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The portrait of tomorrow’s leader

In English


A modern leader can be a coach, a facilitator, or something entirely different. Keeping up with the rapid changes demands a new kind of courage from the management of an enterprise.

Today leadership is at a significant turning-point. In the course of the past two decades leadership style has shifted quickly from an authoritarian leadership culture to modern leadership. The new kind of leadership brings challenges but also creates opportunities.

– In these times of uncertainty, people expect their leader to be far-sighted and to inspire hope and to have a positive vision of the future, says project manager and researcher of work-life development, Riitta-Liisa Larjovuori from the University of Tampere.

Change requires a human touch

Leadership is now challenged by continuous changes in the economy, the market and digital developments. In this new situation, the leader’s success depends on his or her people skills and constant interaction.

The leadership ideology at the retail store Lidl includes empathy, says Sanna Rainio, personnel manager at Lidl. We have action models for different situations that a leader might encounter. We also keep an eye on how well interaction plays out.

Also Gofore, a specialist enterprise providing digital services, has adopted a similar view: listening actively to the personnel and understanding their viewpoints, and well-functioning communication are a part of good leadership.

“Good leadership is like coaching, it is people-centred and interactive.”

– We have succeeded when the personnel understand clearly the aim and goals of our enterprise, explains Laura Tero, Head of People (i.e. personnel manager) at Gofore.

According to Larjovuori, genuine interaction means that the leader behaves as he or she preaches.

– Leadership based on a person’s organizational position is a thing of the past.  

Also the business has to be successful

Larjovuori knows that during the past few years the changes in the business sector and the economy have been unexpected. They have also shown how complex the leadership environment is and how fast it changes.

She believes that employees now need support for developing their know-how and help in adjusting to the new situation. At the same time one should understand that an unexpected change makes the employees feel insecure about keeping their job.

“Leadership is no longer the task of just one or a few leaders, it is the job of the whole work community.”

The manager will also have to think about the meaning of the workers’ equality in a new situation.

– If, for instance, an employee is unable to learn new things quickly, he or she has to be given support, says Larjovuori.

At Lidl, this is taken into account in the leadership practices.

– We focus on a holistic concept of caring for the personnel, this includes early intervention, openness, and creating a feeling of security. When these are in order, it is easier for the enterprise to succeed and be productive. People are important, but also the business activity must be profitable and sustainable in the long run, says Rainio.

Good leadership can mean help in daily life

The strong growth seen at Gofore is a demonstration of the concrete impact of change on leadership. The enterprise, founded by four persons, is today an international organization employing over 600 people.

– By listening to employees, one can get important information about the need to alter leadership practices, so that everybody shares the same goal.

Sometimes this can mean quite ordinary and simple things. At the start of the Covid19 pandemic, the Gofore employees were asked what kind of support they needed for their tele-working. Persons with families reported challenges with child care, on-line school, and help with setting up a peaceful work environment for themselves. The enterprise then decided to provide care for the children at home.

Heidi Savela started working as an office assistant at Gofore just two weeks before the upheaval caused by the Covid19 epidemic.

– We have two small children, aged 2 and 4, my husband worked at his workplace, and the grand-parents live far away, so the child care offered by the employer answered a real need. In the spring we got additional support: it was now possible to care for a sick elderly parent during working hours. I really appreciate these special benefits, says Savela.

It’s possible to learn empathy

Also in public organizations, leadership has been developed in a more coaching, facilitating, and interactive direction, based on a more active presence. The municipality of Ii, located in north-western Finland, is one example of this trend.

– The aim is to get the management to trust specialists and to allow them to make decisions concerning their own work, says Terhi Halonen, personnel planner of Ii municipality.

The coaching leadership style has become a new trend. Larjovuori believes that coaching leadership is a kind of counter-move replacing the old authoritarian style of leading.

– It is no longer believed that the leader always knows best. More frequently than before even the entire staff may take part in discussions as well as in decision-making, she adds.

Also the leadership training at Lidl is based on the idea that gradual learning and practising is the road to coaching leadership.

The themes of this leadership training include self-awareness and self-management, as well as the culture of caring and empathy. Also empathy is a skill that can be learned.

– The importance of giving and receiving feedback is central. Feedback should be looked at from the leader’s as well as the subordinate’s perspective. The training provides material on how to receive and process feedback, says Rainio.

Leadership as seen by different generations

Especially the millennials prefer coaching type of leadership. They question authoritarian figures and power based on a formal position.

