Originally written by Jason Hartman for Thriveglobal
Based in San Francisco, Morten is the CEO of Wire, an enterprise-grade, end-to-end encrypted collaboration platform. He has over 20 years’ experience in the technology industry, as well as extensive go-to-market and SaaS experience spanning both the U.S. and European markets. Previously, Morten was the CEO at Huddle, a content collaboration platform serving large professional services firms as well as the UK and U.S. governments. His previous experience includes leadership roles at Syniverse, MACH, Sunrise Switzerland, TDC Denmark, and ATEA.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have over 20 years’ experience in the technology industry, as well as extensive go-to-market and SaaS experience spanning both the U.S. and European markets. Before becoming a CEO I held various leadership roles at companies like Syniverse, MACH, Sunrise Switzerland, TDC Denmark, and ATEA.
Right now I am the CEO of Wire, an enterprise-grade, end-to-end encrypted collaboration platform. And before moving to my current company I was the CEO at Huddle, a content collaboration platform serving large professional services firms and governments, where I successfully led its acquisition by Turn/River Capital (competing against the likes of Dropbox, Box, Egnyte).
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One that always comes to mind was my first working day in Switzerland. I was touring all locations (including a newly acquired company) and introducing myself to the team and sharing what I believe we could achieve together. I was speaking in English and I said something like, “you guys are joining an awesome company and bringing customers and competencies that are a great and unique fit on the market…”
After the session two of my colleagues came up to me and with very straight faces told me that they felt misrepresented, as they definitely weren’t “guys” they were ladies!
I must have looked very funny because I had no clue what to respond but, “I am sorry you are correct!”
The lesson I learned from this was: be precise and inclusive in your articulation.
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?
One person I will always be grateful towards is Guy Dubois. While I was working at MACH, he came in as the new CEO. He was, and still is, an amazing mentor and my “go to person” when I am in tough situations. Not only was he the one who reignited my desire to become a CEO. From the first day I met him, he has provided constant inspiration (like how to be tough but fair), help and guidance that have shaped my professional life.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Wire’s founding team consisted of former Skype technologists, including Skype’s co-founder, Janus Friis, and communications apps and platforms expert Alan Duric (current chief technology officer). When they started Wire they asked themselves: “What kind of platform would we create now, if we were doing it all again?” It was clear at the time that there was a disconnect between consumer and vendor priorities. Consumers (both individual and enterprise) desired true security and privacy, YET vendors seemed to think of these as an afterthought. So, the team created Wire with a mission based on four key values: security, privacy, transparency and user experience.
We’ve set about caring out this vision by building a platform that not only has full end-to-end encryption for audio calls, video conferencing, messaging and file sharing, but also has ultra-transparency as a core principle (our code is open source and third party audited). Even though Wire pivoted from the consumer to enterprise market in 2017, the original mission still stands today.
Our commitment to this vision is what led to Wire becoming the only cloud platform recognised in both Forrester’s New Wave™: Secure Communications, Q4 2018 and Gartner’s Market Guide for Workstream Collaboration 2020. Our use of open source and public audits has also earned recognition from IDC as the way future businesses shall ensure transparency with customers and partners.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Be as honest and transparent about the challenge ahead, find motivation in the difficulties, trust each other and support each other ,and believe that no matter what you will learn, grow and come out a better person.
Life (and business) is about learning. If you are willing to learn from tough situations, continuously reflect and learn from past experience, and always strive to do the best you can, you will very often be met with good results or even great achievements.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I think it goes back to the previous point about building a purpose-driven business. For me, when the going gets tough it helps to know that we are building a product that is truly in the pursuit of a good and worthy mission. It is easier to keep going when you really believe that your platform is something that is useful and important for people to have — from that comes an enduring pride in following through and fighting for the vision. The rewarding part is when your purpose is proven (to yourself, your company/colleagues, and the outside world) by the growth of your business and customer base. That never fails to motivate me even when the going gets tough.
If you happen to be working for a company that doesn’t necessarily have a strong purpose, my advice would be to remember that challenges are relatively small points in time. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, it is tiring. But ultimately it is a short amount of time in your whole journey. Think of it as a sprint — where you must work really hard and fast — in order to reach the finish line.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think that a leader has two main roles that are critical during challenging times. First and foremost, it’s important for leaders to support and advocate for their teams. Truly supporting and advocating for your team includes many things like boosting morale, protecting bandwidth, empowering decision making, and making sure everyone has the right resources to do what they need to do. Sometimes taking the supporting role means working more behind the scenes. During the pandemic I’ve come to realize how important it is for the CEO (and executive team members) to step out of the spotlight and instead allow middle management to take a more visible lead, especially in all hands meetings. Middle managers are key because they are close to the day-to-day, yet are looped in to the broader strategy and business goals. Elevating and supporting them results in a team that is both focused on solving critical/time sensitive problems, and able to pivot when necessary.
The second role that I think is important for leaders to take on during challenging times goes back to vision. As teams are fighting everyday battles and moving the needles towards short term goals, it’s critical for leaders to have a 1,000-foot view so they can anticipate future challenges, and guide the team towards the right priorities.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Celebrate the wins, no matter the size. When your team is going through uncertain or difficult times it’s important to celebrate every win — it shows them how much you value their hard work, and reminds them that progress is possible.
