How Lars Bjork built a team that can meet the challenges of rapid growth at QlikTech

Lars Bjork

Lars Bjork, CEO, Qlik Technologies Inc.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but Lars Bjork has found his share of headaches as he’s dealt with his company’s rapid growth over the past few years.

It’s a great problem to have, right? As an untold number of American businesses have struggled just to tread water, and numerous large, well-known companies have undergone very public bankruptcy proceedings, Qlik Technologies Inc. has been heading in the other direction. The business software solutions company, which brands itself as QlikTech, has sprouted from $44 million in 2006 revenue to $226 million in revenue and 1,000 employees in 2010.

But fast growth still puts great stress on a business. For Bjork, QlikTech’s CEO, the question of growth has largely become a question of finding and retaining the best people.

“We employ a lot of people, we hire a lot of people, and the challenge is, how do you continue to sustain a certain rate of that, because we want to continue to grow the business,” Bjork says. “The growth numbers for us over the past few years have been substantially higher than the average company. So, how do you keep the quality high for the hires you make, but still bring on a lot of people? Within that, how do you onboard them, and get them ingrained with our culture and values that we hold to be so important within QlikTech? That’s the challenge: How do you find people at this growth pace, and how do you get them on board in a way that they can thrive in this type of environment?”

At QlikTech, hiring isn’t just an issue for the human resources department. Every leader in the company, including Bjork, has taken an active role in ensuring they attract the right type of people for the growing business and can retain them. It requires not just an eye for talent, but a well-defined culture and an understanding of how all the puzzle pieces need to fit in order for the employees and the business to remain successful.

Play matchmaker

If your stated hiring mission is to find employees who fit your culture, you’re saying a lot more than you might realize. Even if you have distilled your core values down to a few bullet points that can easily fit on a lunchroom poster, you won’t find a single type of person that will easily fill the mold you have created.

Some people aspire to be managers. They want to climb the organizational ladder and become less specialized as they gain more experience. Some people want to drill down in their area of specialization and carve a niche for themselves. You have to find a place for both in your company, because your company won’t be able to function if it doesn’t have a balance of aspiring leaders and aspiring specialists.

“We think that people who are going to be attracted to a company like ours will want to continue to develop professionally, they’ll want to work within a team and have a social element to their work,” Bjork says. “Some of them want to continue to grow in their specific role as the company continues to develop. Some have higher aspirations to ascend to the managerial level. What we try to do is avoid a common mistake that a lot of businesses make, which is to simply take the best expert in a given area and make them the leader. As an example, you might take the best doctor and make him the head of the clinic. But your best doctor might not be your best leader.”

Bjork and his leadership team strive to achieve that balance by putting job candidates through a rigorous series of interviews, in which a candidate’s personality is assessed from different perspectives.

“It’s not only a direct manager doing the interviews,” Bjork says. “It could be the manager’s manager, or a person in a peer position. It could be a member of HR or another senior person. It does make it a bit of a tedious process, because if you want to hold standards high, you tend to be picky, and you’ll probably have to look at more people.”

Ultimately, Bjork is trying to get past a candidate’s interview façade and uncover the real personality traits. Whether the person is interviewing for a managerial role, a sales role or any other position, Bjork simply wants his team to be able to make an honest assessment.

“I want to see how people present themselves even more than I care about what they say,” he says. “It’s also about what they don’t say and what they don’t ask. It’s about finding out their interest level in the company and what we do. Is there interest very limited, are they mainly concerned with getting their foot in the door and getting a job?

“That’s why I ask the question, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ It’s not meant to offend anyone, it’s more about getting to the point of deciding what you would do if you could choose. If everything was laid out in front of you, what would you do? It doesn’t mean that you have to aspire to be a high-ranking manager. You can be fine in your role, and developing your expertise in that area. But you still want to develop that skill set, and you can articulate that in way that holds up.”

No matter which way a job candidate leans – toward a career in management or a career in their field – the different kinds of personalities and skill sets that can thrive in a high-growth company need to have one common trait: the desire to grow along with the company. No matter how that trait manifests itself in a given employee, Bjork says it is essential.

