How Does She Do It All? Interview: Stina Honkamaa, Google Sweden

04/13/2013 08:17 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Focus on finding something you love and work really hard at it. If you love what you do, you're probably good at it.

This is the secret to Stina Honkamaa's success, according to the humble and effervescent Country Director of Google Sweden. The former elite cross-country skier took over Google at a challenging moment-- the company was facing boycotts from many Swedish media agencies-- and transformed a difficult situation to one replete with high revenues and great internal morale. She credits passion and stamina for her seamless rise. Crowned "#1 super talent" by Sweden's premier business magazine Veckans Affarer in 2008, she is not just one of Sweden's most powerful women, but most inspiring professionals of either sex.

"I've never seen "the top" as an objective as such - instead, to find an area I'm really interested in, a sector that's in constant transformation and being able to influence change, have been the most important drivers for me."

Perhaps the best explanation for Stina's success lies with those that work with her every day. Last December, I was invited to Google Sweden by Stina to give a talk on women's empowerment in business, and the comparisons between the professional plight of Swedish and American women.
"Inspiring", "real", "down-to-earth", "connected with us", "collaborative", "really amazing" and "creative" were just a few of the glowing adjectives used to describe Stina by her bright employees as we mingled before her arrival.

I, too, was immediately taken by Stina's natural leadership style, kinship with her employees and open, honest personality. After giving me a generous introduction, I stood up with a smile and an extended hand awaiting a goodbye shake. Fully expecting Stina to jet out of the room to more pressing matters, I was amazed when she cozied up in a chair next to a pregnant co-worker and dug into the conversation.

In the nearly hour-and-a-half debate, she gave incredibly candid observations on equal partnership within a marriage (her husband is very hands-on with their two small children, took paternity leave and the couple shared responsibilities when Stina took her maternity leave), prioritizing one's life and emphasizing work-life balance for both men and women.

Stina is a CEO who makes time for people and truly cares. In addition to a panoply of gilded professional awards--Global Google Great Manager Award in 2011, third place in "Sweden's 150 Top Leaders of Communication"-- the contribution she makes to the lives of her employees, and men and women around her, makes her an authentic leader and role model.

Despite her arduous work schedule and demanding family life, there has rarely been a time where Stina has said "no" to an opportunity for reaching out to young professionals and helping me elevate the issue of women's business leadership within our U.S. Embassy efforts here. Although she rarely does press especially of a personal nature, I begged her to tell her story in the Huffington Post and emphasized how valuable it would be to American women. She once again, did not disappoint.

Below are her instructive and generous answers on Sweden's unique role in the high-tech industry, how she supports leadership development and of course, the secret to her successful balancing act.

Natalia Brzezinski: Only a very small percentage of women are able to make it to the chief executive position. How did you make it to the top at such a young age?

Stina Honkamaa: I've been very fortunate to find a sector I'm really passionate about - the media business. As you know, the media and advertising industry has been revolutionized by the internet and it is simply incredibly inspiring. I've never seen "the top" as an objective as such - instead, to find an area I'm really interested in, a sector that's in constant transformation, and being able to influence change have been the most important drivers for me. But of course, you also have to have stamina and work really hard - and if you really enjoy what you are doing, that's not really an issue.

Several news outlets have been highlighting the Swedish start-up scene as one of the best in the world. What is unique about Sweden that lends to that fact?

The general level of education forms an important base as does the high online penetration and technology knowledge, but Sweden also has a long tradition of innovation and building global businesses going the way back to LM Ericsson, Nobel, Absolut Vodka and H&M. There is a belief that it is possible to innovate and grow because it has happened before. New technology innovators like Spotify and Skype and the Swedish Google engineers - who have been part in developing the video call functionality in Google+ Hangout - all fuel this virtuous circle. But Sweden doesn't only have technology exports - fashion companies like Stylein, Dagmar and Gina Tricot are taking the world by storm, not to mention music global innovators like the legends ABBA in the 70's and the Swedish House Mafia of today.

And this drive is not only commercial but acts as a spring board for a number of ideological and charitable causes going way beyond Swedish borders. One close to my heart is the World Child Youth Forum initiated by the Swedish Royal Family, focusing on children's right to simply be children, as defined in the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child. The Forum is annual and acts as a platform for discussion on children's rights in our society.

Sweden is the most digitally-connected societies in the world with 92.9% of the population online versus the United States who comes in second in the world with about three-quarters of the population on the Internet. How does this connected demographic affect what you do at Google to connect with customers?

The internet is already a large proportion of the Swedish economy, 6.6% of Swedish GDP and growing faster than most traditional sectors. Consumers in Sweden are online almost all the time and all businesses in Sweden, who wants to increase market share and grow, simply have to be where the customers are and our mission when working closely with large companies as well as with SMEs is to help them get the most out of the web.

Why do you think so few women are drawn to careers in high-tech fields? Do you think that's changing, and what is the situation for Swedish women within the high-tech realm?

Technology companies don't consist of engineers alone, many have roles making the technology into useful business solutions, marketing and selling them. But there are fewer women studying technology related subjects so there are fewer women to employ as engineers.

At Google we believe that really good innovation comes from a diverse group of people working closely together. So we are holding up our own brilliant female engineers as good examples in a program called Women Techmakers and work with scholarships like The Google Anita Borg Scholarship. We also run an internal program called Women in leadership at Google to help women raise their voice and get on in their careers. I believe businesses do have a responsibility to work actively to change this.

How would you describe your leadership style?

We do take leadership development really seriously at Google. We know that the manager is key to how the team perform - we have analyzed thousands of appraisals at Google in detail and found factors that make a good leader. The factors as such are not rocket science but we have a very methodical approach in continuously developing managers to become better coaches, to support and empower their teams, support the employees in their careers etc. And thanks to our continuous employee surveys, I'm fortunate to have a good understanding of how my team and peers perceive my leadership style. It's incredibly humbling to be described as inspiring, empowering, decisive, a strong communicator and someone who is both able to get things done and really care about the individual.

What do you do either personally or within your corporation to promote gender equality and encourage women to take on leadership positions?

In addition to the initiatives I already mentioned, another one of the workshops for women in leadership at Google took place in Zurich in March and several from Google Stockholm attended this.
The Program is a leadership and executive presence development course in which women will build the skills needed to "take the stage" in their career and to become strong, confident leaders with presence.

Who is your role model, and why?

There are always a lot of people to be inspired by and I get impressed every day when working with colleagues, partners, customers and consultants.

Read more about our women's empowerment initiatives, youth engagement and explorations of the Swedish business, political and cultural worlds at the U.S. Embassy Sweden blog my husband, US Ambassador to Sweden Mark Brzezinski, and I co-write: