Superland, Legos, and the South Pole expedition: why company culture matters

Company culture – a concept so full of hope and expectations, and so often tossed around in commercial communication. But what does it mean? Why is it important? To me, it isn’t about big words or motivational quotes on posters.

Instead, I believe it’s what we live and breathe; how we build a community, and how our work makes us feel. It starts with innovation, willpower, and the strangest ideas. And it never stops growing.

“Wow, your company has such a unique culture!”

This is normally one of the first things I hear from new talent joining SuperOffice. As the CEO, I’m happy to agree. Not only do we have extremely talented colleagues, strong collaboration, and a powerful product. We also have a one-of-a-kind legacy bursting with passion, passports, and wonderfully weird adventures. But much like Rome, our strong culture wasn’t built in a day.

As a lot of you know, SuperOffice was founded in 1990 by Une Amundsen. Une was a charismatic leader and a true storyteller, always on the hunt for new ways to mix work with fun. Besides the fact that there wouldn’t be a SuperOffice without him, it’s safe to say that Une is also the founding father of our culture.

One example of Une’s legendary impact took place 20 years ago. In 2002, Europe was facing challenging economic times – and SuperOffice was obviously going to be impacted. Our growth and financial performance were threatened, and we desperately needed a change.

Une had an idea. He started a virtual expedition to the South Pole and engaged the entire SuperOffice team in it.

This wild thought was inspired by a fellow daring Norwegian with the same last name as Une. In 1911, Roald Amundsen planted his flag as the first person to reach the South Pole. The journey was filled with struggles, but in the end, the Norwegian explorer reached his goal. In this story, Une found the perfect metaphor for the performance journey SuperOffice was about to embark on.

Quickly, a digital map of the South Pole was made on our intranet. Each local country team formed their own expedition team – ready to start the hard journey to the South Pole. We made 12 camps on the way – one for the end of each month – and we constantly kept our eyes on the routes and timetable. Our goal was to get to the finish line in time for the end of 2003.

As I am sure you understand, the virtual expedition, the 12 legs and the South Pole goals were parts of a distinct way of visualizing and driving our business towards our financial goals. In Q4 2002, the whole expedition was presented in every country during a roadshow and the message was reinforced by a visit from Cato Zahl Pedersen – a young Norwegian explorer who reached the South Pole despite having lost one entire arm and half of the other.

Long story short, the whole idea was just crazy enough to work. Our wild virtual trip to the South Pole ended up marking a turning point for SuperOffice – financially and culturally.

It was then that we understood just how big of a difference
company culture and the real team effort can make.

(A journalist actually documented the entire process and there’s a book about it, called “Stubborn Bastards”, but more on that another time!)

To manifest the end of our South Pole expedition, 38 colleagues were invited on a trip to Svalbard. This became our first-ever Award Trip, and every year since we would invite top performers from across SuperOffice for an adventurous weekend.

Every such journey and a new cultural initiative had a different theme. And so far, we’ve done everything from building Lego pyramids to cheering at the Formula 1 race. Each year since 2003, we have created a new annual theme to support our journey towards our goals. What we’ve learned is that it’s often the strange, silly things that hold the power to change how we work together as one SuperOffice team!

Something else that might seem silly at first glance is Superland: our own nation where every colleague is a citizen and a member of the Parliament. This idea was also created by Une and was a product of yet another challenging times.

In 2008, the world was facing another financial crisis and Une had at the same time fallen ill. Despite every troubling obstacle, he made a brave decision once again. That year SuperOffice was listed at the Oslo Stock Exchange, and Une made a plan for how we should take the company private and develop our business without the constant scrutiny of the financial markets, analysts, etc.

He introduced the plan to the management and to a few key shareholders – and everybody supported the plan. Financing the privatization was done through a loan of 321 million kroner from the DNB bank, which was paid out 48 hours before the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers (pretty good timing, don’t you think?).

But for Une, taking the company from public to private was not enough. He also wanted to create a separate nation – and Superland was born as a theme to carry us further. Always an out-of-the-box thinker, Une believed this was a business metaphor that would last, and it would really have an impact on how we worked together and succeeded.

To this day, we’re still enjoying all the amazing results that came from that bold choice. We feel the togetherness of working as a nation, where the citizens are our customers (that we serve), and the employees are members of the Parliament. All employees even have a Superland passport.

Luckily, our company culture isn’t just a thing of the past.
It’s an ever-growing part of us that keeps developing
and changing just like the business itself.

Right now, we’re on an acceleration journey, adding new talent to our company and working hard to keep bringing value to our customers. It’s a thrilling and sometimes challenging process. But as our legacy has taught us – change is truly the only constant. Going forward, we will keep nurturing the culture that makes SuperOffice such a unique place to work. Because, as we know, the strangest and wildest ideas can end up making the largest impact.

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