaningful technology to the people who need it. We have amazing technology in the world. It’s just humans that are standing in the way, and they shouldn’t. Don’t be afraid of technology. Don’t think that robots are going to take over everything. Accept that we’re going to change, and as a world society, we need to help each other accept that change.
I think positive examples of technology can help do that. Open and transparent sharing of macro-data analysis. Micro-mobility solutions that integrate the most underserved segments of a city’s population. Thoughtful, sustainable technology that makes a city a better place to live in. If people can see the positive changes technology can bring, they’ll be more willing to embrace it, and less willing to run from it.
Creative applications of technology could help create a more positive outlook on the future. We should find ways to improve infrastructure and technology that already exists rather than replacing it all the time. This is the exact sort of mindset I love about Urban Sharing, and I would be very happy to be part of a larger movement around thoughtful innovation.
Thank you for all of these great insights!