Ilkka Paananen: The least powerful CEO

Sometimes being hands off is the key to success. For Ilkka Paananen, CEO and co-founder of Supercell, playing a subtle leadership role is the ideal. He discussed his concept of stealth management during his Live Stage talk on the final day of the conference.

“The more decisions that teams make and the less decisions I make, the better,” said Paananen, whose Helsinki-based firm developed the mobile games Clash of Clans and Hay Day. “The ideal would be that they would make all the decisions, I would make none, and I would be the least powerful CEO.”

This unassuming leadership style might come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Supercell. In 2013, the Japanese firms Softbank and Gungho paid $1.5 billion to acquire majority ownership of the firm. Paananen also has a lengthy CV — he co-founded and led Sumea until its acquisition by Digital Chocolate. He also assists other businesses via Lifeline Ventures, and early stage investment firm.

However, in his talk, he stressed the importance of referring decision making to the team developing the games, rather than taking on a strong executive role, deciding personally what reaches the market and what doesn’t. By granting them the freedom to “do what they do best,” he has been able to succeed in the long-term, as successful games eventually reach the market.

It’s also up to the team to decide if a game has no future, Paananen noted. “It’s always the team’s decision to kill a game,” he said. “It’s always incredibly hard and sad. It’s their baby, but this way they feel they are still in control when they decide to do it.” It’s this way of building consensus within the company that Paananen maintains is his ideal.

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