The article was originally published on it-kanalen in Swedish. The following has been translated into English for audience purposes.
We meet him in the lobby of Hotel Diplomat in central Stockholm. Johan has been standing calmly in the eye of the storm several times as various media drives have emerged. Against this background, we are expecting him to be reserved and cautious during our conversation. We couldn't be more wrong. When he steps into the lobby, it is a tan, relaxed and summer-dressed Johan we meet and who is not afraid to laugh at his own expense. It will be a very candid meeting where he tells us about all the successes he has in his resume, and he does not duck to also talk about his adversities and how it has shaped his leadership.
Halland's central city of Halmstad has educated many well-known artists, including Per Gessle and Linnea Henriksson, a Nobel Laureate, Bengt Samuelsson, and the IT profile Johan Staël von Holstein. He was born in Halmstad, but at the age of two, the family moved to Spain where they lived until Johan turned eight. After that, the moving van returned home to Sweden and Halland, more specifically Källstorp. He lived there until he turned 20 and it was time for the mandatory military service. The military service took him to Stockholm, where he was trained as a Military Police.
"It was a very tough education where our teachers drove us hard. We were 30 guys from the beginning, but already after a couple of weeks, several had applied for other positions elsewhere. Finally, we were 24 who went out. I was about to throw in the towel a couple of times, but I bit my tongue and completed the training. It gave me some insights on both good and bad leadership. I also got to see for the first time how I work under intense pressure. So in hindsight, I can actually appreciate that it gave me many useful experiences," says Johan.
It may seem deliberate that we meet at Hotel Diplomat because when we ask him what he wanted to be when he was little, he answers instantly – a diplomat.
"I wanted to live an international life and was interested in languages. Maybe that's why I chose the humanities line in high school. Today I would probably answer politician. I have many ideas and experiences. I would like to be able to influence the development of society so it would be nice to be Prime Minister or possibly Minister of Industry," he says with a laugh.
Our conversation moves into his view on leadership.
"I want to say that I am a good coach. I'm good at building teams, but I don't want to have many yes-sayers around me. It will not be good. What if everyone thought the same! It is discussions and argumentation, together with actively listened to, that drive development forward, whether we are talking about companies or society at large," Johan says.
Throughout our conversation, it is clear that he has a great commitment to everything he does. No matter what topic we are talking about, he shares his opinions and experiences in a prestigious way. Always with a twinkle in his eye and close to laughter.
We return to talking about his path to the position he has today. He says that after the scuffle he wanted to go out into the world and travel around. He went to Kitzbühel for life as a ski-bum and then worked as a tour guide in Chamonix and Bad Gastein. What was initially thought to be a sabbatical later became a professional career in the travel industry, which continued in Spain where Johan also worked as a travel manager.
Suddenly Johan says a thing that sounds completely crazy and makes us astonished.
"When I was there I happened to suffer a car accident and broke one leg. That is the best thing that has happened to me," he says in earnest.
Of course, his wife, with whom he has been married for 23 years and their two sons, is the best and most important thing in Johan's life, but what he means is that the time spent in the hospital after the accident gave him a chance to think about what he wanted with his life. It became an ambulance flight home to Sweden. He spent a total of three months in hospital, three of which, in intensive care. Then another three months followed in a wheelchair. It was then that his mother pestered him to read Information Technology at Lund University. It is easy to believe that it was then that he caught the eye of the IT industry, but it was not.
"What caught my interest was not the technology but the information itself. That's when I realised that it is created data that has a value, not the technology to distribute it. Unfortunately, it became wrong when the internet grew and became something that everyone uses. An expectation was created that everything should be free. For example, we can look at the media industry. Today, there is an expectation that articles and other information will be available free of charge. Why? If you write something, of course, you should get paid for it. If there is something that many want to read, you get paid more. Compared with the music industry even though it has also had some wheels down in the "free ditch." If you write a song that people want to listen to, why not get paid for it? I don't understand that thought. Information, whatever it is, has to be what we pay for," Johan says emphatically.
During his years in the travel industry, he took his first steps in leadership, including a position as a branch manager. He realised that he liked staff responsibility and leadership. He also realised he needed more education. Therefore, he applied to the University of Stockholm.
