In the last three years, Vertia’s turnover has doubled and in a fresh research by Tampere University, one of the findings was that the stress level in Vertia is significantly lower than in organisations overall in Finland and compared to the other companies researched. Vertia is a Finnish company offering quality measurements and diagnostics in the area of construction and during the resent years, has gone through a significant transformation towards a more self-managing way of operating. This blog tells the developmental story of the CEO Topi Jokinen.
Apart from his CEO role in Vertia, Topi is a father and composer. He is one of the founders and has been leading the company from the beginning. He stepped out for a few years and returned to the CEO position approximately two and half years ago. When starting the new chapter as CEO, he attended Amara’s Action Inquiry and GLP workshop and started developmental coaching with Amara, which has had a significant role in his own and in the company’s development.
Topi sees himself as a humane leader, aiming to be easily approachable and truly caring about his employees. He also emphasises the role of trust and the importance of giving space to the people around him. Topi describes his leadership style as systemic and explains that what matters is often not what he does but how the whole company works as a system. He describes Vertia as a wheel and explains that his own role is simply to make the wheel spin bigger and better. He points out that while for many, the word “systemic” might sound mechanistic, he doesn’t see it that way at all, but all the human dynamics and so-called softer aspects are included in the system as well. Topi explains that this systemic approach allows him to focus on the long-term impacts and effectiveness of the organisation. In problem solving for example, the systemic approach guides his thinking towards finding a solution that enables the employees to solve the problem independently, rather than trying to solve everything himself.
When asked about leadership development, Topi doesn’t hesitate to answer: developing as a leader means developing as a human being. “Who I am as a person is who I am as a leader,” he says and continues “of course I might be slightly different in the context of leadership, but everything I am and think comes from there.” He explains that the challenges and experiences he has faced in his life have significantly molded him as a leader, including depression, therapy, philosophy studies, loss of a family member and becoming a father. He also says that encountering the lectures and seminars of a well-known Finnish philosopher Esa Saarinen was a turning point that led him to found Vertia and to become a leader in the first place. “I was actually supposed to be a musician, but I was taken on a different track,” Topi says. After taking a moment to think he adds that his development as a leader and Vertia’s development as an organisation have gone hand in hand, in a symbiosis. “I might never have grown to be a leader if I hadn’t been part of this company,” and on the other hand, “Developing the company has required developing myself,” he concludes.
During the past two and half years developmental coaching with one of Amara’s founders Heidi Gutekunst has had a significant effect on his maturing as a leader. “I felt that it would be very helpful to think about leadership from that perspective”, Topi explains referring to the GLP (Global Leadership Profile) and continues that after getting to know Heidi, she seemed to have a lot to offer his growth and the chemistry was also right. “It’s so important that it clicks,” Topi says.
Heidi explains that in life, most people face difficulties, so called “heat experiences”. She stresses that what matters is how we face and approach these events. Will they make us smaller (e.g. in difficult situations we have less choices in ways of thinking and behaving because we may fear to face similar feelings that these heat experiences brought) or can we make sense of them in ways that turn them into learning and development? In these situations coaching can be a significant support, in accelerating development and therefore also leadership effectiveness and capacity to transform, which in turn helps the organisation to develop.
Topi says that the coaching sessions with Heidi felt beneficial from the very beginning and much has changed on the way. “I’ve definitely noticed changes in myself during this process,” he says. “In the beginning I got much more irritated and actually during the first sessions many of the issues we talked about had to do with things that irritated me. Now that I look at this moment, I don’t have that in the same way. It hasn’t completely disappeared, but I’ve started to see good in the things that I experienced as annoying before. I’ve surprised myself by not getting irritated if someone disagrees with me and by seeing that they might have a good point. Of course, there are still situations that annoy me, I haven’t suddenly become a saint, but it has decreased a lot, quite radically actually.” Topi explains. “And that has very far-reaching effects, it feels like a small thing but if you see good where you weren’t able to see good before, it can have huge effects to your behavior.”
