Growth Lab broadens leadership horizons

Serious fun while being pushed to the limits: that is how participants in Wärtsilä’s Growth Lab 2017 leadership development programme have described the experience.

Serious fun while being pushed to the limits: that is how participants in Wärtsilä’s Growth Lab 2017 leadership development programme have described the experience.

“I will always remember the weekends we spent at our headquarters, with takeaway pizzas, working on a financial feasibility model yet laughing and enjoying the moment. Some of my best memories are of meetings when I was reduced to tears of laughter with my colleagues.”

That’s perhaps not what you might expect from a leadership development programme. But Andrea Hernandez, General Manager, Strategy and Business Development of Wärtsilä Services, is keen to stress that her experience of Growth Lab 2017 was anything but a chore.

Growth Lab is a leadership development programme sponsored by the Board of Management to nurture and inspire leadership talent within the company. Growth Lab participants are selected through an application process aiming to identify “people who could one day become CEO, who can grow and be high performers; idea generators with out-of-the-box thinking,” as Jaakko Eskola, CEO, describes it.

Each of the three teams are created from around 20 successful applicants and assigned a different strategic project. The groups meet over a period of eight months, in person and via remote channels, to pursue their respective projects. Hernandez was in the ‘class of 2017’ that ‘graduated’ in April 2018.

“It’s a lot of fun but the process involves a lot of uncertainty and complexity,” she says. Her team was given the theme ‘Power as a Service’. It had seven members with representatives located in Cameroon, the UK, Italy, Finland, and France.

Hernandez is based in Helsinki, as is Mikael Leppä, Senior Manager, Design Thinking & User Experience and member of the team that was allocated the topic of Smart(er) Marine in 2017.

Leppä recognises that the Growth Lab programme is above and beyond the ‘normal’ leadership training, but also observes that motivation was high among team members.

“We kicked off together on a tailor-made three-day course in the UK, with the CEO and Head of HR in attendance as sponsors,” he says. “It was up to the teams to work on their topics as they saw best. We were (and are) spread out across the globe so this meant remote meetings and dealing with time differences. Then in January we again had a joint session, this time in Helsinki, when we focused on executive presence and presented our progress to the Board of Management, receiving guidance on the direction to continue on.”

Diverse teams

Reto Kunz, General Manager, Parts Services, based in Switzerland, was placed in the third team and briefed to cover the theme of future ventures for Wärtsilä. “We were tasked with working out a business idea building on Wärtsilä’s knowledge as a base,” he says. This team too was very widely spread, which made it challenging in terms of remote collaboration.

Kunz thinks the process is designed to nurture a leadership with a broad view of the whole company.  “You start to realise how big the organisation is and to connect all the dots. It makes you realise that when there is teamwork, you need to look at it from the right perspective. The question is how to unlock the full potential from whatever meeting you are in.”

Leppä’s team focused on what Smart Marine means for the company’s purpose and vision, and its implications for business and company culture. Leppä has a background in Marine Solutions which gave him a broad view on the topic. Most of the team had no previous connection to Marine, facilitating a unique out-of-the-box approach that was ultimately very beneficial.

“We didn’t have a formal team leader,” he recalls. “We understood that we had a lot to catch up on. We were out of our comfort zones. So we had people acknowledging that they had to read up on respective topics of interest.” A designated leader was not needed for this. Meetings were held in Helsinki with workshops on the idea of the topic and the possible outcomes. Leppä facilitated workshops without adopting the title of leader for the process.

In the context of the Growth Lab programme, the team decides how work is arranged. There is no predetermined schedule except for the presentations to top management and some learning modules. In Leppä’s team, group calls were arranged every second week, although not everyone could attend them all.

Rather than being solely goal-driven, Growth Lab is a more open process, says Hernandez. “You get out as much as you put in. It’s up to all the individuals to decide what they want to get out of it, and I think we were all highly motivated to do that.” She describes participation as an honour. The programme involved 20 different people with 20 different sets of development goals.

Roaming out of comfort zones

The dynamics are interesting when you realise that you will have to present something to the CEO and you want to make sure it’s something of value, Kunz continues. One is directed into getting something out of the process, even without necessarily setting clear targets. A bunch of individuals come together who may never have worked together and they have to suddenly align themselves and that is quite an interesting journey in itself.

All three appreciated the licence to roam from their respective comfort zones to brainstorm. “I work in Services and I have a background in Marine, and I was picked for the team dealing with Energy,” says Hernandez. “I had a very steep learning curve.” Growth Lab has helped her to appreciate the different roles of leadership in different situations, in which “you need to give medicine in different ways”.

For Leppä, the biggest learning and benefit came from all the doors that the programme opened. The teams made many connections and learned a lot about how people work and manage, and how the company is tied together in a complex structure that moves together towards one goal. “One great asset was meeting and getting to know new diverse people, opening up new avenues, geographically and culturally,” says Leppä. That also enhances one’s cultural sensitivity.

They are also confident that they can take the learning forward in their everyday work. They are keen to share their experiences and encouragement with anyone who is thinking about applying for future Growth Labs. “We are happy at our own initiative to make contact with new participants and ask them if they need support,” says Hernandez. She feels a responsibility to contribute to leadership development in the company, and is happy to do so by sharing her experiences of Growth Lab.

“The success of the programme is very much due to the energy and diversity of the participants, their curiosity for learning and their drive to support our company’s purpose and strategy,” says Elly Wassenaar, Director, Learning & Development.

“Continuous improvement is important.  We have just started a new programme with a different external partner and the teams were able to select their strategic projects themselves this year.”

So the journey continues in search for emerging leaders and new business opportunities.

Written by

Tim Bird
Contributing Writer at Spoon Agency