“You’re looking for very driven people, people who want to accomplish something,” he says. “They get things done, they want to be given a lot of responsibility, and they aren’t afraid to be held accountable for it. When we hire someone, we point out what we would like the company to do, then you figure out explicitly how to do it. That is why we hired you.”

Strengthen the bond

QlikTech is now headquartered in Radnor, Pa., but the company was founded in Lund, Sweden in 1993. With operations that serve customers in more than 100 countries, QlikTech decided to use the company’s birthplace as a central location to indoctrinate new employees in the culture and values. Once a job candidate has passed the interview process and accepted a job offer, QlikTech sends the new employee to Sweden for a week of training.

“We still have a lot of our company’s heritage in Sweden, and our R&D is there,” says Bjork, a native of Stockholm. “So we send all employees there for an introduction week, where we go through our culture, our values and teach some of the key processes. It’s a very interactive week, where you have to work with other nationalities as well. It has happened where we have pulled people out of their employment because they couldn’t make it through the week. It doesn’t happen often, but we have done it in the past.”

The training week in Sweden is a test as much as it is a primer. The interview process can reveal a great deal about prospective employees’ personality and character traits, but the training week tests their ability to stay motivated to succeed in the QlikTech environment.

It’s the gap that every company has to bridge when onboarding new talent: taking the hire from concept to practice. In order to feel motivated, new employees have to feel the energy and passion that their coworkers and managers have for the company. Particularly in a growth-oriented environment, as conditions are changing at a rapid pace, employees need to feel a sense of motivation around moving forward and working toward what’s next for the company.

As with many things in a business, it all starts with the example set at the top.

“You have to walk the talk, you can’t talk the talk,” Bjork says. “There is nothing you can put on posters on the wall. You have to live a culture by showing it through actions. It’s like with kids, it’s not what you tell them to do, it’s what you show them to do. Otherwise, the message becomes very empty and shallow.”

Be a motivator

Once new QlikTech employees come back from their training week in Sweden, their sense of motivation determines how far they will ascend professionally, and how far they will help move the company. At some point, the questions asked during the interview process, the lessons taught in training and the example set by management has to result in something tangible in the employee’s performance, otherwise you might have to call the hire itself into question.

“I’m trying to embrace the fact that motivated people will do more than people who are not motivated,” Bjork says. “They have to feel to a very great extent that their piece of the puzzle adds up to something that becomes very successful, both for them and the company. It’s especially true for younger people. Many young people have grown up in an environment where financial stability is something that they have taken for granted, so money is not the No. 1 motivator for them at work. For my generation, and especially my parents’ generation, that was a much bigger motivator. For younger workers, it comes down to ‘I want to be involved, I want to make an impact, I want to learn more.’ That is how you’re training them, and that is what drives their motivation.”

Once you have set the example, and believe you have motivated your growing work force to a satisfactory level, that isn’t the time to let up with your communication. As the leader, you are in the spotlight at all times. You need to recognize that motivating your employees is an ongoing process of taking the raw-material talents and skills that your employees bring to the table each day and converting them into the momentum that powers your company for future growth.

“A culture is defined by how people interpret the organization when they walk in,” Bjork says. “People need to see an open environment, a flat organization, a place where it is easy to approach anyone. People here know they can walk into my office, my door is open almost all the time, and you can simply be yourself. I don’t need to point out to anyone that I’m the CEO. They know I am CEO, so I just want to be myself when I interact with everyone. That is where the example starts, and it’s true for any senior manager. Recognize people, give them praise, talk with them about what is going on in the business. Don’t sit in the ivory tower. Continually motivate your people and promote the idea that you are working as a team.”

How to reach: Qlik Technologies Inc., (888) 828-9768 or www.qlikview.com

The Bjork file

Born: Stockholm, Sweden

Education: Business administration degree from Lund University, Sweden

What is the best business lesson you have learned?

Trust your people, because they can work miracles for you.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

You need to be comfortable with hiring people who are better than yourself, in the sense that they are experts in their field, and you are willing to be a good listener. You need to be comfortable with not allowing yourself to just have a bunch of yea-sayers around you.

What is your definition of success?

It is the ability to meet or exceed expectations, whether that expectation is from an employee, a customer or a shareholder.

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