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Voice of Visma, Ep 02: From Management Trainee to CFO with Stian Grindheim

Stian began his career at Visma as a Management Trainee and worked his way up to CFO by the age of 30. Recently, he also became a dad to two young kids. Read on to find out how he balances it all and his best lessons so far.

On the Voice of Visma podcast, we sit down with leaders and colleagues from around Visma to hear their stories, learn from their expertise, and share the best lessons they’ve learned throughout their careers. These are the stories that shape us… and the reason Visma is unlike anywhere else. New episodes are released Wednesdays on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, and YouTube.

The text in this article is from Episode 02 and has been edited for length and clarity.

Welcome, Stian! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I have the pleasure of being Chief Financial Officer in Visma. This is a job I’ve had for the past four years. But I’ve been in Visma for quite a bit longer than that. I’m now ten years in Visma – started as a Management Trainee back when I was 24 years old. So, it’s been quite the journey and amazing to sort of grow with this company. 

If I’m saying two words about myself: I am Norwegian by nationality and live here in Oslo today. And just about a year ago, I also became the father of two small kids. So, it’s busy at work and also pretty busy at the home front at the moment. 

How did you find the Visma Management Trainee programme? 

I was actually living in Canada at the time because I finished my Masters there. And I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I started my career. So I don’t think I had this, like, great five-year plan or ten-year plan on how my career would progress. I came across the trainee programme of this company, I must admit, I didn’t know so much about. Back then, Visma was less than a third of the size it is today – it was a very different company. But as I read about Visma, and I read about the trainee programme, I was thinking to myself, “This sounds really, really cool”. 

It actually sounded so cool that I phoned my mother to borrow some money for the plane ticket to go from Canada to Norway to do the interviews. And one of the people interviewing me was Merete, who is the CEO today. So she was one of the first ones I met. Needless to say, after those interviews, it wasn’t just that the company sounded amazing, but also the people clearly were fantastic. 

What was it like going through the programme?

With the trainee programme in Visma, you’re part of this relatively small group of people in the same situation, just out of college. You do five projects the first year. The first project I had was actually in the Group Finance department, which at that point in time pretty much was myself and the previous CFO. So, it wasn’t a very big team back then either. And even though I got to do many other and very different projects as part of that traineeship – I had a stint in marketing, for instance, which was very different from finance but super cool. I also got to be part of an acquisition in Denmark. I quickly found that finance is something I really enjoyed and where I could deliver a little bit of value. So, it became clear that that is where I want to continue my career after the first trainee year. 

Did you have a connection with the finance field before that? 

Yeah, I did a Masters in International Finance, so I had that background naturally going into the role, which helped a lot. But I think it was also a combination of both that knowledge from my studies and that I really, really have been very interested in what Visma is doing and the business and what drives that business that sort of made it really fun to grow and develop the finance function. 

Back then, two people wouldn’t have passed that coconut test if someone got a coconut in the head. We’ve built a little bit more of a scalable team now, making sure we can onboard acquisitions all the time – going from being just a Nordic unit to having offices and operations all across Europe, and interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds. It’s really, really interesting and gives me a lot of energy. So, it’s been a steep learning curve and a lot of very hard work, but also extremely fun.

You became CFO at 30! How did that feel?

I really felt that I was quite ready for it, in the sense that I knew I had the competence and I had been working close enough on the finance function to know what this job actually entails. I also had some thoughts on how I could continue to grow and build this function. 

Of course, naturally, it’s pretty big shoes to step into. And, being that young – which is a little bit uncommon for such a large company – you also have maybe even larger expectations that you really need to prove yourself. Obviously you must be doing something right to get a role at that age, and people want to see that. Had I been 40 or 50, I maybe could have come in with a little bit more of, “I have all the experience”, and get some authority from there. Coming in much younger, I wanted to show that I could build something because I didn’t have a history to bring with me. 

But it has worked really well! And I think that’s one of the things I really like about Visma, too. It’s been very much focused on merit and what you can do and what you can deliver, and a little bit less on whether you are the right age or the right background. It’s been very supportive from everyone around me. And that, of course, makes you a lot more comfortable to take that kind of responsibility early, as well. That’s the most important thing, making sure that you get the right support system around you. It doesn’t matter the age or, you know, the time of your life where you are, and the experience that you get.

“It’s fun now, sometimes, to be allowed to swim a little bit in the deep end and do something you don’t really know how to do or solve, but still have that group of supporters that cheer you forward as you do that and help you to succeed.”

Do you think Visma lives up to the expectations people have for autonomy and flexibility?

Yes, there’s a lot of freedom here. And if you show that initiative, you really get to run with it. There is a strong culture of trying and making things happen, which is one of the things I really love. I’m actually one of three people in our top management team that started their careers as Management Trainees back in the day. So, we have this culture of bringing forward talents regardless of what experience or how young you are, as long as you’re good enough. 

