Leadership skills can be honed from any discipline, especially martial arts. Aslak de Silva, the CEO of Nordic Business Forum, has successfully used his background in martial arts in being a word-class experience leader. Aslak who now speaks about sales, digital marketing, and leadership in general credits this to his early days in martial arts and the lessons he learned from becoming better every day and letting go of perfectionism. In this episode, he shares how he started achieving success and how he learned the value of learning principles. He also illustrates what happens behind the scenes in the Nordic Business Forum and how the audience can also benefit from the immense value that these conferences generate.
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Martial Arts Leadership Skills with Aslak de Silva
My guest is all the way from Finland. His name is Aslak de Silva. He’s the CEO of the Nordic Business Forum. He’s also a keynote speaker. He feels that personal and team development are what makes him thrive. He is a world-class experience leader at C-levels. He has the Nordic Business Forum where he tracks over 10,000 executives a year to visit the conference and more than 20,000 people watched the live stream. He’s an international speaker doing 30 to 40 events a year. He speaks about sales and digital marketing, leadership in general. He also happens to have a background in martial arts. He gets people like George Clooney to attend his events. He’s great on knowing what makes a good talk and how to make a good pitch. Welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me here.
I want to ask you to take us back. You can go back as far as you’d like. You’ve got your degrees in business. You went on to get your Master’s in International Management, but how do you go from that to being the CEO of something as big and exciting as the Nordic Business Forum?
My first big career step was in martial arts. I started to train when I was twelve. I had a Korean master who was a very old school of martial arts. Even if you entered competitions and it didn’t matter who won the medals, it was more than you develop every day. You become better every day that way. The training wasn’t only about doing a particular technique or winning a tournament, it was more than every day you need to be better. It’s a harsh school because you can’t celebrate anything, that you see your mistakes. That got into me and I started to understand that, “How can I make every day better?” It means don’t make the same mistakes today as you did yesterday. Do something a bit better. In the end, it comes down a lot and you start realizing that you can learn a lot every day from anybody you meet or you can decide the way you want to go. If you want to go do yes or no or right or wrong, then life becomes quite simple. Long story short, I trained intensely for fifteen years. I was competing, I won a championship in one particular martial arts. I had about twenty clubs. I was teaching in the Nordic and in different countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. I had a couple of injuries.
I knew at the same time that you can’t play only one card. You need to have a backup plan. At the same time, I was studying, so I thought studying is a good thing to do because it’s about development. You learn new things and you want to focus on something. I thought in martial arts, you look people in the eyes all the time and you learn how to develop yourself. To me in the end, that was leadership. That’s dealing with people. That directed me to study also International Management. I felt already the international background living in different countries. I was intrigued by learning leadership and international management a lot.Meet your audience where they are now. Click To Tweet
Let me ask you a couple of questions there. This concept of becoming better every day, does that help you let go of being a perfectionist and not beating yourself up when you do make mistakes?
Yes, I’ve been reading your book, John. You are a fan of that too. It is true. In the beginning, it’s hard because you do see mistakes and you get frustrated. I remember when I went to the competition, you felt that you could do better, but something is pulling you back in a way that somehow you’re stressful or nervous or you’re afraid of something. Those were the worst feelings. You control yourself and your mind. What I learned was how to prepare myself for the fight in a way that I could do my best. That felt good. If you do your best, you’re happy. It’s not about you’re perfect because you’re going to put yourself down on saying, “I made a mistake.” If you did your best at that time, you learn from the mistakes. You know that next time you will not do the same thing again. That’s a relief for you when you understand that perfection is something that you will never get into, but also sometimes you don’t know what that is, but you can always become a bit better. That’s very motivating for your development, that you know how to become better every day. You’ll know that you’ll be better. Even if now you didn’t win, you know that tomorrow you might win again.