I think it’s also crucial to encourage non-work conversations and interactions (this is especially important when working remotely). I’ve found that people work best together and feel more motivated when there is a feeling of trust and camaraderie. Try doing a weekly virtual happy hour, or opening a messaging channel that is a “water-cooler” style space for coworkers to joke and chat about shared interests.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be 100% honest. At Wire, transparency is a key value, so it’s a bit of a no-brainer that we approach communicating difficult news to both team members and customers with honesty. But, beyond that, being transparent with your team gives them a clear and objective understanding of the difficulty/challenge and gives them a better chance to come up with a good solution.
In addition to transparency, I’ve found that it’s also important to come with a plan of attack when communicating difficult news to customers. This doesn’t necessarily need to be a full blown solution or answer yet. Customers can be reassured by just knowing that you already have an idea of how to address the challenge and that you and your team are working hard to solve it.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
How can you not? If you don’t know where you are going, you are very likely going to end up in the wrong place!
In my opinion it is always better to make plans and set objectives — while also being willing to adjust or change if circumstances require — than just sitting back and waiting.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes, stay true to your mission and values. Turbulent times become especially dangerous when companies make the mistake of reacting out of panic and desperation. The key is to maintain trust and communication with your customers and your employees. How do you achieve this? By being transparent and consistent in how you make decisions and solve problems.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I’m going to answer this question within the scope of the cybersecurity/secure collaboration industry because that is where I primarily operate, but I think the main points can be applicable to all industries.
This year was an especially turbulent time in the secure collaboration industry. The record high of remote working created enormous demand for collaboration tools, but also provided cybercriminals with a lot of opportunity to wreak havoc (attacks increased by an estimated 400%). Unfortunately as some of these collaboration tools became aware of the cyber risks, they made false claims about the security and privacy they were providing to their customers. To me, this is the worst mistake you can make. Even when you are faced with odds like this you must continue to be honest with yourself and your customers.
This is especially relevant during difficult or uncertain economic times. When the health of the economy is in question, a lot of businesses pull back on activities or initiatives that are considered “non-essential”. Part of this is necessary — it’s certainly important to cut costs and ensure the right priorities are in place. However, this becomes an issue when companies cut back so much that they begin to only fix or address things once something bad happens. This is especially dangerous when it comes to cybersecurity because all it takes is one breach to bring your company’s operations and financial longevity to a halt.
Even in tough times, the best advice you can get on how to adjust your direction and what not to change comes from your customers. Your customers can provide clarity to your future by telling you what challenges they’re facing, what they need help with, and how they see you being able to help them. Never stop talking to your customers. Never think you know what they want better than them. Always let them tell you.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
This might be a little counterintuitive, but be ready to stop. It’s important to be ready to stop, change your priorities, and adjust your path accordingly. Be honest with yourself (and those around you) about the situation. Only by acknowledging what has gone off plan, or what has gone wrong can you begin to change them and fix the business towards a better future.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
As I said in a previous section, it’s important to not rush into any decisions out of desperation.
It’s important for both your team and your customers to know the status of the company and understand your plan for how to navigate this time of difficulty.
When Wire first was founded it was a consumer-facing product that was utilized and deeply entrenched in the developer world. However we soon realized that our platform could have more impact by serving the enterprise, as many companies handle critical information and sensitive data that could have lasting effects (for businesses and consumers alike) if snatched by cybercriminals. When we announced our shift towards the enterprise in 2018, it was definitely a difficult decision marked with a few criticisms (as there always are) but we knew it was the right move. Now we serve over 1300 enterprise, government and critical industry organizations and are steadily growing as remote work and cyber attacks continue to trend upwards.
No leader can do it alone. It’s crucial to have a team that you trust to make their own decisions, execute efficiently and approach their role with the company mission in mind. In my experience trusting your team to make big decisions can lead to some of the best outcomes. In 2017, Wire started the transition from closed to open source code — something that is not commonly done in our industry. It was certainly a big decision, as going open source puts your product on full display and allows everyone to examine your methods. At the time, Alan Duric (cofounder and CTO/COO) felt it was a crucial step for Wire to distinguish itself, build strong relationships in the developer community and further our commitment of transparency to our customers. Fast forward several years and now not only are we fully open source, but other companies are beginning to follow in our footsteps. This decision not only helped make us a leader in our space, but has driven and accelerated new businesses opportunities.
This leads nicely into the last point…
Again, one of the main jobs of a leader during turbulent times is to have that 1,000-foot view. Trust your team to take care of the day-to-day battles so you can focus on the big picture, and guide the company towards long term goals.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I honestly don’t have a “Life Lesson Quote”. But I know for a fact that when you, as a CEO or leader, have to make a difficult decision that makes you uncomfortable you need to make it as fast as possible and execute on it quickly….otherwise the discomfort will eat away at all of your energy and focus on the business and colleagues around you.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow the things my team and I are working on on Wire’s blog, or our company Twitter (@wire) and LinkedIn.