12/05/2014 11:31 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Erika Mattsson

With the IMMAF since February 2012, Erika created the strategic platform of the organization before the launch in April 2012. She was in charge of brand management, marketing, external and internal communication, and was responsible for strategic development of the international organization and relations with key stakeholders worldwide for the continued development and establishment of the organization. She oversaw the brand strategy, project launch and operations of the 2014 IMMAF World Championships. Erika finished as CEO in November 2014.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Every individual is defined by a multitude of traits, experiences and values, and to some degree it is difficult to extract from the mix. But I think that the experiences that mostly affect my leadership are my academic background, the time I spent in Canada as a student and the different social forums and non-profit organizations I have been involved in. Being raised in an academic household I value knowledge and research very much and I have a process oriented and academic approach to a lot of my work. I expect a high quality level on my own output and the output of my team members. Having lived abroad during a formative period was very useful for me and I think that experience increased my understanding of how to manage cultural differences. Canada is also a more open society than that of northern Europe, so that has likely affected my leadership as I believe that showing genuine care for your team members and daring to talk about issues is essential to growth and productivity.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position in MMA?
I came to the IMMAF from the business world, my background is in management consulting with focus on brand strategy and business development. I had worked mostly with industry companies in business-to-business. My first meeting with MMA was through the Swedish MMA Federation in the fall of 2011, a friend asked me to help out with MarCom and PR. I love watching sports and have experience in different kinds of non-profit work, but never within the sports field. And before that I had never even seen an MMA match! So in 2011 I had to start from scratch in learning the sport and understanding its mechanics, benefits and challenges. That has helped me immensely in my work at the IMMAF in presenting the true image of MMA to the world, engaging new people to care about our cause and changing the image of the sport for the better. Coming from the outside I understood what made MMA accessible and not accessible and what areas we needed to work on. I learned to appreciate this sport and the people in it and I have done my best to convey that to others, using the tools I have with me from the business world.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at MMA?
When I started with the IMMAF it was before the federation was announced to the world, and from that moment in early 2012 to November 2014 when I left we grew from 0 to 37 member federations around the globe. An amazing journey. In some countries the political landscape was hugely difficult to penetrate and the MMA communities were scattered and marginalized, meaning that getting a proper national federation in place was problematic. One of the highlights for me personally was South Africa. After two years or struggle we finally got a federation in place, approved by the South African Olympic Committee with a mandate to govern both amateur and professional MMA, and that was a very proud moment. Another proud moment was seeing athletes from around the world glow with excitement as they got to represent their countries at the inaugural IMMAF World Championships in Las Vegas 2014. The World Championships also presented a very tough challenge for me and my team as we simply didn't have the resources needed to put together an international tournament but had to make it happen anyway. Scarce resources coupled with having to grow quickly to match the growth of the sport was the overall toughest challenge. Scarce resources are however the case in all start-ups and non-profit organizations, so if you are not ready to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty with what needs to get done you shouldn't be in the business at all. Hence I enjoyed those challenges but that type of environment is very taxing, so there comes a point where it's better for both the leader and the organization to hand over to a fresh set of hands.

What are your professional plans for the future?
I have gone back to being a consultant, it fitted well with the need to slow down for a bit after the IMMAF. My plan is to enjoy consulting for a period while I refresh my business toolkit. What I most loved with my work at the IMMAF was building something from the ground up, creating strategies but unlike a consultant also being able to implement those strategies. My next step is to do that again, this time finding a company in the process of strategic overhaul where I can make some real difference and see my own engagement as a long-term investment.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I wish I had a terrific recipe for this! But the truth is I am one of those people who have struggled greatly with the balance and let work come before life more than what is probably healthy. This is a continuing learning curve and I hope to do better. The only thing I can safely say that I have managed is my relationship - I have put work ahead of friends and family often, but I do prioritize my husband. If one cannot manage to get enough personal time I think that at the very least never forget your significant other. That is the person you have chosen to spend your life with, cherish him or her. For me the most difficult periods workwise have been made better because I have a loving husband and a loving home.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Not being penalized for being pregnant or home with children appears to be a tough nut to crack. I do not have children myself but it is enough to be a married woman for the concept of children to hamper you in the sense of how you are treated and the opportunities that come your way. I think society has come far in this and I am positive - we are getting better at looking at competencies, not gender, and valuing the overall contribution of a person and not the latest quarter. And more men are taking time with their children which I believe is good for everyone. So the future is bright, but this does however still affect women today and that is a shame. Birth rates in the western world have steadily gone down, creating an uneven demographic that will soon have grave consequences on social systems, pension structures etc., so there are more reasons besides common sense and equality to changing attitudes around this.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I very much admire Margaret Thatcher. I can't say that I am well acquainted with every one of her policies over the course of her tenure as Prime Minister, nor support them all, but the overall impact that she had on politics and the doors that she kicked open for women everywhere surely is impressive. She showed young girls and women that nothing is impossible. Another more recent leader is Angela Merkel, who does not get much attention internationally and has a less vocal style than Thatcher, but has been instrumental in bringing order to the chaos that is European finances in the wake of the crisis.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have never had a mentor per say. I have however had strong role models growing up, male and female, and that made me comfortable to take my place at any table in any room. I came into contact early on with places where decisions are made - through getting involved politically as a teenager and then in various student representative roles at university as well as working alongside my studies. The earlier you get out on your own and DO things, the earlier you start making decisions, the more people you meet that inspire you and the more comfortable you get as a leader.