As far as that mindset, because it is how I’m anxious, I’m stressed, I have some fear. I’m big on putting faces on the fear. Is it fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of the unknown and figuring out how to deal with it? A lot of people are afraid of failure, especially when it comes to leadership. If you are a leader, you are like, “I can’t let my team ever see me fail or my team is so afraid of failing, they’re not taking chances.” What are your thoughts on that?
I do remember the times when you say, “Fake it until you make it.” You want to be something that you are not because you put it up in a way that you pep talk yourself that you can do it. You can get far with that and that’s totally fine. It also collapses the moment that you realized that, “I’m not that person.” As long as you’re honest to yourself, mistakes happen all the time. I was talking to my daughter and I was laughing, whatever I do, she says sometimes that I do a mistake. As a father, what do you do? When you realize that she’s unhappy about it or there’s something wrong, it’s just happened. Sometimes she thinks a different way. The same way in leadership also, I strongly believe that because it’s a human attraction that we’re talking about. We are not the same. If you can feel yourself doing your best and truly believe in yourself that you are doing the best you can with the right attitude, right spirits in all way and helping people. The outcome will be good. You’re not perfect. You’ll still make mistakes. If you worry about them too much, you cannot control yourself either and collapse there.
Take us on this journey that you’ve been on. You graduate with this International Management degree. You get involved in selling media. Talk about what that experience taught you. What are some of your secrets on selling?
When I was training martial arts, we did demos to people showing and going through what the martial arts is about. I did about 500 of those in different countries. I performed on TV. You can show physical sometimes, but you need to be explaining something. I learned how to explain. Even if I was exhausted, I’m always talking. People were asking, “How does this differ from other martial arts? What do you learn there?” I’m talking about these things and nuances. I always started in a way that, “What do you know about martial arts?” If the person said, “It’s not too much. Maybe karate or judo,” then I explain with that level that, “This is a bit similar to karate or judo, but maybe train more on your physical side as well.” If somebody was a super expert talking about nuances, “I’m going to mix martial arts training and I know these things there,” then I would talk on that level. I noticed that when I talk with people, you need to be able to talk the same language that they understand. Whereas I noticed that many people and I also, in the beginning, was super excited about what I’m doing. I try to teach everybody everything that I knew. I was talking about this is something that I learned. They’re looking at people in the eyes and seeing that they don’t understand me.
We have an expression here that’s like drinking out of a fire hydrant. It’s too much, too soon.
I realized that is sales in a way. That’s a conversation with people that you’re trying to teach something there that you love and you know about. You need to level up with the other one that you’re talking with the same language. You clarify for them. I could see that I could sell martial arts class to beginners or even the advanced one. That makes them intrigued about what I know and what we are training. I noticed how to talk with people. The other thing is in martial arts, when you go into a fight, you look at the person in the eye all the time. You’re reacting to what they are doing. You sense the feelings that they have. Are they confident or are they nervous? You can see when are they moving forward, what happened?
I was focused on observing what the other one is doing based on how I move, how they move. The fight in total to me, in the end, was observations of things that are happening. I graduated in International Management. I also thought that I have no technical skills or anything. The only thing I can do is to be with people. I thought that sales is something that you can also have the same attitude as with martial arts that you start somewhere, but you can develop yourself to become better. The results are quite easy to measure. I thought that this is something that I would love. That’s how I ended up in sales.
Sales is a conversation. Meet your audience where they are now. From there, you know exactly how to customize what you’re talking about, not too high, not too complicated. You went into media sales. You got some experience with selling using your martial arts experience. How did you get involved with the Business Forum?
Basically, in sales what happened was that in the beginning, I was not that good. I started with telesales. I remember picking up the calls and selling magazines. That was the first one, subscriptions for magazines and I didn’t like it. I knew that if I get credited in somehow, I can move forward and get a better place to work for. I had no experience of working. I was training and teaching. I thought that it had no value. For summer, I was working on a magazine subscription. I was the sixth-best in the month of July in selling magazines in Finland for a particular company. There were 500 salespeople. I took that diploma and said that the telesales is not going to be a problem. I was going for companies that have a better product that they were talking about content marketing or most solution-based. That’s what I loved.
