Leadership in the tech industry

Marie Bannister

Marie Bannister

June 18, 2019

VP of Marketing and Communications, Pippa Boothman, was interviewed by Bård Andersson for the Norwegian newspaper; Dagens Perspektiv recently. Find out what they discussed about female leadership, working abroad and the technology industry.

By Bård Andersson [email protected]. Dagens Perspektiv, Nr.14. Friday April 5, 2019.

The corporate culture and technology community lured Canadian Pippa Boothman to Norway. But it was her own background that got her out on the road and provided US success for Airthings.

She has worked in several countries, but eventually chose Norway. Norwegian corporate culture and technology became a wake-up call for Canadian Pippa Boothman, who is VP of marketing and communications in the tech firm Airthings.

The woman from Toronto is admittedly world-wide. South Africa, Australia, Portugal, the United States and France are some of the countries she has traveled and worked in, as well as Canada. But she had never experienced such an open and inclusive, but also rapidly developing and effective corporate culture as in Norway.

Norwegians are effective and have a “no bullshit” attitude at the job that appeals to me, she says.

Boothman is an important part of the success that Airthings is experiencing today, including in the US market. The company has developed radon meters that measure indoor air quality, and is a technology company at the intersection of IoT and sensor technology. The technology is developed in Norway. In addition to private households, the company has now entered the smart city market, where projects in large commercial buildings and schools have been implemented. The company’s sensors and software are used to digitize air quality monitoring. The result will be healthy and productive residents, more efficient and smart energy management of buildings - based on the data-driven insight and better indoor climate.

On the phone from the SXSW festival in Texas, Pippa Boothman explains that Airthings has more than tripled its revenue over the past three years, from 30 to 100 million kr. In addition, the company has won a number of innovation prizes, both here and abroad (IFA in 2017 and 2018 and CES in 2018 and 2019). Last year, Airthings won the Norwegian Export prize. 

Wanted to save the world

Boothman grew up on a farm, an hour’s drive outside of Toronto. After high school she went to South Africa, where her mother originally came from. Boothman had a clear plan to become a lawyer.

I always wanted to help people, and from a young age I would become a lawyer who could work with women and children in the justice system. I therefore chose to immerse myself in sociology and criminology in my studies, she says. Sociology gave her useful knowledge, including how individuals and groups make decisions, which shopping habits they have, how and why marketing is important and about popular culture.

She quickly discovered that she had even more skills for products, technology and commerce. Especially the value of the products and the details about them, linked to the needs of the customers, were the things she was interested in. After gaining experience both in previous jobs and at school, the wholesale and retail trade became a natural next step. There she got good use for what she had learned during her studies. The learning curve became less steep.

In my first job, I worked for a New York clothing company while living in Toronto. I was in charge of a brand in Canada, and quickly realized that sales and marketing was something I was good at, she says.

In the clothing company Canada Goose she experienced adversity. At the department where she worked, there was a working environment that was not the best. Instead, she decided to take on roles as a freelance consultant in Australia, Seattle and Canada, and worked on clothing, service and tech jobs.

"The clothing industry was really not for me as it compromised what I stood for. I am a person who is committed to the environment and sustainability. When an opportunity appeared in Paris - in the IoT company Netatmo, which sells smart weather stations and climate measurements directly on the phone - I was in my element", she says.

Success with environmental-tech products

In Paris, she led corporate strategies for North America and was responsible for making market activity come to life. The work led to growth in North America, partly due to favorable partnerships with companies such as Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Best Buy and The Home Depot.

This work was noticed by CEO Øyvind Birkenes in Airthings, who was impressed by the Canadian marketer.

"Suddenly I sat in Skype interviews and eventually on a flight to Oslo, on my way to a meeting with Airthings. I am passionate about the environment and health, and the knowledge and insight I gained about radon, and the effect this radioactive element has on air quality, which helped when choosing my next career move. In addition, I was impressed by the product development and the working environment in the company", says Boothman. 

She says that she already got a very good impression of Oslo when she arrived at the city. Everything was cleaner and more efficient than she was used to - even Flytoget impressed her. A period of commuting between Oslo and Paris followed, before moving to Oslo for good in December 2017. Meanwhile, the company had changed its name from Corentium to Airthings.

Boothman says that she was surprised that the difference between management and corporate culture would be so great in terms of what she was used to.

"Norwegians are efficient and humble.  But I also noticed that the company lacked someone who had responsibility for telling the world about how good our products and our company are. That task became natural to me. The first thing I did was to book meetings with many of the partners I had in my network and I got some good deals. Our growth strategy, how we educate customers and resellers and our credibility were the aces I had in my sleeve", she elaborates.

Cross country skiing and trips to the cabin

Now she has sold her apartment in Toronto and jokes about that she is trying to be a Norwegian. She goes cross-country skiing, travels on cabin trips and does most of the things Norwegians do. At the same time, she emphasizes that Norway and Canada are not as diverse as one might think.

