Technopolis offers international leadership by Example

As far as he knows Keith Silverang is the first non-native Finn to have been hired as the CEO of a Finnish listed corporation. In that sense he is well placed to comment on the need for a more international workforce in Finnish business. Technopolis provides premises, business services and development services to some 1,200 knowledge-intensive companies across the country. Many of these companies are looking to grow and prosper in international markets.

“From the leadership point of view, we are  international class in terms of being represented by non-Finns,” says Silverang, a native of New Jersey in the USA who has lived in Finland for 25 years and taken Finnish citizenship, having earned his MBA at Helsinki’s School of Economics (now part of Aalto University).

“Our head of development services and our chief financial officer are also Americans. Our board has shown quite a progressive attitude by understanding that if a company’s outlook is one of internationalization, then the leadership at the very least should be international too.”

While happy to sing the praises of his adoptive country, Silverang is also quite frank about what Finland needs to do to improve its track record with respect to its immigrant workforce. “Companies need to be part of a system that attracts and holds on to the right kinds of people,” he insists. “There should be strong government support, pro-active recruitment of world-class talent and ‘soft-landing’ services that give people good reasons to stay once they are here. I am living proof that foreigners can be very profitable for Finland. If you look at the taxes I have paid, nobody can say I took away more from the system than I’ve contributed to it!

“We have to remember we are competing with places like Singapore, Boston, Silicon Valley… They have the climate and other advantages we don’t have, but we have great quality of life, social services, a clean and safe environment, a great place to raise your kids, an infrastructure that works. There are plenty of reasons to attract the best of the best, but no systematic effort has been made to do that.”

Technopolis and the match-making services it provides, says Silverang, occupy a sort of Green Zone between the academic community and growth businesses in Finland.  “A proactive national marketing programme is needed, backed up by the realization that we are competing globally for the best human resources. We should see it as an opportunity to exploit, not a problem to be eliminated.

“Finland needs to establish a proactive marketing and matchmaking system, as well as a supply chain to meet the demand for people from outside the country, with a process in place that everyone knows how to take care of, with no silly administrative obstacles. Then you need soft-landing services and the ‘after sales’ measures to make sure that people get connected to human and corporate networks, without which people will leave after a few years. You need a public-private partnership to do this. It’s in the interests of the community, locally and nationally.”

Finland’s own educational institutions can go some way to supplying the demand, says Silverang, although it’s important to match the source of supply with the nature of demand. There is a special demand for experienced sales and marketing talent in Finland, he thinks, which must be imported into the country, bringing their links to international networks with them. Engineering, service and technical project management, on the other hand, can be more readily drawn from foreign residents and graduates in Finland.

Silverang is in no doubt that Finland needs to encourage the inflow of foreign human resources and make it more attractive for those resources to remain in the country. But the exchange has to be mutual.

“There is an important message for many of the foreigners who live here with negative attitude issues,” he says. “I have seen laziness, impatience, insulation, reverse-prejudice, and rapid judgments about Finnish culture, language and history. The truth is that people here are a bit like the Japanese: you need to get beneath the surface and establish trust with them, to demonstrate an attention span of more than five minutes. We live in a world of instant gratification, and in Finland this is one of the walls that keeps people out. But once you have broken through, the sky is the limit!”

Written and photo by: Tim Bird