Viking Laws and the Art of Managing a Business

Published: Jan 24, 2019

Did you know that the word "law" in English is actually of Viking origin? Most people associate Vikings with warfare and the raiding of foreign countries, but these people, who came from Scandinavia and were active between 790 and 1066, were also traders, explorers, and settlers. A main reason for their venturing off to foreign land was to find means to support their large families, rather than remain as farmers in their home land. The Vikings had a set of laws that governed their lives as warriors as well as traders. I came across these laws in a visit to Scandinavia a few years ago and became fascinated with them.

In a book I published recently, called An Unimaginable Journey: How Pepsi Beat the Odds in Romania, which describes the story of setting up the Pepsi business in Romania in the early 1990s and managing it over a 15-year period, I demonstrate how our organization utilized many of these rules to build a successful beverage enterprise. In earnest, I recognized that we have been using these laws after the fact. Yet, it was quite a revelation to realize that these ancient rules, enacted more than 1,000 years ago, were very much relevant to the business world of the 21st century.

There are four main Viking laws, each with a subset of rules. When examining them closely, I find that these rules relate to a wide range of business disciplines, some which are relatively new even to the modern era. Some of them use warfare terminology, while others are purely commercial.

Law number one states: "Be Brave and Aggressive." Sounds like a good piece of advice for a warrior. A subset of this says "Attack one target at a time." While this is relevant to war time, it is also extremely appropriate to the business world. All too often companies loose sight of their main area of activity and venture off in other directions. To take an example from our experience in Romania, it was very tempting, especially in the early days, to get involved in other activities—real estate, for instance. It was our strategic decision to remain totally focused on the beverage industry that allowed us to build a strong enterprise in this field.

Law number two states: "Be Prepared." A subset of this suggests "Find good battle comrades." What I take from that is that a manager should build a strong team around him. In war, as in business, the challenges can not be overcome on the strength of one person alone. In our Romanian Pepsi venture, what enabled us to face up to the competition is the seasoned management team that, combined, had over 100 years of tenure in our company. This is the type of battle comrades the Viking would have happy to have on their side.

Law number three states: "Be a Good Merchan.t" A subset of that says, "Find out what the market needs." This is obviously a purely commercial rule. But I think it points to a fairly new business outlook: one that puts the ultimate consumer at the center; that seeks to really identify consumers' desires, by reaching out to them to find out their particular tastes and preferences. Part of our strategy in our Pepsi business was to be the innovator of our industry, always looking to add new products, new packages, and even new segments of soft drinks. However, we were careful to be attuned to our consumers, by engaging in marketing surveys, taste panels, etc., ahead of introducing these innovations. Well, most times we did. When we ignored this rule, we paid a price. I describe these failings in my book as well.

My favorite law is number four: "Keep the camp in order." Within that it suggests "Arrange enjoyable activities that strengthen the group." Now here is a rule that any leading edge HR director would support. To think that warriors who lived so long ago would consider the well-being of their troops is mind boggling. In our Pepsi business we paid very close attention to this rule. One key example is an annual, companywide marketing-and-sales conference we held, which was a venue to express the company's culture, celebrate our achievements, and gear up for our high season. We made sure to hold these events in style even during our lean years.

Now I can hear readers argue that many of these rules are trivial, they offer nothing revolutionary. I would tend to agree, that is, if one ignores the fact that they were conceived by people living in the 8th to 11th century A.D. However, what I believe separates great companies from the rest of the crowd, is that they apply these rules, and other rules not mentioned here (there are a total of 20), consistently. They really make a commitment to the concepts expressed by these rules; make it an important part of the company's everyday existence.

When I reflect on the period of 15+ years of our involvement in the Pepsi venture in Romania, I can clearly identify how adhering to many of these rules made our company successful. One might argue that in the beverage industry, famously known for its "cola wars," using Viking tactics might be more relevant than in other industries. It could be true. I would argue that these rules are important to any business. This is especially the case in today's "global village," where raiding foreign lands, commercially speaking, is considered in vogue.