Nicholas Svensson Of SMART Technologies: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Explore how technology can support your business goals. Agility is key so don’t just focus on externally focuses capabilities, also think about how to make your operations/decision making ability efficient. Innovation can come in many forms — such as recent work we’ve done on internal process mapping.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Nicholas Svensson.

Nicholas Svensson is the Chief Executive Officer of SMART Technologies. Since he joined SMART in 2009, Nicholas has led cross-functional teams consisting of engineers, technologists and scientists to develop and launch numerous SMART products. With a career in technology spanning over 30 years, Nicholas has gained valuable experience during his tenure at various companies, including leading telecom and space hardware providers. Nicholas holds a BSc in Applied Physics from the University of Waterloo and an MSc in System Design and Management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I am a first-generation immigrant to Canada. My family were small business owners — designing, manufacturing, and commissioning wire drawing machinery that made welding wire. Like many who work in family businesses I didn’t fully appreciate the value of the experiences I gained while working through all the challenges and the normal cycles of ups and downs associated with running your own business. What I did learn about myself during this time was that gaining new skills, for me at least, was very rewarding. The phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” rings true to this day. Sometimes our best work comes out of adversity. I loved University there were so many interesting courses to take. I didn’t focus on my grades but rather took courses that I was interested in. Admittedly not a great short-term strategy as grades where often used as a course filter to get job interviews.

However, I was very fortunate to land a job in product development at a small company in Cambridge Ontario called Com Dev. They specialized in the design and manufacture of microwave filters and multiplexers for the satellite industry. It was a great place to start a career. A small enough company where I were exposed to all aspects of the business and learned a lot. I quickly understood that “other duties as required” didn’t just apply to the family business — and embracing asks or projects that weren’t quite in my job description was in fact a great way to grow.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

One key mistake that I made early on all came down to misreading the room; and I remember it as vividly as if it happened yesterday. It was my first design review. It was a big deal, weeks of work, lots of preparation and practice to walk into the room and deliver. And, through all my preparation, it never occurred to me that the people I would be presenting to actually knew a lot more about what I was working on than I did.

The presentation went well but only because the several industry experts — all with PhD’s in Synthetica Aperture Radar remote imaging and multiple publications in the field — were very gracious with their feedback following what I realized were fairly outrageous statements about the subject matter. There were two big things that I learned from this — one at the time and one much later. The first is not to underestimate your audience — never assume that you’re the smartest in the room, and be open to the idea and opinions that each person brings. The second lesson is to be gracious with your feedback — particularly with new grads or those new to your company or industry. The people in the room for that first design review could have crushed me, ridiculed me, but they didn’t. Instead, their feedback and approach is something that helped to shape my own leadership, and that I still carry with me many years later.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are two important people that come to mind for me.

Michael Pley is the former CEO of Com Dev — the company I started at after graduating from University. Michael had started in the same role I had at Com Dev and had risen in the ranks, ultimately becoming CEO. He was the first manager I had who sat down and discussed career development with me, convincing me to broaden my horizons and look at more than simply product development. At first, I was very apprehensive about leaving product development where I was comfortable and progressing well in my eyes, but Michael encouraged me to try Operations Management for a few years. I did and thoroughly enjoyed it, learned new things, and gained experiences that I would never have had the opportunity to had I not taken the chance when it was presented.

The other person is Dan Rodrigue, my manager at Nortel Networks. Dan encouraged me to take on broader responsibilities as well ultimately sponsoring me to get my Masters Degree and hiring me into SMART Technologies where I still am today. Both gentlemen gave me the same advice which was “you need to focus on your new role with the same passion as you current one. Managing requires as much focus and effort as doing.”

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

SMART is absolutely a purpose-driven business. We were founded over 35 years ago to create classroom technology that provides interactive solutions to help every student and teacher discover the greatness within them. And we believe that we are here to help foster strong connections between students and caring adults because we know that those connections play a positive role in a student’s academic and social-emotional development. Our business has evolved to this, it was very important for us to define it for ourselves. Today, our stated purpose at SMART is “Inspiring Greatness”. We believe that there is inherent greatness in every teacher and every learner, and technology, when deployed in the right way, can be an enabler of this greatness. Our promise to our customers, every day, is to provide the connections that matter to them. Especially during these pandemic times, connections matter more than ever.