When we talk about his entrepreneurship and what has been driving him all these years, his answer is:
"I have two mottos that I live by - Never give up, and Never take no for an answer. Many times I have relied on my own mistakes to create successful leadership. An example is when I was the branch manager in Chamonix. At the end of the season, I gathered my staff for a closing meeting. I was under the impression that everything had gone very well. The feedback I received was that many people had thought we were working too much and too hard. I learned a lot from that. I know it is very easy for me to engage in things, sometimes on the verge of manic, and I have less of a need to sleep than most. What happened was that I had been driving my fantastic team too hard. I should have felt it, but I admit that I hadn't listened very well because I was so in it myself. I thought it was so fun to work with what we did. A useful experience and I am extremely grateful that my staff dared to speak out," Johan says.
What cornerstones does he have in his leadership, we ask.
"I firmly believe in setting a good example. You must live as you learn. You cannot say that we should work in a certain way and then do the opposite yourself. It is also important to take a major responsibility in both co-operation and adversity. My leadership also means that I want a team where it is evenly distributed between women and men. In addition, I want to have the widest age range possible. It is seldom good for workplaces where everyone is of the same gender and generation," Johan answers.
He goes on to say that what triggers him, in general, is challenges in the form of, for example, major organisational changes. He says he has a hard time seeing limitations. Instead, he sees the possibilities.
"Sometimes, it feels like I would have lived in the US. Regardless of what happens there today, there is a general picture that it is ok to think big and go "all in" there. In Sweden, we have the famous Jantelagen which holds us back," he explains.
It is inevitable to avoid the ongoing pandemic and the great crisis suffered by Sweden and the rest of the world.
"Since I mostly live in Spain, I have come close to experiencing what it is like to live in a country that chooses to shut down virtually the entire community. Neither I nor anyone else has a clue as to which path is the right one, but I can say that I am proud to be Swedish and I believe that the path we have chosen is the right one. Although Sweden has had to take quite a lot of punches in international media, I like the Swedish model where we listen to what our experts say instead of devoting ourselves to political populism which unfortunately is the case in too many countries. We have chosen freedom under our own responsibility, and I believe that in all respects," he says firmly.
During the conversation, we discuss several of the different things that Johan has worked on. It is an impressive resume that he has obtained. Among other things, we talk about when he worked with Jan Stenbeck at Kinnevik and was commissioned to investigate how TV3 would create the best Teletext.
"I travelled around Europe for more than a month and sat in hotel rooms watching Text-TV. Then we built the world's largest supplier of Text-TV," Johan says with a laugh.
The fact that Johan is one of the founders of the global Internet consultant Icon Medialab is probably something most people know. He has also, among many other things, been the marketing manager at legendary Z-TV for those of us who have the age to remember that time.
We talk about Johan's many successes but also his heavy setbacks. How does he manage to get up after having both a financial and a media debacle we wonder.
"I would never have been able to do that if it wasn't for my beloved wife. She has always stood up for me, and I am painfully aware that she has had to give up some of her own ambitions for my sake. I am forever grateful to her for that. Furthermore, I have found that there have been a few occasions when the outside world has offered surprises that I did not have a chance to foresee. The Lehman Brothers crash is an example. I lost hundreds of millions in one afternoon, and it might have been natural to lie down and give up. Thanks to my wife and my winning mentality, I got up again," he answers calmly.
At the end of our conversation, we discuss what he is doing today. With the same energy and glow, he tells us about ICT Group and Crowd1.
"As I told you before, I like challenges. In my current project, one of our challenges is to change the traditional multilevel marketing concept (MLM) and get more into direct sales thinking. Not only will we create millions of jobs, but we will also get software and apps in developing countries 10-15 years before they would have gotten there otherwise. We will become a Spotify for software products. But where they have only reached the priority countries, 60 in 15 years, we will be in all the countries, almost 200 countries. We will drive development and growth with technology and trade and create opportunities for millions of unemployed, especially in developing countries. Today I have 6 million salespeople in our network, and that's just the beginning. I'm proud of that," concludes Johan Staël von Holstein with a smile.
We note that the time for our interview just disappeared and Johan has folded his rearview mirrors to focus on the future.
Name: Johan Staël von Holstein
Age: 57 years
Lives: Marbella and Madrid
Family: Wife and two sons, 18 and 30 years respectively
Interests: Alpine skiing, cooking, diving, hunting, paddle, travel, wine
Favourite tv series: Game of Thrones, La Casa de Papel (Spanish crime show)
Favoritmat: Krao Krapaw Gai (Thai dish)
Nest trip: Tylösand (with family)
Number of devices: approximately 25