When the pandemic came to Finland in early 2020, public organisations and companies quickly moved from regular operations to crisis management. The sudden change required clear leadership from managers and flexibility from the entire work community.
“Clear communication is emphasised in crisis situations. That has been the most important lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic. Managers needs to communicate a lot and with the same agenda throughout the organisation. Being multichannel is also important. It does not matter if people get the same message from various sources,” says Professor of Management Pia Heilmann from the University of Eastern Finland.
In connection with the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been talk of the resilience of work communities, which refers to flexibility and the ability to change. In a crisis, you must act differently than before, dare to break away from traditions and think outside the box.
“In a crisis, you cannot expect the same level of quality with the same operating method. There are new tools, teams and prerequisites. Not everyone’s competence level is immediately on the desirable level — you must be able to tolerate disturbances, be merciful with yourself and take time for learning,” Heilmann says.
With the pandemic, the manager’s role as a support person was highlighted in many workplaces. On the other hand, employees also came up with new ways of participating and new methods of peer support, such as a virtual coffee hour.
Heilmann is convinced that the pandemic will have a permanent impact in leadership and working. The need for a digital leap was quick and forced, but it was done.
“In my opinion, the management at our university was successful during the pandemic. We have started to study leadership and communication during the pandemic period with the help of, for example, the University of Eastern Finland’s COVID-19 communication material.”
Two ears and one mouth — managers should focus on listening
Pia Heilmann joined the UEF Business School as Professor of Management in November 2020. She has previously worked as Professor of Career Counselling at the University of Eastern Finland, Research Professor at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and Professor at Management and Organizations at Lappeenranta University of Technology. In addition, she has worked with management research at Stanford University.
According to Heilmann, all management can be summed up in two words: leadership and management, i.e. leading people and managing things. A good manager can do both. Even though a manager has access to various tools to achieve their goals, a good starting point is “two ears and one mouth”.
“Quite often, it is enough for the manager to listen, because the employee can come up with a solution already as they speak. The manager only needs to encourage them and have confidence in the employee’s vision and understanding to do the right things. It is often the specialist who understands their work the best, even better than the manager. In short, it is the manager’s job to remove barriers to success from their employees’ way,” Heilmann says.
On the other hand, the most common mistakes in management are related to a constant sense of urgency.
“Management is easily lost in the rush. A manager’s field of work is extensive. In addition to supervisory work, managers must take care of strategic management, acquiring and processing information as well as communications. They must act as a decision-maker and developer and take care of networks both inside and outside the organisation. Often, there is not enough time to lead people. However, trust is created when there is time to really encounter people.”
In addition, managers usually come from specialist tasks, which can lead to micromanagement and the manager interfering in even the smallest details of their employees’ work and monitoring behind their back.
“Managers should be able to give up their specialist role and become leaders. Leadership training and the support of a colleague network are important.”
Charisma cannot be copied, but you can learn leadership
Leadership is often perceived as a characteristic. People talk about natural, charismatic leaders who gain appreciation with their very being. But can you learn leadership?
“Yes, you can. Learning to be a leader requires willingness and the right attitude. You must understand that you are never ready. The leader does not have all the information, so listening to and engaging in the work community will lead to better results. It is also sufficient for leaders to say that they do not know something, but they will find out and let the employee know. In a way, a leader is in a position of service and always learning more about how to take care of things.”
Heilmann reminds us that charisma cannot be copied. If a leader has their own identifiable way of acting, you should not try to copy their style. You can learn from the successes and failures of others, but you will succeed when you enter leadership situations as yourself.
The model of an ideal Finnish leader has been sought from a variety of places from the Moominvalley to The Unknown Soldier. Culture also plays a role in ideal leadership.
“When I was a visiting scholar in the United States, they praised the big names. Finland is more modest. Finns value down-to-earth leaders, strong factual expertise and a common value base. Similarly, Finnish managers have a lot to learn from developing a culture of discussion and inspiration as well as increasing goal-oriented ambition.”
Change challenges us every single day
Leadership skills seem to be in demand. New practical leadership guides are released frequently and leadership trends are changing often.
One of the most recent management trends is Teal, inspired by Belgian Frederick Laloux’s Reinventing organizations (2014). A teal organisation is based on the decentralisation and self-direction of management and decision-making, the unity of the work community and the ethical sustainability of objectives.
The implementation of leadership lessons in practical work depends mostly on the manager’s attitude towards the development of the work community. Employees are committed to changes if they can also impact them.
“Changes challenge our expertise every single day. Finnish President Niinistö has said that if you settle, you get stuck. You have to think ahead in a proactive manner, not just react to what is happening. The future is made together.”
Even though leadership studies have evolved from Taylorism and Fordism to Lean and Teal, they are always based on the tough core of leadership.
“It is always about managing things and leading people. They are just emphasised differently and approached from new perspectives,” Heilmann says.
- Professor of Management, University of Eastern Finland, 1 November 2020 –
- Doctor of Science (Econ. and Bus. Adm.), Lappeenranta University of Technology, 2004.
- Master of Science (Soc. Sc.), University of Jyväskylä, 1992.
- Teacher qualification, 2017.
- Social worker qualification, 1993.
Key positions held
- Professor (Career Counselling), University of Eastern Finland, 2019–2020.
- Head of Department (Educational Sciences and Psychology), University of Eastern Finland, 2020.
- Research Professor, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, 2018–2019.
- Visiting Scholar, Stanford University, 2018.
- Professor, Associate Professor, Assistant, Lappeenranta University of Technology 2001–2018.
- Adjunct Professor / Docent, University of Jyväskylä, 2017.
- Adjunct Professor / Docent, Lappeenranta University of Technology, 2016.