Our founders in Calgary, Alberta were pioneers — driving forward a technology vision in a city built on natural resources. They set the pace and opportunity for more innovative companies to also shape the landscape of business in the city — today, Calgary is a hub of technology advancement and SMART sells into every corner of the world.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

The pandemic forced fast and unfamiliar changes to the ways we operate our business and work with our partners. Our team was immediately working from their homes or other locations. Internally, we wanted to ensure that everyone was safe and that we could provide resources to help our employees navigate the unfolding crisis.

For our teachers and students, we knew that they were being forced to go fully remote at the outset. We knew that they were trying to juggle making the most of each instructional moment while also tending to the very real social emotional needs facing our students as well as teachers themselves. Educators are heroes in so many ways. We tried to support their efforts to keep the continuum of learning going while making their days as seamless as possible, and to pursue strategies that help develop students’ sense of agency and ownership over their learning, which will serve them well in the years to come. We tried to develop new, fun, and engaging tools to keep students engaged and give teachers critical insight into learning.

I felt it was very important to keep the communication channels open, and to share information as it became available. My ask of all employees at the time with respect to communications was to “keep it real”. Let’s not get to down in the dumps but let’s also realize we have some critical items that need to get done and significant challenges to accomplishing them. The team was fantastic — I couldn’t have asked for a better response.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

I never consider giving up because I know that everything that we do at SMART is in support of partners, teachers, students, and full learning communities. I work with some of the smartest, most passionate, and most committed colleagues and they inspire me every day. Also, all you have to do is go into a school or hear from educators about the power of learning using our tools, and it reinforces why I do what I do every day.

We recently launched a worldwide initiative called Connections That Matter that showcases the incredible work happening in schools all across the globe. I invite you to check out the powerful stories of hope and innovation from a classroom near you.

As well, I think back to my earlier days and can see that it’s true that experience helps you weather the ups and downs. You realize that change is the only constant and that adapting quickly is the only real assurance of success. There does come a point where you need to believe that what you are doing is absolutely the right thing. Persistence is a powerful force when harnessed properly.

How do you climb a mountain? One step at a time.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Do you believe in your strategy? If not you need to change it, that’s not giving up. That’s adapting, learning, pivoting and being agile. None of which is easy.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Communication, clarity and transparency

It is critical to ensure that everyone is very clear on the goals of the company and their role in moving the business forward. I also believe that people need to be commended for their tenacity and innovation during tough times. I am continually astounded at what is possible when everyone understands what is needed.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

As a company, we celebrate innovation. It is in our ethos. We look for ways to showcase the work happening across the company and give our employees a platform to shine. We also do monthly town halls and give out awards. If you think about working it’s all about solving problems. If there were no problems most of us would be out of work so it’s very important to celebrate what went right. Let’s talk about the 99.99% shipments that left on time rather than the 0.01% that didn’t. Reminding ourselves of our accomplishments and authentically saying thank you is a simple, powerful way to motivate and engage.

It also comes back to our purpose of Inspiring Greatness. It’s incredibly inspirational and engaging to spend time with the teachers, students, and corporate collaborators who are excelling even in these challenging time. When we get things right, we are making the world a better place, and that’s truly motivating for the team.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

One word: “quickly”.

We are a company that believes in relationships. We have many long-standing partners and employees who have been with the company for many years. We believe in basing communications in information and being transparent about details and context about what it means for the future while always operating with empathy. Communicating difficult news early allows for possible mitigative actions you may not have thought of yourself.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Part of being a leader is having a long-term vision. When we do strategic planning at SMART, we are planning three to five — or more — years out. We need to understand when to stay the course and when to pivot. We use a system of hierarchies within SMART to describe our planning horizons. We have our strategic goals (longer-term), imperatives (mid-term) and diamond projects (short-term). By looking at it this way we found that it helps us stay focused on the longer term, which isn’t always easy!

