The path of change

The path of change

Björn Ullbro's story is all about embracing uncertainty and meeting adversity head-on.

Text: Katja Alaja Photo: Katariina Salmi
    

“Your employment is terminated with immediate effect. You must leave now. No phone calls, no emails.”

It took a while for these words to sink in, but when it finally did, Björn Ullbro was devastated. He was just 25 years old at that time. Although young and inexperienced, he had quickly adapted to the work culture of the Stockholm-based media company he was in, and soon became a managing director at one of its television channels. But, Björn recalls, the traits of being headstrong and arrogant which had got him promoted, also led to a situation where the company had to let him go. From being at the height of his career, he faced rock bottom.

Björn’s fall from grace was a tough one, but it proved to be just what he needed to reassess his life.

"This event was a wake-up call and set me on a different track to understand who I am and that we all have a choice in how we behave and lead our careers," he says.

Björn is a different man today. He heads the Services’ Business Transformation Office at Wärtsilä and has been with the company for almost a decade. He and his team look at a wide range of initiatives to improve innovation and effectiveness.

So, what kind of path did Björn follow to get to this point?
  
  

It all starts with respect

Since that fateful day, Björn had moved on in life. He spent a few years in the IT and energy business, working on strategic planning initiatives. In 2008, after having honed his skills in different strategy frameworks at Shell, he joined Wärtsilä.

It did not take him long to get back into a leadership role. He applied to lead the Services business in Sweden and was appointed the company’s managing director. Services in general and Wärtsilä Sweden, in particular, were going through big strategic and structural changes. And in a twist of irony, this time it was Björn who had to let employees go. However, his experiences had made him more aware of how he should go about the whole process.

"Laying someone off shakes that person's life to the core, and there are so many ways in which you can approach that conversation,” he says. “You can take the purely rational path and say, 'we are closing down and there is no job for you anymore. Thank you and goodbye', but you can also do things to support the person through the process. In the end, we as a company believe in treating people with respect."

Björn's belief in taking a respectful approach has also been influenced by an interest in the human behavioural element in business. Something he has cultivated over the years by reading biographies, business books and psychology journals, listening to hours of podcasts and through hundreds of real-life observations.

"I like to lead and think of leadership as the ability to deliver results through other people. People have their own unique behaviour and style of communication, and in order to get a message through and create strong alignment, it is I who needs to adapt, not the team," he says.

One such example that Björn recalls, is a project he undertook in the Service Unit Baltic & Black Sea, where the change needed to grow had different implications for different countries. For instance, to capture the opportunity, the team in Poland needed to expand rapidly while teams in other countries had to re-scope their activities.

The solution, Björn and his team realised, was to come up with a tailored message and change the management plans for the different stakeholders, in order to get everyone on the same wavelength. A successful strategy that was all about embracing change.
  
  

A friend of friction

This mirrors Björn’s own view to change, which is to meet it head-on. An approach that he has used successfully many times in his own life. Björn and his family have moved to several countries during the course of his career, and the impact, he recalls, has been the hardest on his children.

“We had just moved to Kobe in Japan. My six-year-old son Jonathan wouldn’t let go of me when we arrived there. Filippa, my seven-year-old daughter was trying hard not to cry while she walked into her new classroom,” recalls Björn. “My wife Tinka and I had to remain strong and give them words of encouragement. It was very hard to see how difficult it was for my kids to settle in, but I know from my own childhood experience of moving abroad, that they will eventually overcome it and enjoy the experience.”

This is a lesson that Björn encourages all Wärtsiliäns to take to heart.

"Wärtsilä is unique in being able to offer a broad range of opportunities for people all over the world. It means that you must accept the friction of change with open eyes. You may not have to move physically, but at least mentally, to a different kind of role in order to keep learning, and that is the thing for me,” he says. “If I look back, the best things in my life have come from getting into very uncomfortable situations.”

And it also helps that in meeting change, Björn has learned to listen to himself and take advice from people.

"It is important to develop a clear set of principles in order to help you make the right career choices,” he emphasises. “For example, when considering a job, make sure you know what winning looks like, and think about what it requires to get there. Usually, you do not have everything it takes, so you need a team around you. And if you have the will, you will figure it out together.”

 

Björn's 5 tips on dealing with change

  • Have a realistic view of change.
  • Develop a personal network inside the company. In the end, it is people that get stuff done, not processes.
  • Volunteer for projects, it will help you get used to being uncomfortable.
  • Always look to learn new things.
  • Never, ever give up. Personally, I get inspiration from my grandmother, Dagmar. She grew up on a farm and worked hard all her life. After a stroke late in life, she forgot how to cook my favourite cabbage rolls. She did not tell me about this until later, but she had to re-learn a skill that she had known by heart for over sixty years. She failed every day for two weeks in recreating that recipe, and then, for my next visit, she served up the best cabbage rolls ever.

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