"There are many similarities between Norway and Canada, both in terms of people, climate and culture. But there are also some differences, for example with socialization and how to communicate with people you do not know. In Canada we talk to everyone, while in Norway they are more private. I have many friends who are immigrants, and also some Norwegian friends. I do a lot of traveling and love it, but then it has unfortunately become too little time for socialization", she explains.

She is fascinated by Norwegians’ respect for family, health and nature, and believes that it characterizes us as peoples, and that it makes a big difference in everyday life.

The number of employees in Airthings has grown in step with the increased turnover. When Pippa Boothman started her job, she came to a company with 15 employees. Today they are 49, and there are plans to hire another 20.

"It’s exciting times, and we have more than enough to do", she says.

Trust and responsibilities

As a leader, she has an unwavering belief in giving the employees confidence. She practices what she calls a “hands-off leadership style”.

She holds meetings in the marketing department every week, where priorities, up-dates and goals are reviewed. Every six weeks, the department meets in a location outside the office. There they allocate some time for open discussion. Everything from obstacles to good performance are addressed. Success stories are shared. Boothman is careful that anyone who has contributed should have their share of the credit for success.

"It is often challenging to give everyone enough praise. Success is usually a team performance, and it can be easy to focus on those who have completed a task. But the work that has been done in advance can be just as important", she says.

"It can also be challenging to get engineers to come up with marketing ideas. In another setting, at another meeting point, however, it is possible. Everyone has good ideas. The expertise should be utilized".

"It’s easy to forget all the feedback you receive therefore I also conduct one to one meetings each week. They can be short or last a couple of hours. The most important thing for me is that we have an open communication and an agreement on the goals", she says.

How would your employees describe you as a leader, do you think? "It may depend on who you ask. They will probably say that I give solid feedback and that I am in direct communication. I hope they perceive me as a leader who will give them space to be creative. I strive to be a role model and with the right skills, can lead the way as a good example. They will definitely say that I put on more hats and travel too much, and I hate to waste time", she smiles.

The role in France was more about fighting bureaucracy and inefficiency, while here she has the opportunity to be more solution-oriented and efficient. But one big difference she has noticed here in Norway: The meeting activities.

"People behave differently in meetings in the US and in France, compared to Norway. The biggest difference is that people show more emotions. It is more difficult to read Norwegians because the body language is less clear. But I have learned that it is the words that count most here", she elaborates.

One of the reasons she has succeeded as a leader, she believes, is about her willingness to take risks.

It is important to see the possibilities and to prioritize networking.

Listening, learning and making friends in many industries, and all over the world, has been crucial, she says. 

She explains her direct leadership style with the fact that she has been hardened by the male-dominated environments she has worked in earlier.

"I quickly learned that as a woman I had to get thick skin, not give in and do not hesitate to say what I mean", she explains.

She adds that it is important  for  a  leader to recognize that everyone has their own work style and that this is something that needs support.

"I always stand up for my team. I want to hire talent and understand what they need to achieve success and grow. Some are morning birds, while others need peace and quiet. Some people must constantly have feedback on the job they perform. In order to cooperate we must all be little chameleons. I always seek to hire people who are more proficient than myself", she says.

"When I worked in retail, in restaurants and in my local Alpine center in my teens, I learned how to communicate with different people, to get a sale, or a little extra tip."

She recommends Norwegian companies should build networks, also outside Scandinavia. By searching for like-minded people in other countries, you miss a lot.

"I see many Norwegians and Scandinavians building networks with each other in other countries, but they are not open enough for other cultures and customs. It’s limiting. Scandinavia is trendy and this should be exploited" she says.

Uniting accolades

The awards and accolades Airthings has received for their products have served as a motivational factor for corporate employees, according to Boothman. The results they achieve together have created a good team feeling, also for employees who do not have the opportunity to travel in connection with a job.

"I am keen to emphasize that everyone has been important for us to achieve this. That is why it is important for me to tell all employees that we are winning awards because they have worked so hard. Of course, from a market and business perspective, it has also been very important to be able to point to innovation and export prizes. After all, we compete with many giants. But our goal has not yet been reached: Our indoor air quality monitors will enter all homes and buildings!" she points out.

A part of this initiative was the introduction of a new product on the market in January: A smaller and more afforadable air quality monitor. The goal is for this product to reach all households.

Airthings also shares the insights they have, based on thousands of data points worldwide. It does this through the company website radonmap.com. Here, the company gives both users and non-users value and knowledge based on a common data collection. In order to make cities more efficient and smart, each building should acquire an overview and insight so that the company can adapt its solutions accordingly.

"Buildings are becoming increasingly airtight, and it has become more difficult to achieve optimal ventilation today. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers, and we spend 90 percent of our time in rooms where air quality is often five times worse than outdoors", says Boothman, who works closely with The American Lung Association and The British Lung Foundation.

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