How a 31-year-old became the CFO of Denmark’s biggest telco
Lasse Pilgaard’s meteoric rise is nothing short of astonishing. This March, barely eight years after the 31-year-old Dane completed his M.Sc. in Economics from the University of Aarhus, Pilgaard was promoted to CFO of TDC, Denmark’s largest telecommunications company with more than 8,000 staff.
In between, he gained recognition at consultancy McKinsey, Swedish VC fund Creandum, and as COO of Autobutler. He joined TDC in 2016 as to head strategy and oversaw the successful merger of the TDC Privat and Yousee brands . His work was recognised with a promotion to Chief Strategy Officer in 2018 and this year, as the company prepares to split into two, he was elevated to CFO.
Pilgaard took some time to talk to The Org about being a blue-collar kid from South Jutland, why big tasks always end up on his table, and the importance of being both a striker and team captain.
I read that you thrive in the role of being an internal problem solver for businesses. Have you always had that passion?
People often ask where the energy to solve problems comes from and they expect there to be a great vision behind it. But really, it’s rather simple. I’m like a footballer who gets their energy from scoring goals, having their teammates cheer for them, and advancing in the league. They’re motivated by doing the best that they can do, and it’s the same for me.
People say one of your great abilities is in developing relationships and bringing in the right stakeholders. Do you think that’s something people forget as they develop their career – the ability to be part of a team?
I think it’s a natural career progression. In the first handful of years you have to show your talent. Then it’s a matter of whether people are able to make the jump from being the striker who scores goals all the time, to realising the need to be a captain and help others score the goals. Otherwise you can’t win as a team. So there is the risk of being stuck in the mindset of being the one who shines, without thinking about the need to create a team.
You have a reputation of being sociable and well-liked, but your social media profile is pretty bare. Is this a deliberate strategy?
I live a slightly boring life and prioritise my time between work and my family – I have two small kids. So at 10PM I would rather do some analysis and the last couple of emails and go to bed, and maybe if I have some spare time I might see some friends. Some people see social media as a key tool for leadership and personal branding and at some point I may need to be more active. But self-branding has never been a big priority. I come from South Jutland where you tend to be more humble, and I’ve used the approach a lot in TDC to connect with people on the floor, like technicians and union members. I come from a blue-collar family, so it has never been a struggle for me to connect with different kind of people.
How does a blue-collar kid from South Jutland like you get your career ambition?
I think it was when I started to experience positive reinforcement for my accomplishments for the first time. I only did OK at high school and it was only late on at university that I started to get some recognition for my work, at which point I realised that if I actually performed well I could get invited to the McKinsey dinner, which was a fun goal to work toward. I ended up being invited and it all started from there.
You’re one of McKinsey’s most successful alumni – what do you think is especially unique about either your personality or approach that’s got you to where you are at 31?
Somehow big tasks end up at my table. I take ownership and lead and I’m the kind of person where if there’s a group or workshop meeting and there’s a feeling that somethings not happening, I try to take control and lead from that. I work harder or more intensely than most other people, and I tend to find pragmatic solutions to complex problems. So whenever I have stakeholders who I know are in disagreement, I often end up finding a solution that does not burn someone in the end.
The ability to do complex stakeholder alignment and passion for analyses was something that became clear for me from the start at McKinsey. I have a good senior presence so people never minded my age. At McKinsey, when I was in the room with senior people they would listen. And on the passion for complex analyses, I can’t help but still stay up all night making analyses and slides. So I am an uncommon mix of senior management traits, and being someone who says yes and promises to deliver. But in terms of being one of McKinsey’s most successful alumni’s – I think time well tell, as there are many strong candidates to that title.
Can you tell us about the dynamic about your promotion about how the new CEO came in and ran a process and chose you?
As part of the separation efforts, there was a need for a new setup – and I believe Allison (CEO of TDC) and our owners were looking for someone they could trust. The way they saw it, even if I wasn’t yet a fully fledged CFO, I was prepared to learn and be hard on myself to make sure I delivered. I also believe they were looking for someone who truly understood the business model and implications of doing a separation. I have general interest in telecommunications – the infrastructure of tech hardware has always resonated well with me. I also always liked how fast-paced the industry is, where you have to make fast decisions all the time because you are being attacked and disrupted. And you can’t make decisions unless you understand the architecture of the network, while also possessing finance flair and some strategy.
And what about the future, what’s your next step from here?
I’m happy where I am. I just took on a new role leading a fantastic team TDC has been the perfect cocktail of adrenalin over the past three years. When I first arrived, we lost 15 percent of our stock price after we announced the 2016 strategy and had to fight our way out of that. Then the merger with MTG and now the separation of TDC into two companies as I become CFO. Even though it has been crazy at times, it has also been the best experience of my life because the amount of adrenaline – taking calls every evening, sitting and trying to figure out a multi-billion-dollar merger. It’s simply been incredibly rewarding.
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