UPDATED: One of Norway’s most high-profile female executives, Berit Svendsen, seemed to have lost a long-standing power struggle with her boss at Telenor, CEO Sigve Brekke. He later claimed he was merely trying to expand her competence by offering her new assignments that she didn’t want. Svendsen ended up resigning late Monday night, after several months of new management turbulence that split the state-controlled company, and ended badly for Svendsen’s many fans.
The formal announcement of Svendsen’s resignation from Telenor came so abruptly on Tuesday morning that it even disrupted the top of an early morning national radio newscast. It also likely sparked a collective sigh of despair among other women in business around the country. That’s because the popular Svendsen, as the longtime leader of Telenor nationally and for all of Scandinavia, was one of the few women who had achieved and hung on to top management positions, even in an allegedly egalitarian country like Norway. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has written that she was widely viewed as a “symbol” for all women in Norwegian top management.
Now she’s out, leaving at least half the company in Norway in mourning. “This is a sad day in Telenor’s history and a sad day for very many employees in Telenor Norge who have lost a leader who engaged us and motivated us,” Esben Smistad, who represents Telenor employees organized through the labour organization El og It Forbundet, told DN. “It’s a dark day because now we have lost her incredible competence.”
Svendsen, age 54, was a candidate to become chief executive at Telenor back in 2015 but lost out to Brekke, reportedly because he had international experience from running Telenor’s Asian operations that Svendsen didn’t have. It didn’t seem to matter as much that Telenor suffered huge losses in Asia, not least in India, while Svendsen has consistently logged strong results for Telenor’s operations in Norway and, more recently, in Scandinavia.
Svendsen had also made it clear that she loved her job as boss in Scandinavia, and never missed an opportunity to publicly say so. She’s been the subject of several profile articles in Norwegian newspapers in recent years, with some claiming she had a higher public standing than Brekke did. She was also loved by her employees. It’s not often that labour unions praise their members’ boss, but they did with Svendsen, who was also known for her loud and frequent laughter.
That’s now been silenced, with various versions emerging over what finally prompted her to quit. She has remained mostly mum since Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) first reported last summer that a serious conflict had broken out between her and Brekke. While Brekke tried to tone down the conflict, even as late as last week when he wrote in a message to employees that “internal processes had been blown out of proportion,” Svendsen kept smiling but refused to answer questions.
It’s been widely reported that Brekke wanted to transfer Svendsen to run Telenor’s operations in Thailand, in order to give her more international experience. Her supporters, however, and perhaps Svendsen herself, viewed that as a demotion, moving her not only out of Telenor headquarters in Oslo but also out of Brekke’s top management team. She refused the offer, along with other reported job transfers. Brekke confirmed on Tuesday that the two had been having “conversations” about her role in the company since March.
On Tuesday morning, both Brekke and the leader of Telenor’s board of directors, Gunn Wærsted, were claiming that Svendsen had been asked to succeed Brekke as chairman of Telenor Norge’s board, in addition to continuing as chief of Scandinavian operations. They said she declined that offer as well, and instead chose to resign from Telenor entirely. They wouldn’t say why, Svendsen didn’t appear at a midday press conference conducted by Brekke and Wærsted, and she wasn’t talking, offering only a statement on social media Tuesday morning.
“I leave Telenor with pride over having contributed positively to the company’s development and growth during more than 30 years,” Svendsen wrote. “I have had the joy of being lifted up and forward by fantastic colleagues and together we have taken Telenor to new heights. I wish all colleagues good luck.”
Brekke responded by writing that “we are also proud and grateful for everything you have done for TelenorGroup, Berit. We will miss you and wish you good luck.” Norwegian media was reporting that she also was given a severance pay package valued at NOK 9.9 million (USD 1.2 million).
Wærsted released a statement claiming that Svendsen was among those “we wanted to invest in for the future, precisely because Berit has led Telenor in Norway with good results.” Wærsted added that she thinks it is “extremely sad that Berit has chosen to turn down the offers she has had regarding new roles in Telenor.”
Wærsted, who earlier has been in conflict with Brekke as well, is now giving him a strong sign of support by added that she thinks Brekke “stretched himself far” in trying to accommodate Svendsen’s wishes. She stressed that the perceived need to transfer Svendsen to another position “wasn’t only about one person,” but rather the entire management team. Svendsen had headed Telenor in Norway for seven years, “a very, very long time,” Brekke added. Both he and Wærsted believe other members of top management needed the experience of running both the Norwegian and Scandinavian operations.
The bottom line, according to Wærsted and Brekke, is that Telenor has a long tradition of moving top mangement into new roles frequently, allegedly to build up their experience in various parts of the company. Brekke has rejuggled and mostly replaced his entire management team since he took over three years ago, and most top executives have contracts related to a specific period of time, usually around three years. Brekke declared it was “completely wrong” that he had tried to squeeze Svendsen out. “On the contrary, everyone wanted her to stay on,” he said at Tuesday’s press conference. Both he and Wærsted spoke highly of Svendsen and stated repeatedly that they were sorry to see her go.
Svendsen refused as late as Friday to answer questions about how she has viewed her conversations with Brekke about other job possibilities within the company, or whether she thought Brekke was trying to strip her of top management power. In an email to DN late last week, Telenor’s information chief Anders Krokan wrote that “Berit asks me to send her greetings and said that she has full focus on the job she has, and she doesn’t want to comment.”
She’ll be replaced by Petter-Børre Furberg who will take over as head of Telenor Norge. Furberg has worked at Telenor since 1998 and been chief executive of Telenor’s companies in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, finance- and marketing director of Telenor’s company in Thailand (Dtac) and head of financial services for the corporation.
Questions were rising about what role the state government has played in the management turmoil as majority owner of the former public utility that still holds 54 percent of Telenor shares. Former business and trade minister Monica Mæland is widely believed to have given Wærsted a mandate to get more women in top management. Mæland’s post has since been taken over by Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, who normally responds that the state as a shareholder refrains from meddling in management issues. Brekke said that as of October 1, his management team will consist of six men and three women, and that he hopes it will include more women in the years to come.