Article: Leading effectively during a crisis: The Spotify Story


Leading effectively during a crisis: The Spotify Story

Company culture is everything in tough times. Tough times don’t last, but tough (well-equipped) people do, said Katarina Berg, CHRO of Spotify, on leadership and living through values in uncertain times at TechHR 2020.
Leading effectively during a crisis: The Spotify Story

Katarina Berg has been heading up Spotify's global HR team since 2013, and she's also head of the company's Global Workplace Services and Strategy Operations teams. Katarina has been with the company since 2013, leading the talent transformation during the business transition from startup to a mature international company. 

We were so thrilled to have Katarina Berg join at TechHR 2020 to share her thoughts on leadership, company culture and the role of people & work professionals in an immensely changed world. In this Fireside Chat, Katarina outlines how Spotify has negotiated these uniquely uncertain circumstances, putting people at the centre of culture and living their values throughout the company. 

Here are the highlights: 

We love the Spotify The Band Manifesto and your core values: being innovative, sincere, passionate, collaborative and playful. How have these values helped negotiate the last few months of disruption and difficulty? 

Having a strong foundation of values that are lived throughout the company is incredibly valuable - if not even crucial -  not only for survival but to be able to thrive despite difficult times. In times of uncertainty and volatility the values become the go-to place to help us make decisions, guide how we act, and be able to prioritise.


All of our core values have been essential over the last few months. Our crisis management setup is built on this and therefore resides within HR. Very little anchoring and no bureaucracy at all, made us act fast, and enabled us to communicate often and promptly, stating what is important in a time like this - our people and their families and that safety comes first. 

From the start of the pandemic, we were required to innovate, rapidly changing best practices to support our people, our business, our creators (partners), and customers. Our passion and sincerity have driven us to act with understanding, empathy, and reveals our humanity. Something that’s been important to every single one of us during this situation, regardless of the personal circumstances. As the world is reeling in pain, suffering, and uncertainty, collaboration and togetherness is even more essential. With the Spotify band at more than 6K people around the globe, separated by distance collaboration and also playfulness has been like a rock for us all. Especially playfulness - although it’s been hard times and we are all filled with sorrow at the devastation caused, if we can’t find the joy in life regardless of the circumstances...we’ve lost before we’ve begun.

In uncertain times like this, it’s of utmost importance to be transparent, sincere, and communicative to the entire organization. Our organization needs to know how we’re operating, what we’re basing decisions on, and how that involves and affects them. And more so how we’re responding to and managing the uncontrolled factors in a controlled way. Our values are our northern star – guiding us in our decision making and the way we behave towards each other. They ensure that we’re the same company that stands for the same things no matter the situation. Equally, we live by our values showing that we stay true to ourselves to give confidence, stability and familiarity. 

So leaning on our people strategy, the Band Manifesto (including our values) and our transparent company culture, has given us guardrails and kept us on track when adapting to this new reality. This has made it possible to act fast and take decisions while creating the new Playbook at the same time. 

The way we work and live has been changed beyond recognition in just a few months. Live events were a major part of this - both in our business and personal lives. What do you picture live events (conferences, festivals, concerts etc…) looking like in the future? 

The sudden changes that COVID forced us to make, proved that we are all able to adapt our ways of living fast - faster than we thought was possible. We have adapted to a new reality that would otherwise have taken years, very much thanks to the technology available. Looking into the crystal ball of the future we believe the need for physical human interaction, listening to music live, together in the same room, will always exist. But this crisis and life changes also forced us to be innovative and create new experiences online that can feel as impactful and valuable as in-person ones. It is not a one or the other future. Concerts are being streamed live; a conference may as well take place simultaneously on different continents, with participants stepping in and out of different rooms/countries. We believe in a future of flexibility where, depending on your situation, there will be multiple choices for you to attend a concert or a conference.

Live events will continue to exist - inspirational talks, sharing best practices, fireside chats - they’re all forms of engagement that are important to our ecosystem and to us as human beings. 

The agenda is likely to remain, but how the events are managed, how we attend them and the topics will be tweaked to fit the new reality and set up, especially now we know it doesn’t always have to be live and face-to-face. 

To make this switch and adjustment more permanent, coordination, event planning, and logistics will be key. How the events are run, (comparable to how we work) will change, but maybe less than we think. For example, multiple rooms co-existing at the same time depending on what your interests and needs are and what you are trying to solve for, is not a totally new idea. Making these virtual, with the right tools, is actually quite a straightforward switch.

We’ll see more offerings with a hybrid approach in the future, some people attending in person and some via streaming. These digital platforms will just keep improving. We don’t think they simply replace the value of in-person experience but with improved production & technology, virtual live events will feel much more engaging compared to now (and certainly how they have been in the past).

More ideation will come - more interactive events based on more engagement, and not so stuck to the one-to-many format (one person on a stage speaking to a large audience). People have been socially distant for a long time, more than being included, and as such we would need to find interactive festivals, concerts, conferences, etc building on people's personal preferences as well as unique skills. Also, more outdoor alternatives will be considered ‘default’, to both reflect social distancing, but also being in an environmental context that appeals. If that is a variation of Drive-In, hiking-concerts or so, to be ideated. 