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Don’t wait too long to make changes. During turbulent times details make the difference and being able to manage at a detailed level is critical as time is not your friend. This ensures that your core business is profitable (which is tough sometimes!). And, don’t bet the farm on new ventures — they usually take longer than you would like.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

I have seen businesses jump into a new fad or a new type of business. You can’t abandon your core business. You can certainly innovate, and you should innovate, but being strategic about any changes is core to coming out of difficult times in a successful position.

Use proof points before investing more into a new venture. In other words: have a good understanding of why you are successful or why you are not successful before going all in.

Make sure your leaders are passionate about their roles and not simply good soldiers, you need that passion to get through the challenges and to learn from one another. Your leaders need to feel they can share the real status with you.

Stay calm, focus on the data and don’t let your emotions get the better of you. Sometimes the data isn’t nice to look at but it’s necessary to keep things real and grounded. I have found this helps get employees bought into and engaged as well.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Focus on net earnings, think of it as you would your household. If the net earnings aren’t there you are in a perilous place. So don’t get seduced by EBIDTA if you aren’t a startup. Again, don’t shy away from the details. Getting into the details helps everyone align on what’s critical, where the waste is and where opportunities may exist, regardless of how small. I have found that this applies even to projects or initiatives with longer term horizons.

Partnerships is another good way to share the burden of investing for the long term. Do you need to do it all yourself to start with or can you learn from others as you go?

Another area that is frequently overlooked is your commercial model. How you go to market, channel, distribution, bringing work in house. It may be counter intuitive but once you reach certain volumes or steady state it may make sense to bring work in house. After all, nobody cares more about optimizing your costs than your own company.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.


1) Communicate clearly and often to your employees and your partners (and your shareholders). There have been many examples of this over my career, and one that stands out from this past 2 years relates to supply chain and shipping delays. We found ways to mitigate risks caused by the global supply chain challenges through early, direct, and open communication.

2) Look for opportunities to diversity while never losing sight of your end user, your core business, and mission. At SMART, we’ve recently branched into at-home gaming with Funterra — giving parents easy access to vetted videos and games that keep kids entertained AND informed. We’re also leaning into Software As A Service with our could based digital learning tool Lumio. It’s so exciting to see growth in these area, while we maintain our position with leading interactive flat panels.

3) Forge new partnerships. We have done this with many organizations and resellers through the years, for everything from distribution to marketing, content and more. Recently we worked with an organization out of the UK to bring free, ready-made Social Emotional Learning resources into Lumio — our digital learning tool — to support teachers who’s students are facing crises in their classrooms and lives.

4) Explore how technology can support your business goals. Agility is key so don’t just focus on externally focuses capabilities, also think about how to make your operations/decision making ability efficient. Innovation can come in many forms — such as recent work we’ve done on internal process mapping.

5) Cultivate a culture where people are willing to say yes to ‘other duties as required’ — and are supported and recognized through both success and failure. We’ve worked extensively on not only our values but our behaviors at SMART — ultimately I believe that behaviors are what defines your culture. We have codified all of this into a framework that has become part of the fabric of our company.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Necessity is the mother of invention” — unknown

“Innovation is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration”– (Edison)

I am always impressed by people’s ability to innovate when they need to. Some of the most creative and long-lasting innovations I’ve seen have come out of necessity. I had taken over a production team only to find that the planning for long lead items required to build the test systems had been missed. We had to quickly figure out how to get the job done. The process was well established and considered impossible to change. We found a way by completely changes the paradigm, spoke with the customers, and managed to show them that our proposed changes were actually better for them. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but did it ever make a difference going forward.

“If you want it bad, you (will) get it bad”” — 1953 U.S. DoD Pentagon

As a manager, I have learned the hard way. Be careful what you ask for, this is something I have to remind myself of all the time. If you don’t have a solid delivery process, be careful how hard you push.

How can our readers follow

Twitter: @SMART_Tech

Linkedin: SMART Technologies —

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Nicholas Svensson Of SMART Technologies: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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