– Leadership always includes executing power, but it should be equal, just and fair. Millennials expect their leaders to prove their usefulness by their own work and expertise, says Larjovuori.

She reminds that the younger generations with their new values, and also the gradually growing multiplicity of Finnish work life have an impact especially on supervision. The people who enter work life come from different cultures, age groups, and have diverse sets of values.

The employees at Gofore are of different ages.

– People in different phases of life need different kinds of leadership. A good leader is able to adjust to the prevailing conditions and lead in a manner that suits the occasion, says Tero.

At Gofore each employee has been given his or her own ‘People Person’ instead of a traditional supervisor. This person is the employee’s sparring partner and is responsible for the employee’s well-being at work.

– He or she offers peer support based on personal experience. Each People Person is a specialist who also has their own work and customer projects, Tero says.

Savela expects her own People person to trust her know-how and support her in her work and in developing her expertise.

– I also hope that she will be interested in my personal life, my coping at work and my well-being. It is also important that we are both on the same level, and her official position is not based on hierarchy.

The People Persons are responsible for developing their own professional skills. Each one looks for training that they need, and makes use of fringe benefits, which we call services at Gofore.

– Everybody can also select training suitable for their career and life situation. It can be mentoring, stress control and time management, or even virtual mindfulness training. Occupational health services include short therapy and the services of a psychologist, warmly recommended if the person feels they need it.

The leader is also responsible for safety

The role of leadership is more important than ever in respect to occupational safety and well-being at work. It is vital that the supervisor is aware of the safety risks at work.

At Lidl, supervisors are coached to intervene as soon as they see problems. Rainio feels it is important for the work community to have a low threshold for taking up any difficulties that the employees face.

– The occupational health service unit is accessible around the clock. When needed, a person can get additional help from a psychologist or psychotherapist by video. When the services are easily accessible, the situations don’t get too complicated.

“People in different phases of life need different kinds of leadership.”

At Gofore, the supervisors are supported also by artificial intelligence (AI). A robot, gathers information based on the model of early caring. It points out an employee’s short recurring absences from work, unused free days, and excessive hours of overtime, and reports deviations from work time book-keeping and other HR info. The People Person is therefore able to contact the employee early so that the situation can be remedied.

From coaching type of leadership to self-direction

When the personnel can take part in decision-making related to their own work, the organization is well on its way toward self-direction. Leading is no longer the job of only one or a few persons, but is an important function of the work community.

In the municipality of Ii, the supervisors aim to provide the employees an opportunity to influence and develop their own work. The best scenario would be for the entire work community to analyse and develop the work.

– This is one of the most visible changes in our leadership practices. Now we trust our personnel more than before, and we give them more decision-making latitude. We have supervisors, but the personnel have more opportunities to influence and assume responsibility according to their abilities and know-how, says Halonen.

Also the white-collar workers at Lidl are given training in work life skills.

– The work community improves as a whole when everyone is given tools on self-management and on participating in the matters of the work community. For instance, knowing how to give feedback is an important skill for everyone, Rainio adds.

It takes time to learn self-direction

According to Halonen, self-direction is mainly a vision of the future in most municipalities.

– Some employees are specialists while others take care of routine tasks that require more precise action models. Also people are on different levels of readiness to undertake additional responsibilities. An employee may fear that he may have to do also supervisory tasks.

This phenomenon is familiar also to Larjovuori.

– If a top-down culture has prevailed for long in the organization, sufficient time and a lot of repetition is needed before people accept the change.

“It’s important to be on the same level with the supervisor, and his or her official position shouldn’t be hierarchical.”

Larjovuori emphasizes that the management must have faith in the employees’ abilities to be successful in the new situation.

– When changes are made, one shouldn’t give up too easily. The management should also make sure that the structures allow the making of choices. If the employees can participate in discussing and making suggestions, but nothing concrete happens, the end result may well be frustration.

Training available

In June the municipality of Ii launched a well-being at work project in collaboration with some neighbouring municipalities. The aim of the project is to enhance the employees’ and supervisors’ well-being and coping at work.

The coaching has been perceived as fruitful, but it has also brought up the need to change the ways of working and acting. Some are familiar with the coaching type of leadership, while others aren’t, and changes don’t happen quickly.

– The employees’ readiness for the new kind of leadership varies. It’s necessary to take individual differences into consideration, so that some people don’t get over-burdened. Feedback, the flow of information and interaction are important, as are clear goals and opportunities to develop oneself. Everyone wants to feel that their work is valuable, and that it is part of a bigger picture, describes Halonen.