Being able to talk with people and understand what they want and pitch it back, “If I have something to offer, this is how you work.” I got lucky in sales. There are a lot of books there. I started reading them and taking classes. I got promoted to be a country manager in a company called Mediaplanet in Finland. They’re running twenty people there. I realized that I want to develop my leadership skills as well because when you’re leading people, there you go. A few days later, I run with Nordic Business Forum. It was from the same town that I was born. I had heard about the story and they were bringing these world-class speakers to Finland. They had that time, Al Gore, Jack Welch and Brian Tracy and so on.Become better every day versus striving for perfection. Click To Tweet
I was like, “They are coming here. This may be something that I would go for.” I was used to learning from the master. I’m used to listening to people on stage, observing everything that they are saying and I was writing notes. I managed to get into one of those events. I remembered the first speaker was Jim Collins. I have read the book, Good to Great. When he was speaking, I was like, “This is it for me.” I can listen to him live, make my notes and I can even ask questions there if I have some. I noticed that there were people around who were doing the same and I felt that group spirit that this is now the right group to be. Ever since I’ve been a customer of Nordic Business Forum, all the events they had in Helsinki, Sweden and Oslo, also as a sponsor there with my company that I was working before. I thought that was the best place to be.
Now you’re an international speaker yourself. What’s the name of some of your favorite keynotes that you give?
I’m not that good a speaker as you are. I’m not that recognized. I talk about depending on what people want to talk. I talk about sales and marketing alignment like how to work together and how to learn from each other. Lately, people have been more interested in knowing what you can take from martial arts to sales and leadership. I take those learnings that I’ll get in other principles of the old style of martial arts and the principles of lifelong learning, and what does that mean in real life when you work?
I could see that being a TEDx Talk for you, the secrets from martial arts applied to leadership. That’s fantastic. I love the journey of going from selling something on the phone to now you’re the Chief Executive Officer of the Nordic Business Forum. Tell us a little bit about what that is and why people should make the effort to come and experience it, the leadership experience they get. Tell us what it is that people can understand and why people from all around the world are coming?
To start, what Nordic Business Forum is we need to have to go for the founding story because that explains the spirit of how everything is happening. The two founders: Hans-Peter Siefen and Jyri Linden, they met at college when they were studying. Their friends introduced them to themselves. They were both doing some sales stuff in different companies. They had been to seminars and thought that might be something that they want to go for, arranging seminars themselves or conferences. They had their first seminar in 2009 and about 80 people attending $10 per ticket. Already they said, “This is going so well. Why don’t we go for international scope?” They changed the name in 2011 to be Nordic Business Forum.
Hans-Peter had a skiing accident and he was in the hospital. They had to come up with a theme of responsibility. He used that time in thinking the concept where you have one question. He had a question of, “Who would be the best speaker of responsibility?” He was writing down all the answers that come to his head. He came up with Al Gore. He was excited that 2011 that Al Gore was a big thing and talking about these things. He went back to Jyri and said, “Now I know who we will get as a keynote speaker, Al Gore.” Jyri said, “That’s a nice idea, but that’s next to impossible because Al Gore doesn’t come to Jyväskylä to Central Finland. They Googled the name and tried to get his number and find Al Gore’s office number. That was Hans-Peter’s first international call and they got to talk to the team.
A few months later, they got the yes from Al Gore. The problem was that Al Gore wants an upfront fee for the speaker to be paid because it’s in Jyväskylä, Finland that nobody knows. They don’t know if they can trust the arranger and the organization as well. They had to sell their apartments and cars to be able to pay the upfront fee. The next problem was when they had Al Gore coming, they were trying to call people and say that Al Gore is coming to Jyväskylä but nobody believed that’s true. Luckily, people started to believe that this happened. They had other speakers. They were building up and selling tickets.