Heidi explains that while the shift that Topi talks about may seem small, it can have a significant effect on the people we interact with and a systemic impact on the organisation. ”I notice a lot of frustration and irritation in leaders, often leading to entering conversations with pre-conceived assumption and therefore not even giving conversations a chance to take new turns,” she says. And as each of us know, much of our time is spent in meetings and conversations. Heidi emphasises that to change the unhelpful stories we tell ourselves and start to notice our assumptions requires a lot of work within oneself and one’s awareness, but it also opens greater potential in the organisation. The shift Topi talks about, she explains, illustrates the shift from Redefining to Transforming action logic and the “Pragmatic and Passionate Learning” from The Amara Way of Transforming leadership -framework. The shift is to move from an inner reflection in oneself to action outwards with ease of access to other possibilities. This requires passion and commitment to the learning and taking action in a pragmatic way that is most likely to have impact and be effective, as is characteristic of the Transforming action logic.
Another big change Topi has noticed as a result of coaching is the newly built courage to let go. With the encouragement from Heidi, he has dared to do this and noticed that by doing less, he can have much greater impact. “This is something I wouldn’t have dared to do without Heidi”, Topi admits. “I hesitated to make such a radical change but after I’ve let go, I’ve noticed that actually the things I had been doing before were not even necessary or should have not been done at all. We imagine that many things we do are necessary but they can even be damaging for the organisation. By taking too much responsibility one might hinder the development or prevent others from taking responsibility, without even noticing that you’re causing it yourself!”
Heidi comments this shift by explaining that Vertia is what many call a self-managing organisation and ”has in my opinion entered to what Frederic Laloux calls Teal during the last year.” She points out that it seems to be a trend that every company wants to be “self-managing” these days and a very small percentage actually do it with the level of maturity that Vertia does. ”To act at this level, it requires the CEO to be able to think and act at the rare Transforming action logic stage of development and this will allow to Exercise Power in Mature and Healthy Ways, like Topi describes”, Heidi says and continues that this shift, to actually let go of control and step into uncertainty is often the obstacle for leaders trying to develop self-organising structures. Heidi describes the challenges in moving to a self-managing direction by saying that throughout many people’s career, it is all about controlling people, processes and numbers and it is easy when everything goes well but when difficulties appear, most leaders will “Pull the hand-break” in fear of losing control and being responsible for any mistake another person did.
Topi explains that during his coaching journey with Heidi, he has noticed that procrastination, at time, can be a very good skill. “I’ve developed a habit of noticing that something needs doing, but not doing it right away. I trust that if it’s important, it will come back to my attention. Often after a while I notice that someone else has taken care of it or that, it wasn’t an important thing to do in the first place.” He gives an example of a situation where procrastination saved him days’ worth of work: “A while ago I noticed that something needed doing and realised that it would require a lot of effort. It seemed like a such an unpleasant task that I just kept pushing it for later. Then one day I decided to get started with it but went for a walk first. While I was walking, I realised that, I don’t need to do it in the way I had been dreading. There was a lot better solution to the same problem and instead of weeks it would only take me a day or so.” Topi explains that the key to these realizations is not to do things by force but to stop and think for a while. “Before you do anything, go for a walk,” he says. “It’s so simple but how often we actually do it? When you get yourself to a relaxed state, you’re more free to think”
Heidi points out that what Topi explained above is a good example of how Action Inquiry is effective. “How do we know the difference between ‘what’s important and what’s urgent’, when often, everything is treated as urgent? And how can we stop, think, notice and then act upon the pull, like letting it come to us rather than acting like we are chased by the tasks,” she asks. She says that acting is important, but without inquiry it can be wasted and highly ineffective and that inquiry is important, but without action nothing happens. Heidi points out that Action Inquiry, which is the underlying approach in developmental coaching, is the only approach statistically confirmed as reliably generating both individual and organisational transformation.
All in all, Topi emphasises that coaching has helped him to find alternative ways of acting and courage to step away from the path he has gotten used to. And of course, as being a leader is not always smooth sailing, having someone to simply be there can be immensely valuable: “It’s great that you have someone that you can talk to, because it can be quite tough personally.”
Amara webinar: Leadership in self-organising
A warm welcome to our free webinar about leadership in self-organising on Tuesday 20th of April at 9-10am CET / 7-8pm NZST. In this online gathering we will share thoughts and experiences about leadership in self-organising cultures. As our speakers we are happy to have Topi Jokinen, the CEO of Vertia and Heidi Gutekunst, the CEO of Amara Collaboration.
If you wish to read more about Vertia’s transformation journey towards a more self-organising culture, you can find the Vertia case study here!