Håkan Agnevall, President and CEO of Wärtsilä

In Conversation with Håkan Agnevall

6 min read

24 Feb 2021

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Atte Palomäki

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Wärtsilä

6 min read

24 Feb 2021

Text:

Atte Palomäki

Photo:

Wärtsilä
 

New President and CEO Håkan Agnevall comes to Wärtsilä after a long career that includes eight years as president of Volvo buses as well as time at industry leaders including Bombardier and ABB. In this interview, he gives his first impressions of the company and lays out his vision for leadership.

 

What drew you to Wärtsilä and what are your first impressions?

With Wärtsilä, I really think that we can make a difference. We can work on some of the most important questions that we have in our time, such as how we can create a sustainable future based on decarbonisation. Wärtsilä has a long tradition of innovation that has really defined the company, and as an engineer and as a businessman, I find that very exciting.

You're taking charge in unique circumstances. From a leadership standpoint, what do you consider your biggest challenges in the current situation?

The first challenge obviously is that you cannot meet people physically. We are doing the best we can in the situation, meeting over the Internet, but it's not really the same. We also really need to make sure that we continue working in a safe way and maintain a high bar for safety. 

I will also say that business is down right now and we are doing the very best we can to support our customers. I think that is really, really crucial because our customers are suffering, and we want to stand by them with our services and with our support to make sure that they can go through this period in the very best way. 

How would you define your leadership style? What should Wärtsilä and its stakeholders expect?

When we are talking about culture and leadership style, there are three critical elements for me. One is teamwork, the second is continuous improvement, and the third one is what I would call delivering on commitments.

Taking a closer look at each of these three, teamwork is about working together, helping each other, sharing knowledge and information. For continuous improvement, that is the desire to work a little bit smarter every day, to learn something new every day and being open to ideas from the outside, trying things and sometimes making mistakes. In my world, it is perfectly OK to make mistakes, but of course we should learn from them and move on. Delivering commitments is basically delivering what we shake hands upon and going the extra mile to make that happen. 

In the end, if you work on a winning team where you have a good culture focused on continuous improvement and you're really delivering on commitments, it actually brings a lot to your life. We spend a lot of time in our workplace, so a good culture is really important.

What will be your main priorities going forward, and how can you leverage your past experiences in this new role?

There is a lot I can leverage from my previous career. I worked a lot with technology transformation and those trends are coming in marine and energy – Wärtsilä’s core markets. I’ve also had the privilege to work and live in many countries. I have learned to work with people and customers in different cultures. I really enjoy the multicultural dimension, and I think I can contribute that experience to Wärtsilä as well. Then, finally, I've many times led businesses with a lot of technology content. I am an engineer and I really like to see how we can leverage technology both for society and for people.

Consumers, investors and society at large expect more than products and services from companies nowadays. How do you feel about this new role of the corporation going forward?

We clearly need to acknowledge that corporations are part of society and contribute to society in many ways. With the big technology issues that are coming, corporations can actually be thought leaders in several areas because they have solutions that address some of the critical questions in the world. 

I think it's really important that we as business engage in dialogue with regulators and engage in dialogue with governments about solutions for the future, because regulations have a significant impact on the context we are working in.

Of course, we need to acknowledge that the primary purpose of the business of corporations is to create value for customers and at the end of the day, make money doing so. 

What about Wärtsilä’s role in all of this? Where can our company work with different stakeholders to create true and sustainable change?

Wärtsilä has the potential to make a real difference both in marine and in energy. We know the big themes of decarbonisation and addressing climate change. As Wärtsilä, we really want to engage with external stakeholders here because we have some good proposals for thoughtful solutions. I think the unique thing Wärtsilä brings to that discussion is a broad perspective. We don’t just have one solution – we have many solutions. And, we have the competence and experience to really engage in a holistic and system-wide discussion.

Companies are filled with capable and passionate individuals who have their own thoughts and ideas. To leverage that, social intrapreneurship is emerging as a powerful way to spur innovation within companies. Do you think that this type of activity can be encouraged going forward?

From what I understand, Wärtsilä has a very proud tradition of innovative initiatives by committed, engaged people that the company has then developed and scaled. This year, we will inaugurate the smart technology hub, and with this, we are trying to create a platform to accelerate and widen cooperation. We are inviting other companies – startups, established companies and other partners – to join us in an environment to work together, and we really hope that will spur even further innovation.

How important is it for a company to be purpose-driven? What are the benefits of that?

Having an inspiring, incredible purpose is first of all a leadership tool, but it's also an important foundation to build a successful business with a good culture. With a compelling purpose, you can really make a good connection to your customer. It also provides a way to engage with your employees. 

There is a higher purpose to the things that we do, and I think the purpose of Wärtsilä –enabling sustainable societies with smart technology – is a great example of a purpose that can really inspire our team and also connect with our customers and other stakeholders in society.

Many companies talk about thought leadership today in their own fields. What does it really take to be a thought leader?

Aspiring to be a thought leader requires you to sharpen your thinking and go through what you have to offer and how that offering can contribute to customers and society. Once you've done that, you need to communicate it in different channels, so you reach out to all your stakeholders.

You have spent most of your career in companies that have a rich history and a lot of traditions. Now you're joining Wärtsilä, which is turning 187 this year. How important do you think it is for a company to be able to combine tradition and innovation for the future?

Wärtsilä is 187 years old, but the common theme through all of these years is this a quest to adapt and evolve and to use technology and innovation in that development. Another common theme throughout these 187 years has been the focus on customers and our people and building a good culture.

If you were to describe the outlook for Wärtsilä’s future in one single word, what would that word be? 

In one single world, I would say “exciting.”