When Al Gore came to Jyväskylä, they were thinking about how to make the experience as good as possible. They called the mayor of Jyväskylä and said, “Since you have such a nice car, could you pick up Al Gore from the airport and bring him to the venue?” The mayor said, “Yes.” That says the attitude that you are willing to put everything because you believe that you can make it happen. For them, Al Gore was the best speaker at that subject field so they wanted to get him there. That gave him the best possible experience also to be there is something. This is what we do in Nordic Business Forum, we want every day to become better and make everything the best possible we know. We have learned lots of things. We made lots of mistakes and the experience passes on. We go through the things we have learned, the things we did well and then say, “What can we do better?” This is how it has grown a lot.
I like the lessons you’ve learned from martial arts, every day getting better so that you get better and better. Much so that you’ve got George Clooney coming to your event this October. How did that happen? I’ve never heard of George Clooney speaking at an event in the States, let alone in Finland? Was that difficult to get him to come?
You have to do some pitching skills as well. The same way we’re thinking that the theme for the 2019 event, which is going to be on the 9th and 10th of October in Helsinki, is growth. We were thinking of different themes of growth and how we can actually teach business owners and see them execute. One part is storytelling because that’s part of growth. You also know a lot about that. We were thinking who made the best stories that made a huge business. George Clooney happened to be in a tequila company that was sold for $700 million or $800 million. That’s a good storytelling skill to build up the company brand.
People don’t realize that besides being a political activist and being an Academy Award winner, he’s quite an entrepreneur. He’s in business with Cindy Crawford’s husband, Rande Gerber and gets paid very well for doing a lot of commercials overseas. He’s very connected to the pulse of entrepreneurship. I don’t care where you are in the world. That is one of those where they call in the business a great get. It sets the stage for why people would come and what they would learn. You have other locations as well that are coming up. Obviously, if people can’t make it this October 2019 to Helsinki, there are some other opportunities coming up both in Stockholm and Oslo. Would you tell us about those?
The Oslo Business Forum is going to be at the end of September. It’s quite close to Helsinki. The 2020 dates will be launched a bit later on. Stockholm is going to be on the 21st of September, 2020. The focus of these events is a bit different on the size and the length. In Helsinki, the main event is two days and a full set up with twelve to fifteen speakers. We only have one stage. Everybody’s looking and listening to one stage. Where in Stockholm, we go a bit longer than a half-day, a shorter term, fewer speakers but a concise package. It can be marketing and leadership in that sense. Whereas in Helsinki, we go broad where we will have some economists or professors also building the big picture. The same way in martial arts, my master used to say the technique is just techniques. The understanding of what you do comes from a bigger picture understanding first. You need to learn the principles.Sales is a conversation. Click To Tweet
For instance, in 2018, we were having a couple of lessons on the blockchain. For business leaders, it shouldn’t be technical, what do you do in your business with blockchain? First, you need to understand what the concept means and what it means in the big picture of how it’s going to change the business field in general. Not your industry, not your company but those things. Then you’ll start understanding, “What does it mean to me?” This is the focus of our conferences in general. We were talking about George Clooney. When you learn how he perceives storytelling and what tips does he give? Many will think, “I will never get George Clooney to work with me.” That’s not the point there. You’re lucky if you get, but the point is to understand what he is thinking and you see the best in the world, the big picture. Then you can start thinking about, “What does this mean for my company, my business?”
Let’s give the audience an example of that. I talk about storytelling genres, give examples of a movie and a brand using that storytelling genre to communicate their stories. If people are thinking, “I’m going to come here, George Clooney talks about stories.” Obviously, he’s at the point in his career where he can produce, direct and even decide which one he’s going to star in. He must be able to look at a script and figure out what’s the story genre? Does it resonate with me? From a business standpoint, we can start to look at these genres and say, “Is this what my company is telling the story of?” Stories are what resonate with people and make them memorable. One storytelling genre is a rebirth.
