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Trust and scale: Pophouse’s CHRO is combining different mindsets to grow an entertainment powerhouse

Helena Sjöberg is the Chief HR Officer of Pophouse and a reputable change leader within the HR field. Celebrating two years at the company, she is a veteran – compared to some – in an organisation that has transformed and scaled rapidly over the same period. Helena previously led the HR function for Microsoft in Sweden for five years and was earlier at American Express. Her responsibility today also comprises internal communications and sustainability. We had a chat with her about intercultural differences and similarities, growth, and how to maintain speed in a growing organisation. 

You have worked in global American corporations and now in an international entertainment firm originating from Sweden. How does geographical heritage affect company culture? 

“I would say the generic building blocks in Swedish companies, also in Pophouse, are trust and transparency. Pophouse was recently a much smaller company, where everyone was aware of who is who and who is doing what. But as we have entered a scaleup phase, the trust part comes in handy, as we have to trust each other and trust the process. It is different when everyone is not involved in everything.” 

“From US business culture, I am bringing along the scaling part. When you build to scale, you are always thinking in two or three steps. We are using a ‘what if’ approach. For instance, “what if we were being present in two more countries?”. The what if way of working in order to scale is something that big corporations, especially from the US, instinctively think of and something I want us at Pophouse to really embrace.”  

What are the main differences between Swedish and American business culture? 

“In Sweden, we have lesser hierarchies. I also think that we tend to take more gap years after high school. Instead, we have a two- or three-step approach in our own development. I don’t see that in other regions. The Nordic region stands out a bit in that regard.” 

“Fika, the coffee break, is a holy thing in Sweden. Breaking out that in a business context, it creates an informal way of working. You align a lot; you discuss a lot.”  

“One thing that I would like to pick from the US is the storytelling competence. Overseas, you learn that from the school and practise it in all your work situations. I think we are a little bit behind from a Nordic perspective, we need to be cleverer in storytelling and storydoing.” 

What defines the Pophouse culture? 

“For me, that would be passion. Everyone is really driven by their own passion for music, entertainment and edutainment, not to forget. High level of creativity, an informal touch, people being very curious, asking a lot of questions which drives us in the right direction. On a more practical standpoint we are still quite Stockholm-centric. We recently opened our London office and our geographical presence is gradually evolving and changing. I’m looking forward to when we have a wider presence outside Stockholm.” 

Why do people join Pophouse? How do you attract talent? 

“The majority of people joining up to now have joined due to our own network. People know someone who knows someone, we use all our strong networks. This is of course not enough going forward. We are changing how we attract people, working platform-based, and broadening our search for people. We need to raise awareness about the employee value proposition, why should you go to Pophouse?” 

“But it is a great advantage that we have all these strong, cool people being connected to us in some way, from people on our board to within our organisation, consisting of interesting people to be close to. I also think people are interested in being part of a journey, even if it’s a bit buzzy to say. We have changed so much in the past few years and I think we will continue to change even faster in the next year. People looking to develop and transform are curious about Pophouse.” 

In a young, growing organisation, one could guess a lot of new things to improve within the HR and people domain emerge all the time. What have you improved most in the past year? 

“I divide the impact our function would like to have in two buckets, structure and culture. This is where HR can and should have an impact. From being a devil’s advocate to really push things forward. Structure is something we need in forms of infrastructure and routines. Sometimes, in a creative environment, people are not very keen to do that. For that reason, it is important not to over-engineer stuff. The other thing is to identify and follow a North Star, which affects how we develop managers, how we assess candidates and employees, and how we develop them.” 

“Structurally, we have become more data-driven in the past year. We use candidate Net Promoter Score, we evaluate candidates from a NPS. We also let candidates, including the broad base of people who don’t end up at Pophouse, evaluate us. We want to make a good impression on and more importantly learn from all candidates, both the ones we say yes and no to. We collect, analyse and do good stuff with our data. This has for instance led us to change how many interview steps we have. Culturally, we have put together a manifesto with our guiding principles. It is easy to put out a manifesto, but we constantly work toward making it stick and worked from the bottom up to establish it within the company. Of course, we are never done with that process, but we now have a good foundation to push ourselves to create the best culture.” 

What is the hardest part about your job? 

“The hardest is information, which goes for many other jobs and companies as well. I need to make sure that I’m aware of changes and evolve discussions around these changes, in an environment where there are so many parallel discussions. In other words, putting my ear to the ground and understanding the here and now of the organisation. We are constantly iterating our internal communication as well as pushing the self-leadership when it comes to staying ahead of the curve.” 

What is the most fun part? 

“The pace, which is fast and requires hard effort. The potential, that we’re on this journey. And the third, the people. So, these three Ps: pace, potential and people.” 

Comparing a CHRO role today to five years ago, what would you say are the biggest differences? 

“I think we are in the middle of our own HR transformation journey. If I look five to ten years back in time, from a generic standpoint, maybe babysitting is a bit harsh to say, but our role was often more about being reactive and less about insight and data. Since then, a lot of HR people have woken up around how we can understand things about the future if we get our arms around the data today. How can we understand why people aren’t successful in the recruitment process and how can we use that? Many tools and systems are much better today than just two or three years back in time. So, I would say a transition from being reactive to being proactive.” 

How do you maintain and accelerate speed in a growing organisation? 

“It is a good question, I will probably know more in a year. But I do believe it is about connecting the dots as more people are joining. When we have an internal dialogue, it is all about recapping the context, connecting the why. The other thing is to prioritise, if we want to be agile we can’t do everything. That is a constant struggle in all businesses. We have to stick to things to be impactful. Otherwise we will be all over the place having no impact. A third thing which is easier said than done is to allow mistakes and learn from them. We try to tie to the culture, we want to listen and learn and we need to understand. My constant question in leadership meetings is: “what did we learn from that?”. If we learn we can grow.” 

What parts of the organisation are you growing at the moment? 

“In one way, we grow everywhere. To some extent we come up with completely new roles in fields such as investments, marketing, finance. We are asking ourselves: who can enable us to grow? For other parts of the organisation we are rather fine tuning. For example Space, our gaming and digital culture centre, where perhaps one role needs to be two roles. We are learning things to make the operation more effective.” 

And who would you recommend joining Pophouse? 

“Someone with a lot of creativity will absolutely thrive here. And the twist to that is that you have to have execution power. It’s not just about dreaming big. Someone who likes to work in a team, but also across teams. I also believe it is someone who can from time to time kill some darlings. Sometimes you get your point through and sometimes you have to comply with different wills within the team, so you also need a pragmatic approach. If this sounds like you, you are more than welcome to add me on Linkedin so we can continue the dialogue.” 

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