Executives Unpacked Episode 24: Maintaining Discipline with Niklas Brambring

This post was written by: John Clifton

On Episode 24 of the Executives Unpacked podcast we had the pleasure of getting to know Dr. Niklas Brambring, who is the CEO at Zattoo. The company is pioneering in the world of TV streaming, bringing an independent platform to the space. Niklas is a qualified lawyer with a PhD in Law from the University of Cologne, as well as an MBA from INSEAD. We learned all about his biggest lessons and best advice. Read on to find out what they are!

What would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned during your career?

Something I learned the most from is the transition from being an individual contributor to the leader of a team. There was a situation when we wanted to pitch something to our board of directors and shareholders, and I prepared a presentation to pitch our idea. I did that draft, and spent hours thinking about it and crafting it, but the group’s feedback was brutal. Comments were pouring in like ‘That doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand that. This doesn’t convey the message. You’re missing this mumbo jumbo.’ That obviously felt terrible, because we as humans have this crocodile brain that’s 400 million years old, and if somebody criticises you the croc brain will tell you ‘Danger!’, so you naturally get defensive. 

What you get to realise over time is that it’s not your job to be the best at making a presentation, and it’s not even your job to come up with great ideas yourself. Your job is to make sure that you have a good pitch, business plan, revenues and ideas that make your users happy. It doesn’t matter whether they originate from you or from somebody else. I took that feedback, redid the presentation, and realised that it was much better than the one before. Fortunately, my colleagues agreed.  That represents a lot of what leadership is, and it was a big ‘aha’ moment for me.

What do you wish someone had told you earlier in your career?

Looking back, I wish I could have realised that finance wasn’t for me. I never really developed a passion for it, and that’s entirely my fault for not saying ‘Hey, I want to do TV and Media because that’s what I’m interested in.’ There aren’t so many projects in that area, and nobody’s waiting for you as a junior associate coming in, and nobody’s paying you for just being a brilliant student. There are problems at hand and you need to tackle them head on, and be all in with it, because then you get so much more out of it. That took me some time to realise.

What’s the best bit of advice that you’ve ever been given?

I had a mentor and I asked him to meet with me once a month to help me, especially in my early days as a CEO. The meetings usually went along the lines of me taking problems in and saying, ‘Here’s my problem, this is what I would do. What do you think?’ In most cases he would say, ‘That sounds plausible.’ That was very helpful, because at least I knew my plan was not completely stupid. In some cases he would say ‘Look at a similar situation, this is what I did.’ Sometimes it was similar to what I would have done, but sometimes it was very different. I don’t remember one time when he said, ‘Don’t do that, that will be bad.’ 

Every situation is different and every team is different, so every leadership style is a bit different. That’s very important. When people ask for advice, I say that my input is from a subjective perspective, and what’s good and valuable is to get different perspectives and then see what works for you with all of that context.

What types of things have constantly kept you awake at night?

Things around personal relationships are what stresses me out the most. If I see numbers going down I can be very rational about that, but when it comes to personal relationships, I’m a lot more flustered. The first years of the startup we went through a phase where everything’s like, ‘Okay, do we still exist in two years?’ That has an impact, because I was worried about ‘What do I tell my colleagues?’ We had to lay off two thirds of the company in 2008/2009, and that was the hardest time for me. 

When you hire someone who’s a great person but doesn’t fit in the company, for many leaders, that is the hardest part. A crucial part of leadership is being honest with yourself and with the other person. When you’re straight upfront and communicate clearly, it gets easier. In the end, one of the most important things is having a great team that works together well, so you have to be able to facilitate that. 

Can you identify one thread that has run through your career that’s led to success?

Be 100% in with whatever you’re doing. Something I learned when I left school was having constant discipline and not giving up. That doesn’t mean working 80 hour weeks, but it’s having the discipline to do your job and continue with it, whatever happens. Often the only difference between the company that goes insolvent and the company that is very successful is that when they had a super hard time they pushed through. I think that in the end it’s discipline that has led to the success in my career.

What one bit of advice do you always give to other people?

Take any advice – including mine – not as a ‘to do’ but as input for your own decision.

To learn more about Niklas and the work he’s doing at Zattoo, tune into the Executives Unpacked podcast here

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