By Tuck Communications
Published Jun 21, 2009
When Norwegian corporations come knocking on Eli Sætersmoen's door, they don't always get in. "I say no to a company unless it can demonstrate that it is always thinking of how to be better, how to be really open to change," she says. "I want to make sure I can influence results."
Sætersmoen, who lives in Oslo, has turned down more than 20 offers to serve on corporate boards. But she has accepted 17 in the energy, mining, real estate, and medical industries, serving as chair on five of them. Those numbers have allowed her to put together an enviable full-time gig of serving on corporate boards. "My work is varied, analytically challenging, and it always stimulates my curiosity," she says. "I have a great time every day."
In the 1980s, the excitement of Norway's growing petroleum industry drew Sætersmoen to study at the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim. After receiving an MS in petroleum engineering, she worked three years for Norsk Hydro, helping site offshore oil wells in the North Sea and evaluating development strategies.
Awarded a Fulbright grant, she decided to attend Tuck because of its teamwork approach, then burnished those skills during three years at McKinsey & Company, where she focused on the oil industry in Russia and Norway. She worked in London as an M&A consultant for GE Capital Europe and in Oslo as an equity analyst for Orkla Securities and Handelsbanken Markets. In 2002, she accepted a tempting offer to become CFO of the Selvaag Group, a major real estate conglomerate. Thus came her first board experience—on the parent company's executive board, comprising top managers, and on the nonexecutive boards of four daughter companies. She also chaired the government body that provides loans and equity to venture companies. In 2002, Statoil (now StatoilHydro), Norway's largest corporation, recruited her to sit on its nonexecutive board.
Then, in 2003, her career trajectory got an unexpected boost when Norway enacted a law requiring that publicly traded companies increase representation of women on their boards to 40 percent by 2008. Most of Sætersmoen's boards were already compliant, but the law led to offers from other companies, allowing her to serve full time.
Although the law has been controversial, women have brought an outsider perspective to Norway's small and tightly knit business society. When Statoil was accused in 2003 of bribing Iranian officials, Sætersmoen says, "it was the three women on the board who called for a meeting to replace the CEO. Not because we were people of greater moral quality, but because we were not part of the same networks as the men. That made us more independent. So we had the courage to do it." She has since helped recruit and train women for directorships and created a professional women's networking group.
When she's not working, Sætersmoen heads to her parent's estate to cross-country ski or ride horses with her partner of 10 years, Geir Haglund, a PricewaterhouseCoopers partner. Passionate about keeping traditional elk hunting alive, she started a foundation to encourage elk breeding. To relax her mind back in Oslo, she practices a vigorous Ashtanga yoga workout. "You concentrate on your breathing, and even if one of your boards is in really deep trouble, you are unable to think about it," she laughs.