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Nordic leadership

We spoke to two Nordic leaders to learn more about the Scandinavian management style that celebrates frank conversations and leaves egos at the door
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Aerial view of highway and overpass with green woods on a summer day in Finland.

This article first appeared in our COP28 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 30 November 2023. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Humanity is at a crisis point: according to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, we are living outside six of the Earth’s nine identified planetary boundaries.

The need for change is urgent, yet our current leaders are failing to act with the speed and determination required.

Tina Karme, project manager for Nordic Leadership 3.0, has examined emerging research in leadership approaches that can together build skills, capabilities, practices and knowledge for a leadership evolution that places partnership and peace at the core of all activities.

She believes the Nordic leadership model – which leaves ego and hierarchy at the door and centres on honesty and speaking frankly – could be exported for discussion and knowledge-sharing at a global level.

We spoke to two female leaders from Finland to discover what makes them different and what they think about leadership – for today and the future.

Kaisa Hietala

Kaisa Hietala, Transformist, Board Professional & Venture Capitalist

Kaisa Hietala is a business and sustainability executive who takes pride in transforming traditional industries by turning climate challenges into profitable business opportunities.

In fact, as Executive Vice President, Renewable Products at Neste, she played a central role in the petroleum refining and marketing company’s strategic transformation into the world’s largest and most profitable producer of renewable diesel and jet fuel, which was named by Harvard Business Review as one of the ‘Top 20 Business Transformations of the Last
Decade’ in 2019.

In 2021 Kaisa was appointed to the board of ExxonMobil and in 2023 she joined the board of Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest metals and mining corporation.

Kaisa also sits on the board of the Irish company Smurfit Kappa, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of cardboard packaging. The company’s business operations have a solid foundation in the recycling of cardboard and paperboard.

On top of her corporate roles, Kaisa is actively helping the startup community as a way to catalyse the transformation towards more sustainable business in a broader sense.

Kaisa founded Greencode Ventures in 2022 to invest in digital green transition startups in Europe and holds a director seat in Tracegrow, a Finland-based circular economy company that specialises in recovering and purifying trace elements from waste streams and returning them back to use.

Heini Pirttijärvi

Heini Pirttijärvi, Executive Adviser & Board Professional

Heini Pirttijärvi’s CV boasts roles in Russia and Finland – she has also lived in Silicon Valley, Australia and Germany.

Heini has worked as a business leader and CEO in challenging situations in retail industry, social and healthcare sector and early childhood education.

Heini currently works as executive adviser in a number of different industries and is a board professional in several growing, stable companies.

Beyond this, Heini has been described as ‘the one they call when it really hits the fan’; she has a track record of saving impossible situations and cleaning up the mess left by the kinds of situation most leaders would avoid at all costs.

Instead, Heini is known to jump in and sort the matter out by finding a solution that works for all parties.

Heini’s goal is, in her own words, to ‘renew companies and redefine industries’ using fact-based decision-making.

Interview

Talk us through how you go about effecting positive change in companies and industries. What’s your secret?
HP: It is empowering the people! You can measure the success of a company in the past from the numbers, but the future you will hear from the people of the company. The way they talk about the company, the future. A lot of listening is needed, then formulating the goal and understanding the meaning of the common goal to each and every person. Dividing the roles, empowering the people, inspiring them – it requires a humble attitude towards the situation.
KH: My secret is to ask ‘Why do companies exists today and why should they exist in the future?’ This is a great question to start exploring the real purpose of the business as well as debating if the purpose is serving the world, including the environment, well.

Have you always believed it’s better to effect change from the inside rather than the outside?
HP: Outside can help in understanding the need for change, but inside is where all the action really happens.
KH: I’m a scientist by education and it helps me to understand that we need a balance between finger-pointing wrongdoings and developing solutions. I want to encourage traditional industries to focus on solutions.

Do you ever feel it would be simpler to tear a company apart and start again from scratch rather than trying to retrofit sustainable principles?
HP: No, not really – the history of a company is always valuable. People have done their best at the time. New goals, new leadership and new ways of working are urgently needed though.
KH: When solving systemic problems such as energy transition or the circular economy, we don’t have the time to start again and learn from scratch. The challenge is so huge that we will need all the experience and capabilities of traditional industries in cooperation with new and emerging players.

Does the task ahead ever feel overwhelming?
KH: Sometimes, yes – but I don’t see we have an option. We simply can’t put the ecosystem on hold until someone figures out the perfect solution.
HP: Yes, it does. It sometimes is very overwhelming – you only need to start working with the owners, board, management and the whole team, formulate the goal and the roadmap, actions and steps to reach the goal and start working. It’s very important to have the right people in the right places at the right times. Overwhelm diminishes when you make the map and timelines; not everything needs to be done today, this week or even this month. This requires a humble attitude, a lot of listening, prioritisation and communication. All stakeholders must be committed to the common goal.

