Us Rather than Me – Pauli Aalto-Setälä, Pioneer of Modern Work

Four years ago, Pauli Aalto-Setälä, CEO of Aller Media, and his team faced a challenge: how to grow the digital business-to-business at a traditional magazine publishing house. They decided to think outside the box and the results were amazing. As the growth went from seven percent to 70 percent, Aalto-Setälä noticed a couple of important points, which he is happy to share with us.

Pauli Aalto-Setälä thinks that the reason that Aller was facing the challenge was the fact that the media industry was not quite as ready to revamp its own operations as it was expecting other industries to do. “If there is anyone in the management team who thinks that the change will soon pass and we can return to the old ways, that person must be sacked immediately: Progress is here to stay! Those obstructing development must be replaced by people who have the courage to try out new things,” says Aalto-Setälä.

Do Your Homework and Focus

Aalto-Setälä encourages us to see things from a different angle: what can be done, what actions were or were not successful, what are other industries doing, who are our toughest competitors and what can we do about them? You have to discover skills and knowledge.

“We had to establish where all advertising revenue was going as it wasn’t coming to our great magazines,” Aalto-Setälä says. When people at Aller found the culprit, they had but two options: they either had to beat up the competitors or they had to learn from them. The latter sounded like the better option and was easily done by buying the competitor.

Brainstorm, Get Excited and Just Do It

As he was researching into the digital business model, Aalto-Setälä found three essential phases to a successful change. First you need to start brainstorming. “You have to put up with numerous stupidly bad ideas. You have to ask people to share these as Finns don’t tend to tell you what they have in mind.”

If no one takes action on a suggestion, it has been a waste of time. “Someone needs to get excited about the idea. The world is full of great ideas that nobody tells us about or that nobody remembered to approve of. If you don’t try out an idea, you won’t know if it works!

Implementation is an important part of the process, but according to Aalto-Setälä, this is not a problem in the media industry. “In our business, things get done very quickly. We challenged ourselves to work together and focus on completing tasks within a given timeframe.”

A Monthly Challenge to Speed Up Processes

The team managed to solve the problem by setting a monthly challenge with clearly stated targets for their efforts. “When the situation was bad, the only objective was to get the cash in as quickly as possible. We didn’t come up with any innovative ideas but just finished all unfinished tasks,” the team leader is now happy to tell us.

“Then we proceeded from one target to the next and always had a weekly or monthly challenge in place. If the challenge in your team is, say, that people don’t say hello to each other, you must arrange a weekly challenge when everyone greets each other like there’s no tomorrow,” Aalto-Setälä explains how the technique works.

“We used to be a magazine publisher who wanted to grow revenue from digital B2B operations, and we managed to raise it from seven percent to 70 percent! I want to make it clear that if you think that the circumstances in your industry are changing especially dramatically, you’re wrong: the circumstances are changing for everyone, all the time, and if an old publishing house like ours can change, anyone can!”

Fun at the Core of Doing Things Differently

Pauli Aalto-Setälä highlights the management’s role in the core of doing things differently: people must be allowed to be themselves at work, they must have fun and they also need to receive actual benefits from their job. The team must also stick together.

“I’m not a super manager, I just happen to have one hell of a team. I prefer to talk about us rather than me,” Aalto-Setälä says and emphasizes the fact that the best managers and teams use “us” a lot.

“We train our managers to be coaches, who can give and receive feedback. I have worked as a manager for about 30 years and I still regularly practice receiving feedback.”

“Whether people decide to stay with a company depends on the atmosphere; what has been decided to be out of line and what actions lead to consequences,” Aalto-Setälä says and also explains that he does not tolerate whiners. “I’d rather spend time with people who have constructive ideas!”


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