There’s a classic Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart, of what would have happened if had he killed himself versus staying alive. The impact that we all have. Prudential is a company that uses that storytelling genre. They say, “Your retirement is your rebirth. It’s your third act. It’s not just a continuation of middle age.” There’s a genre, there’s a movie and now I see a brand using it. Another example of that would be leave home, have an adventure and come back and tell about it. If you think of a movie that does that, that’s The Wizard of Oz. If Dorothy had listened to her aunt and went in the cellar, she wouldn’t have gone on that adventure. Expedia, that’s exactly their genre. They encourage people to go book a trip, go to Helsinki, go to Sweden or go to Stockholm. Go have an adventure and go to the NB Forum. Use Expedia to book your trip, come home and tell all your friends about what it was like to hear George Clooney or Seth Godin or anybody else that you’ve got. That brings it to life a little bit about storytelling, genres, movies and how having George Clooney as a storyteller in the movie business can be applied to business.
That was way more interesting to hear than having like a copy text of an advertising campaign. People resonate a lot on that. I truly believe that storytelling in that sense is a skill that every one of us would have to learn.
This has been fascinating. I’ve had the good fortune to get to meet and spend some time with you in person. I was so excited to bring your story to the audience that I am fortunate enough to have around the world in 60 countries. My intent is that people reading this are going to go to NBForum.com. Are there any last thoughts or insights that you want to say about either leadership or having you as a speaker or some encouraging words to get people to consider coming?
The focus of our event is on customers. What we want to do is to be the best in the world in arranging these conferences. Our mission by 2021 is to be the most significant business conference in the world. How that also happens is that the customer experience that people get when they are out there is something different. We have over 100 different places for what can happen. If the audience feels cold, how do we see that you are feeling colder? If you feel thirsty or if you look lost or you’re looking for toilets or if coffee spills on your pants, what do we do? If you lose your Apple pen, what do we do? To experience that because for leaders, especially if you’re talking about growth companies and you want to make it big. You need to understand how you can do that for customers. That’s the best place to see because there are lots of things happening, there are a lot of people at the same place and all that.
Often people might feel bad or feel that they are not that special. 7,500 people in one place, there comes lines where you’re waiting. How do we deal with that? That is something also to learn because if you get that as a leader, you know how to be treated as a customer well-enough so that you can take that as well. That is one of the pitches that we use a lot. That’s what we’re famous for. We get even more tweets about great customer service that we offer at the events than when we had President Obama on stage. That tells a lot that even though that was a huge thing for us and for the audience, still people value even more the experience that they get there.
That is fascinating because when I was working with the Banana Republic and Neiman Marcus, they were always talking about the definition of luxury as anticipating a need before you know you even need it. The Banana Republic said, “We can’t compete with Neiman Marcus but we can try.” They offered a place to charge your phones when you were shopping at some of their places, Rockefeller Center or big stores so that you go, “That’s a need I didn’t know. I need to have my phone charged while I’m shopping.” The irony is their sales went up because people kept shopping while waiting for their phone to fully charge. Lexus did the same thing. They said, “We’re going to connect your phone to your sound system so that when you’re blaring your music loud and the phone rings, we’re going to turn the volume down so you can hear your phone ring.”
You didn’t know you needed that but it sure is a luxury. When you’re describing you’re lost, you’re cold, you’re confused, coffee spilled, it’s almost like a top-level Concierge Hotel being willing to anticipate. For that kind of volume, it’s not just intellectually hear somebody talk about it, but to come and experience it, they can take those lessons back to their own life and business and make themselves even more productive. That’s such a great takeaway. What a joy to get to know you. I am excited to read about and watch some of the live streaming for the upcoming events. I’m looking forward to attending one myself again.
Thank you, John.
It’s NBForum.com to find out more about you. Are there any other links you want us to mention?
No, that’s fine.
Thanks again. We’ll look forward to hearing all about the exciting lessons learned from your wonderful events.
Thanks, John, for having me here.
- Nordic Business Forum
- Good to Great
- Hans-Peter Siefen
- Jyri Linden
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