Remote work looks like it will be in place, to some extent, for many of us going forward. One of the major concerns around this shift is maintaining a strong sense of company culture and togetherness. What plans do you have at Spotify to maintain company culture? How important is company culture, particularly in tough times? 

Our people are our culture and our culture is our people. It actually is as simple as that. Anyone who grows fond of their culture at a certain time will work hard to gain a status quo. This will inhibit growth, evolution and a true sense of belonging.

Having a strong culture is all good, but having the right and relevant culture for you is much more important.

This pandemic has made us all aware that culture and the connective tissue between all our band members is more important than ever. To create a sense of social glue and support, and a sense of belonging and togetherness, you have to actively work on multiple levels. All the time.

It’s about leadership. About finding moments to connect. Creating social activities, learning opportunities, and team-building initiatives. And, It’s about the steady drumbeat of communication, communication, and communication.

We are very fortunate to have invested in a Culture team that eats, breathes and envisions how we maintain our engagement and a strong sense of togetherness. Virtual fika’s for those interested in a casual chat, virtual yoga for those needing some time away from their meetings, maybe a mid-day sing along with your child, closing the day with a virtual DJ set - all actual events that occur regularly at Spotify.  

Company culture is everything in tough times. Tough times don’t last, but tough (well equipped) people do. It is easy to lose your sense of ‘we’, especially during isolation and turmoil. Polarization in societies, growing socio-economical differences and rising activism is not helping either. 

Leading with empathy, kindness and accountability is key when the present is unlike anything we know, have seen or experienced. Our cultural DNA is helping tremendously in today’s environment, however, maintaining the connection to the company culture is a challenge that we’re all faced within this new reality. Bringing people together (now virtually) is important for us to create opportunities for Spotifiers to participate, learn, listen, or just let loose, while instilling a sense of our community. Driving and maintaining our culture via digital platforms is giving us a chance to be creative.

But we’re also learning a lot while doing so - what kind of social offerings work best and what’s the right amount, how do you make it more interactive for the participants, and finally, how to avoid screen fatigue. Investing in culture is an ongoing process and how employees are showing up, regardless of whether that’s at home or at an office, is based on the cultural environment we’ve created for them. 

We need to ensure we live our Band Manifesto. People are our culture and our culture is our people. This is a time when strong leadership, company culture and the whole organization living it’s core values, is more important than ever. 

What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities for impactful and inspiring leadership during this time?

People First. It’s easy to say that you are a people-first company, but the pandemic gave a lot of companies an opportunity to show if they really meant it. Our people and their safety came first, in all our decisions, policies, and guidelines. Reflected in the way we worked and the way we communicated. 

Of course, performance and productivity is important, but you can't do very much if you don't have good people who are feeling seen, heard, and safe - while being forced to work from home. Sometimes isolated from near and dear ones and in other cases totally overwhelmed with partners and kids at home in a new reality. 

We believe in leaders who build healthy teams, who have the courage to lead, and the vulnerability to admit they don’t know it all, as understanding that leadership is not a one-person show. Leading by purpose and letting the team feel the autonomy and responsibility to find the way towards that purpose, has been one big part of healthy teams in this environment.

Leaders need to be grounded and self-aware so that they can connect with their people on a human level. They need to have present leadership, really taking the time out to listen to each and everyone; I see you. How are you? What’s working? What’s not working so well? They need to display empathy for the whole team taking each person’s situation into consideration and being able to adapt around that. And of course, reminding people it’s important to take time off. 

In this situation we also shine a light on leadership based on acknowledgment - to see and recognize, to deeper understand individual differences and preferences, to act with common sense and maturity. We need to educate leaders, even more, to lead and encourage, not to micromanage and/or “do the work themselves”.  We tell them to tune in and stay attuned. 

What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned from the last few months? 

The speed at which the pandemic pushed us to adopt a working-from-home model, meant disrupting ourselves and thinking differently. Overnight we re-grouped and redesigned all our offerings to suit our new day-to-day.  People adapt really quick in a crisis, but there is a big need for human interaction.

Creativity, Ideation, and Innovation thrive from people coming together face to face and not just over the screen.

A huge learning, or something we knew but the point has been made really, really obvious: the importance of communication is immeasurable. And it must always be clear, consistent, and compelling. 

We’ve also been reminded of the importance of the small talk at the coffee machine and how that, even in a Swedish fika culture, has been underestimated. Therefore, there’s a need to somehow create those similar moments in a distributed setting for people to feel connected. The monumental power of great communication in times of uncertainty.

We’ve also learned that we have resilience. That even the hardest things are doable in a remote environment. To be focused on the task at hand and the discipline to zoom out. 

What has been the biggest challenge for you as a People & Work professional? 

Forced isolation - we all need human and social interaction, balanced with chosen alone time. 

Being present - being present for our people, teams and our loved ones is #1.  To do so, we must be present, we must invest the time to check-in and connect.

Stay connected - to connect and stay connected to the individuals and teams close to me and/or where there is dependency. 

The social glue - we‘re used to being able to walk around an office and talk to groups of people at once. However, in the virtual world finding and creating opportunities that can replicate this effectively is a challenge.

Mental health - making sure everyone is as safe, active, and good as possible during the circumstances.

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Topics: Culture, Leadership, #TechHRSG

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