Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on Tuesday that the chief executive of Telenor, Sigve Brekke, has tried to squeeze out the company’s lone woman in top management, Berit Svendsen. Several sources told NRK that Svendsen is now fighting to hang on to her post as head of Telenor’s Scandinavian operations.
Svendsen, age 55, was a top candidate for the job Brekke ultimately took over in 2015 after a noisy and highly public employment process that included revelations Brekke had embellished his CV. Svendsen was favoured by many, not least because of the lack of female CEOs in Norway despite its image as being a champion of gender equality. Telenor was even accused at the time of having a “macho culture.”
Svendsen stayed on with the company that she first joined when it was still the state-owned telephone utility Televerket in 1988. That wasn’t long after Norway had finally done away with the long waiting time (often up to several months) it took to get a phone installed at home. With degrees in civil engineering, data technology and, eventually, a master’s from MIT and the Sloan School of Management, Svendsen moved up the management chain and now is one of Norway’s most high-profile women in business. Last year the native of Kråkerøy outside Fredrikstad was also named as one of Europe’s 50 most inspiring women in the technology business.
There’s been trouble, though, most recently heavy fines from EU tied to Telenor’s market dominance in Norway. After heading Telenor in Norway, Svendsen assumed responsibility for all of Scandinavia at the beginning of last year, putting her in charge of around 7,000 employees and 7.5 million customers. That made her part of Telenor’s senior management, but NRK reported that Brekke started a process this spring to replace her as head of Telenor Scandinavia. She’s reportedly been offered other jobs within the Telenor system, but turned them down.
One of them was as head of Telenor’s subsidiary dtac in Thailand, a position that is not represented in Telenor’s corporate management. It was eventually filled by Alexandra Reich. Svendsen refused to be interviewed or answer NRK’s questions but wrote in a text message to NRK that she has no plans to move or change jobs: “I got the job as leader for Telenor Scandinavia on March 1 2017, have big plans and am already realizing synergy between Norway, Sweden and Denmark.” She added that she intended to maintain “full focus” on that work over “the next few years.”
She sent the same response to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), which covers Telenor closely, and to other media that followed up on NRK’s report. She added in her response to DN that both she and Brekke were attending Norway’s large political, social and business gathering in Arendal this week, to speak among other things about Telenor’s work and how it will affect society both today and in the future.
She later told DN in Arendal that she thinks she currently has “the world’s most exciting job, and I look forward to go to work every single day and work with so many clever people.” Asked to confirm whether she was offered other jobs within Telenor, she answered only that “now I have full focus on Arendalsuka (the gathering in Arendal),” that she had Brekke had spoken about the process “from start-up to scale-up” and that she would soon be speaking at another session about electronic health services for the elderly.
While Brekke was tight-lipped, Svendsen told DN she and Brekke have “a normal, good working relationship.”
Asked whether discussions were going on around Svendsen’s future in Telenor, Brekke answered NRK and other media via email sent by his communications chief: “Telenor is a global company with many roles that need to be filled at all times, and all employees in Telenor have regular conversations with their leaders on roles and their career path. I of course have that with my corporate leadership group also. We have a dialogue on possibilities, with a focus on what is best for the individual’s development – and for Telenor. That dialogue is a relation between the individual employee and leader and we do not comment on it.”
Confronted by DN in Arendal and asked whether Svendsen was doing a good job, Brekke would only repeat that “I have regular conversations with all of my corporate leaders and we have development conversations all the time and I also have that with Berit. It’s a completely natural process.” He refused to answer “yes” of “no” as to whether he thinks she’s doing a good job. He later, however, wrote in a message sent by his acting communications director that Svendsen “does a very good job for Telenor and has delivered strong results for years.” He described statements on social media that Svendsen was being fired as uforståelig (incomprehensible)
NRK reported that the process around Svendsen has not been completed. Gunn Wærsted, the leader of Telenor’s board who has a history of conflicts with CEO Brekke, would not comment either, even though NRK reported that she’s aware Brekke has tried to move Svendsen out of her current top spot.
“I won’t comment on the dialogue the board of Telenor has with the chief executive regarding corporate leadership,” Wærsted responded, “other than saying that the board wants top management in the company to continually broaden and further develop their competence.”