Any lessons you want to share from that journey? 

I think there are two things that have been very important for me and have been success factors for doing well in my career. The first one is to keep an open and hungry mind – be open to learning new things and don’t be too set in your ways of what you’re willing to expose yourself to and not. Some of the best opportunities aren’t always the ones you expect. 

The second thing is to make sure you really, really understand the business – what drives the business, not just in finance but in any kind of role. We’re here to really make the business thrive and succeed, and spending that time getting a layer under and knowing what are really those success factors, I think that’s really important. 

“We do a lot every year. We’ve done some pretty major shifts in terms of selling out some parts of the business that were less strategic and also acquiring more and more of the strategic part of the business. The constant drive we have for continuous change, constant drive for continuous small milestones is what makes Visma so special.” 

You mentioned you recently became a dad. How has that transition been?

I think that is probably one of the most intense challenges I’ve gotten to try myself on, and I’m sure anyone that becomes a parent and has a career can sort of relate. Your life gets turned a little bit on its head. Before kids, if you have a busy day at work or have a lot of projects, you can work until that problem is solved and go home feeling good that you solved it without thinking too much about any other commitment than yourself. And then, from one moment to the next, you get something else in your life that is actually the most important thing. And the thing you need to prioritise is your kids. I didn’t just get one, I got two. So, really, two very important things. You quickly realise how little time there actually is in a day, and you really learn to prioritise ruthlessly. 

My job is, to a large extent, to help Visma prioritise its resources, but prioritising the time on the home front may be even more challenging. Luckily, we have a lot of tools to help us work from anywhere and at any time, and I really take advantage of those. So, I’m in the office while my kids are in daycare, of course. Then I always hurry home to spend some nice quality time with them before they go to bed. Thankfully, I can then also get a little bit caught up on work again after they have gone to bed. So, it’s a busy time, but also really, really rewarding. 

Do you have any learnings so far from your new role as a dad? 

I got this very good tip at the hospital from one of the nurses who said: 

“At the end of the day, the best thing you can do for your child as a parent is to not stress too much, but really make sure you enjoy the time because you’re here to create a good atmosphere and safety. And all those things that you think are so important that are more tangible, yes, they might be important, but they’re not as important as making sure you keep that good, loving environment for the kid.” 

So, I’ve tried to make sure to accept that, at work, I like to be quite perfect. On the home front, I like it to be focused on love rather than perfection. 

Some people think that finance is all about numbers and spreadsheets. How else does finance contribute to our value as a company? 

Yes, of course, finance is a lot of numbers and spreadsheets. But we’re not only here to make graphs that grow into the sky. To me, what really is critical for a business to succeed is to focus on the right things, do the right prioritisation, because we don’t have an infinite amount of not just money but also time – and maybe competence and attention being even more limited resources. Doing that correctly, that’s a lot about making good decisions. 

There is quite a bit of research on this when you talk about great leaders. One of the key success factors for a leader and, therefore, also a success factor for a business is that you are able to decide with speed and with conviction. To do that, we ideally want to make sure that those decisions are not just based on our gut feeling. We want them to be based on facts, and we want them to be based on data. This also very often where we, as finance, come in because we are very often the function that supplies quite a bit of that facts and data to make good decisions. 

One thing that I don’t think I ever learned in school but I’ve realised as I worked is that making a decision, that actually requires from us as humans quite a bit of mental energy. Making a decision that is also then looking at the facts, that’s even more mental energy. You need to engage your whole logical system of your brain. We don’t really want to make more decisions than we have to, and it’s easy to resort to just instinct or gut feeling when you’re making a decision. There’s a reason why you probably are sitting at the same chair at the dinner table at home every single day. It’s to avoid making that decision. 

“We really want people and leaders in Visma to make decisions that are based a little bit more on facts. Then we need to make sure that those facts are really, really easily available so that you’re not also having to spend a lot of energy going out and getting those facts that you need to make the decision.” 

Bringing really the most important data points, KPIs, to the fingertips of our people, that’s maybe the biggest success factor for finance. That is actually really hard to do because it’s not about bringing out everything. It’s about bringing out just the right KPIs. And it’s really fun to then see those decisions work out, using trends you discovered early. You can then track those results back to the spreadsheets and the numbers and the graphs, which of course also is a passion of mine. 

Last question: What does being “Champions of business software” mean to you?

I’m pretty passionate about what Visma does, so this is something I reflected a bit on. To me, that is really all about creating software that makes it that little bit easier for the people who are starting and running a business to do what they’re really good at. 

Across Europe and also in Latin America by now, there are 1.7 million businesses that are relying on our systems to make sure that they’re in control of their business and that they get their payroll, their tax filings, their reporting done in a compliant way. It’s a huge responsibility that I think we really should be humble to. Making that something that the business owners and the business managers don’t themselves need to worry about – that is a huge value for society. That’s really what it means to me.

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