What’s stopping big businesses making the changes we so desperately need to see?
HP: Sometimes it is a lack of competence, sometimes a lack of willingness and most times it is the difficult task that companies are facing when balancing the mathematics behind the result and economic balance sheet, people and competence with all the needed stakeholders.
KH: I’m sure companies are puzzled by the magnitude of change needed but for me the biggest roadblock is the fact that natural capital does not have a defined economic value and this is driving investors to prioritise short-term returns at the expense of nature.

What support do big businesses need in order to make the necessary changes for a sustainable and equitable future?
HP: They need support from many: investors, politicians, authorities, personnel, customers. Changes in legislation, educations systems – also changes in how different stakeholders position themselves towards the future. There is a big difference if they see the sustainable and equitable future as a threat or as a huge possibility.
KH: Many practical elements are still missing, such as regulations, new infrastructure and commercially viable technological solutions. However, what businesses need most is shareholders and investors who encourage companies to develop short- and long-term success in parallel.

Who is responsible for implementing sustainable business initiatives – the government, customers or the businesses themselves?
HP: All of these – everyone has a role in the sustainable future and a lot of cooperation is needed between the different parties of society. No one can do this alone.
KH: We are all responsible for our share but the role of shareholders is the most important one for me today.

What does effective leadership look like to you?
HP: It looks to me like trusting and empowering people, inspiring them and making them shine. That is when people perform the best and work with great spirits and full heart towards the common goal.
KH: I would like to see effective leadership meaning the same as impactful leadership in the future. Today, being a leader in the transition sectors is a tough job; leaders are under immense pressure to deliver short-term results in a highly volatile world where the criticism against leaders and their organisations is mounting. At the same time the leaders don’t have all the tools to solve the systemic changes and they need to jointly navigate uncertainty with different stakeholders. In this world, being an impactful leader is the way a leader can live up to his or her values and find the motivation to face challenges.

Currently, where do you feel sustainability leadership is coming from?
KH: It is coming from the pioneering companies who dare to take the risk of failure. It also comes from the startup generation which open-mindedly brings profitability and sustainability into the same sentence.
HP: I currently think that very many countries and companies are eager to own the sustainability leadership concept. We need to understand that it is not something where words and beautiful slides are the solution. It is the common goals, strategies, actions and real-time KPIs that really define sustainability leadership in reality.

How could a Nordic leadership model help?
HP: It could help a lot. There is a clear gap in what some companies try to achieve and the actions they are taking to reach the goals. Plenty of openness, transparency, empowerment and trust is needed to get there. Nordic leadership is a humble way of working.
KH: We are dealing with the need to make systemic changes requiring partnerships across different businesses, geographies and stakeholders in an unprecedented way. The Nordic leadership model is based on engagement and transparency instead of command and control, and helps to overcome the silos.

Can we move beyond a profit-based economy that values money without regard for people, nature, biodiversity or the environment, and if so, how long would it take?
HP: We will need to find the balance between all these important issues. Money is needed for the other things to happen. We need to take very many big and small steps to get there. Let’s each start with baby-steps – that is one way!
KH: For me, this is the ultimate goal and we should use all possible resources to find a way to bring natural capital to economics as soon as possible. This will take time and therefore it is also important that we simultaneously test and roll out the solutions that are needed for the transition.

Why do you think leaders shy away from the most difficult decisions?
HP: Difficult decisions require careful analysis of the consequences for all stakeholders – that is not always so easy… It is quite natural to shy away. It can sometimes also be scary to make those decisions and carry the result. People are afraid of wrong decisions and consequences – but then on the other hand it helps a lot if you have experience from challenging situations and what comes with them. You also need to be able to communicate a lot and involve many stakeholders – that requires courage. Some might also think that you need to act hard in order to be able to handle those difficult decisions, but that is not the case. With a humble attitude towards the most difficult situations you can handle them in a human way. It is very important to remember the humanity and feelings in all situations as well.

Heini, how did you get a reputation for being ‘the one to call’ when things have gone wrong and crisis management is required? Is this a role you enjoy?
HP: It has actually been by accident. I worked in Moscow in 1993-1995 under quite turbulent times as a business leader and that of course taught me a lot not only from cultural differences but also from resilience, how to lead people – also how to not lead people, changing situations and the challenge of leading a business in a very challenging environment. Those two years taught me a lot. Since then, I have often been asked to step in when turnaround or big strategy change has been needed, trust towards the company has been lost or other
challenges have been faced.

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