C-suite career advice: Johan Salenstedt, Configit

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? “Embrace unanticipated disruptions.”

Headshot of Johan Salenstedt, CEO at Configit

Name: Johan Salenstedt

Company: Configit

Job Title: CEO

Location: Copenhagen, Denmark

Johan Salenstedt is the CEO of Configit, the global leader in Configuration Lifecycle Management (CLM) solutions and a supplier of business-critical software for the configuration of complex products. He joined Configit in 2019 and has over three decades of experience in executive leadership positions with high growth software companies including IBM, Adobe and Qlik.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? I have taken impressions from strategy execution thought leader, Jeroen De Flander. He used to be a management consultant, with super advanced strategy sessions and plans. At one point, he said to himself, “I think I can do better by simplifying this process.” I’ve worked to adapt his simplification on how to, one, develop a plan, two, communicate, and three, execute. That’s something that really appeals to me — when people don't over-complicate things. That’s tough to do, but if you can do that, it can really make a difference.  

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? It’s not really advice, rather two things I have observed. The first is an experience I had with one of my first sales managers. He discussed how he outsmarted a customer in negotiations and the customer paid a price that I would consider to be unfair. In my opinion, that’s a very short-term achievement and will never benefit the relationship between you and the customer. Just be fair and think long-term. 

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Something I learned over the years, is many people preach that you should know your customer, which is important. It's super important. But, then at times you forget about your customer's customer. Knowing about your customer's customer is next level understanding of behaviors and strategies from your customer, and what they do and why they do things. Acknowledging that will actually drive a deeper level of understanding on the challenges that you need to address to help your customers succeed, but also help you succeed in your career. 

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? When I went to university, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was choosing between all kinds of things, like becoming a journalist, which was something I was interested in at the time. But when I started to read about IT and computer science, I realised I knew very little of it and that seemed like a great challenge to me. Not a lot of people knew about the field back then. It was something new and fascinating. I realised that if I actually went and learned something about it, it would potentially open some doors and for sure it was something that was going to grow in the future. Learning has always been very important to me and Tech has given me the ability to learn new things every day. 

What was your first job in IT/tech? I started off as a programmer and I was later drawn into project management. From there, I went into sales and marketing for the remainder of my career. 

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? Tech is less about tech and more about business. People tend to think that it's super difficult and technical, and that's part of it, but today, tech is not isolated. Tech is business.  

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Embrace unanticipated disruptions. This is exactly what technology has been preparing for. With the right technological systems in place, things like virtual collaboration, new product development, and remote work, change from being roadblocks to competitive advantages.  

The speed and enormous amount of change and disruption that occurs in tech is a continuous challenge. Being able to cope with and feel comfortable with that is also something you should embrace. Your knowledge eventually gets outdated too, so setting aside time for personal development is also something I would advise. 

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I've never set any specific career goals for myself. I've never said to myself that I was going to run a company one day. I've, fortunately, had the opportunity to work with great managers who elevated me into fun roles throughout my career.   

I've enjoyed working in this industry immensely. I came into this industry when I was 19 and have been here ever since.  I guess you could say my career ambitions were to have a career I really enjoyed rather than a specific goal. 

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Yes and no. I don't think any CEO has a great work life balance. I think if you want to pursue a career as a CEO, then you should understand that it is a lifestyle. The lifestyle consists of getting phone calls late night or early mornings from a customer who is upset, or having calls at 10 o’clock on a Saturday because you have to chat with a CIO in China and that’s the only time he’s available. Those are the things you deal with. You are constantly “on” and that’s something you need to be OK with.  

I won’t say my work life balance is bad though because I know what it takes. And the rewarding part for me is the people I work with. That brings me a lot of energy. So of course, being a CEO takes its toll, but I do feel better about my work life balance now than I did in the past.  

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? No. I love the people that I've gotten to know. My job has taken me to some amazing places and I've learned a lot about different cultures. There’s been ups and downs, which I feel all careers have. And maybe there has been a job or two that I wouldn't do again, but overall, I wouldn’t change a thing. 

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Just do your thing and be true to yourself. Don't try to get into something that you don't enjoy because you’re going to be bad at it. I know that from personal experience. I went into coding, and I did not enjoy it. I actually wasn't good at it, and it didn't appeal to me. When I got over to the business side, I loved it and my career has gone well from there.  

How important are specific certifications? When it comes to technology, certifications are pretty important. They’re something I look for, if for instance, we need a person that is going to oversee our cloud architecture, I want to make sure that they do have the appropriate certification that is needed. It's kind of a check mark. These certifications are not easy. They actually take quite a lot of time, and you need to be committed to pass.  

Equally, I would recommend people attain a degree, if possible. If you feel that you haven't gained the knowledge, at least gain the knowledge on how to approach a problem or a different approach to gain access to that knowledge. That in itself is important. 

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? When I meet potential candidates, I know that someone has already verified them in terms of their skills and the value they can add to the team. So, I take the opportunity to look for different things. I look at whether this person is a good fit for us from a culture and value perspective. Are they flexible? Being adaptable is super important. I’m also interested in someone who can challenge me. I want someone who asks questions. I look for someone who has integrity and is grounded, to the extent that they aren’t intimidated by sitting with the CEO.  

What would put you off a candidate? I don't want a person that is a people pleaser or someone who pretends to be something that they’re not. I don't want mainstream people. In these instances, I usually ask two questions. I start off with asking, can you please describe your biggest success in detail? And what is your biggest failure? And tell me what you learned. I’m looking for meaningful answers to both questions, knowing that the first is a bit easier. It shows me that the candidate recognises that failure is a learning experience and that they’re not too proud to admit when they’ve had to learn something. 

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? I think a lot of candidates do the research. They look you up on LinkedIn, google your history, look on the company website and then they make assumptions. They do not come in with an open mind. They’ve already made up their minds about what kind of person you are and what kind of company this is. And they’ve essentially already made their “pitch” based on that information. I think a lot of candidates do that because they need to be prepared, which is fine. But I would recommend that candidates ask questions, keep an open mind and be themselves. That takes you a long way. When you're going into a job interview, communication is a two-way street. It's not just about getting the job. It's also the candidates' chance to make up their mind on whether they think it’s a good fit for them or not. So, I recommend candidates take that opportunity. 

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? I think both are needed, but it’s important to make sure that you’re good at something. Beyond technical or business skills, the top skill you need today is communication. Make sure that you can communicate, explain yourself in a clear way and that you're not offended when you're challenged. Whether you’re on the technical or business side of the spectrum, just make sure that you always train and use your communication skills because that is of the utmost importance.