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Book Talk: Norwegian chief executive shuns perfectionism, says women can succeed

OSLO (Reuters) - (Note: Offensive word in book's title)
/ Source: Reuters

OSLO (Reuters) - (Note: Offensive word in book's title)

Part memoir, part reflection on business life, "Good Enough for the Bastards" is a bestseller by Anita Krohn Traaseth, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Norway, encouraging women to reach for the top jobs.

The book, in the same vein as "Lean In" by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, took Norway by storm this year, selling 16,000 copies in a country where a non-fiction book is considered a hit if it breaks through the 800 mark.

The title is one of her father's favorite expressions, meant to encourage her to avoid unnecessary perfectionism. "He would say: 'Anita, when you try something out, it only has to be good enough for the bastards'," she told Reuters.

Traaseth does not provide a how-to guide to success. Instead, she reflects on the challenges she has faced, like growing up with a mother who was bipolar and took her own life. She also tells of the time she lost her job and felt ashamed as she queued up for benefits.

Traaseth, 42, spoke with Reuters about the book, which has just been published in English.

Q: Why did you want to write this book?

A: This was based on a blog on leadership I set up ( and a Norwegian publisher got interested. I had never dreamt of writing a book. Now that I have written it, my aim is to share a contemporary story about what is like being a female CEO in 2014. I did not want to do it the traditional way. I wanted to explain my life, how my courage was formed. I wanted to have a look at my CV not from the perspective of "look how good I am" but more from a perspective of vulnerability and the importance of lessons learnt.

Q: How did you write the book?

A: It took me nine months to write the book, like a pregnancy. I wrote every evening from 9:30pm to 1:30am. I did it at the same as heading Hewlett-Packard and at the same time as having three daughters. So it is possible.

Q: Why the title?

A: It is an expression my father, a sailor, has. It has helped me avoid the "Good Girl" syndrome. He would say: "Anita, when you try something out, it only has to be good enough for the bastards." If you strive to make everybody happy and you are never satisfied with yourself, you are never going to be happy and you are never going to be valuable for anyone around you. At some point, you have to set your own limits, be satisfied with who you are and do what you believe in.

Q: In the book, you talk about the importance of being vulnerable. How is it important?

A: If you want to be a credible leader or person, it is important you understand your own story, what kind of values and background have formed you. Not only remembering the victories, but really reflecting on the situations that were painful, that were defining moments is important. The more open you are about your own situation, the safer you become as a person.

Q: Since 2003 Norway has a law dictating that at least 40 percent of the board members of a listed company must be female. But only three percent of listed firms are led by women. Why do you think that is?

A: In Norway, the biggest goal was to get women into the work force, so now 75 percent of women are working (against 57 percent on average in OECD countries). Of them, seven out of 10 are choosing to work in public services, and many work part-time as they work in the very demanding health sector. So they are not applying to positions in business. And they don't apply to the line management positions. This has been a man's world for so many centuries. It takes more than 10 years of a quota law to change this. It will take generations.

Q: Did the quota law help?A: The quota law was an important tool, but it is not enough. We still have a long way to go in Norway. The law was good to put women, and to get diversity, into the boards. But what you need to do is to build the talent pool within an organization. Because you can be 'quotad' into a board, but you cannot be 'quotad' into a management position. You have to want it and you have to learn the game.

When I say game, people say, 'But I don't want to be part of a cynical game'. It is not a cynical game. It's like sports. If you want to be a national-level athlete, you make a decision that you will train a lot, with people who are better than you, that you will lose often and you will not be in the top three. And you will have years of training ahead of you. Leadership is training.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Andrew Heavens)