While not actively seeking a new job at the time, Jan Sigurður Christensen was convinced to take on the CEO role at leading assistance organization SOS International by just one very simple sentence.
In explaining the purpose of the company to him, the Chair of the board summarized it quite succinctly using just three words: “We help people”.
For Christensen, that was enough. “It was so appealing to me because it also says a lot about my personality,” he tells The CEO Magazine. Over the years, he has made a point of giving up his time to volunteer as a football coach for young people. In his work life, too, he has always tried to create an environment where people help each other.
“So it was a very easy choice,” he says. “There was, and still is, a good fit with what the board of directors want – and see that they needed – in a new CEO.”
The fact that the company was based in the Nordics, with alarm centers in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, was another selling point for Christensen, who had built up a wealth of experience working in service roles across the region and understood the various cultural nuances. His experience working with Scandinavian Airlines has come in especially handy, he says.
Just witnessing how my colleagues can take a lot of stress out of a very difficult situation and handle it so professionally to get our customers through a crisis – that was something that really swept me away.
Learning the ropes
Christensen joined the company in March 2022 and immediately set about getting to know the organization inside out. From morning till evening, he went from meeting to meeting, and made a point of sitting with his new colleagues in the alarm centers, which provide “acute” assistance for its customers all over the world, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“Elsewhere you might call them call centers, but we give them the name alarm centers because there’s a little more at stake,” he says.
This became abundantly clear as he sat in the CEO chair for the first time. In just two hours, he observed his colleagues deal with a wave of events from around the world, ranging from heart attacks to serious bouts of COVID-19.
“Just witnessing how my colleagues can take a lot of stress out of a very difficult situation and handle it so professionally to get our customers through a crisis – that was something that really swept me away,” he recalls. “We are so good at helping people – and that’s really the DNA here.”
Once he understood the business, raising his own visibility became top of mind. “I began to communicate who I am and what it is that I believe in,” he says. With 1,200 staff spread across the Nordics, that involved visiting the company’s various locations in order to speaking with and getting to know as many employees as possible.
“I spent time talking about what it is that I expect of the future and especially that I am in a phase where I am curious – curious to learn more and curious to see what the dynamics are.”
In a new direction
At the same time, he started making notes on how to take the company forward. His number one priority was to create a strong team dynamic among the management team, which he says has since been achieved. Another key action was to build a corporate strategy.
“We’re owned by insurance companies, so my owners are also some of my customers,” Christensen explains. “That’s always interesting, but it works quite well.” SOS International is now owned by 11 of the largest insurance companies in the Nordic region, with its five main owners represented on the board.
“So the first step in creating a corporate strategy here is to establish an owner strategy. It simply boils down to having world-class end user satisfaction and an efficient operating model,” he says. “Just to have that as a foundation for the future corporate strategy was very important.”
I truly believe that, if you have highly motivated, skilled colleagues with good relations with each other, then you can accomplish anything.
“Then, it’s about asking how we actually engage the organization. I truly believe that, if you have highly motivated, skilled colleagues with good relations with each other, then you can accomplish anything.”
He conceded that such a hefty transformation will take time, and that it must start with the top layer of management, which will act as a sounding board. While this phase of action may not be visible to the broader company, it’s important that they can understand and see on a daily basis that something new is on the way.
To answer this, he has implemented an “authentic leadership program”, which focuses on building relations cross-functionally rather than working in silos. He has also established a group human resources function, which wasn’t there before.
“It’s just doing small actions that underline what is it that I want to achieve and especially underlining the way I want us to work in the future,” he says.
The power of relationships
For Christensen, the success of an organization always comes back to the people and making sure that everyone has the right attitudes, the right skills and are highly engaged with strong relations.
That is especially the case at SOS International, he stresses, as it is a “people business”. This includes not just its own people, but the 14,000 suppliers it works with around the world.
“For instance, we have partners that can make sure we can easily dispatch a taxi within 10 minutes to every address in the world. We have undertakers that have global coverage. I have two medic flights, two ambulance flights in the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” he says. “Having partners that are able to deliver on that is absolutely crucial.”
I don’t know everything. I’m a part of a team, and we need to do this together.
Trust is essential in such relationships, and Christensen is a firm believer that going into a meeting or another work situation with this kind of mindset means that much more can be achieved, and it also boosts employee satisfaction which, in turn, drives efficiency.
“We’re so dependent on the competence of the people that we have and that they are able to help each other and ask each other for help. It creates a psychological safety net underneath, knowing that my colleagues will catch me. I’ve got your back. You’ve got my back. I fully trust you, so let’s go out and make a difference,” he says.
“I still see a tendency for leaders to feel they need to be the hero – that they have to do everything themselves and be the expert. I don’t believe that. I actually believe that it’s more important that we are open to vulnerability. I don’t know everything. I’m a part of a team, and we need to do this together.”
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