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Hannele janssen


Embrace change by training senior leaders

Published 17 March 2023 in Leadership • 5 min read

Hannele Jakosuo-Jansson, Chief Human Resources officer at Neste, explains why it made sense for the Finnish energy company to engage the executive board with training as it went through strategic change.  

Change should form part of the DNA of any company. Rather than just changing when they see their business under threat by new competitors or unforeseen macroeconomic events, however, the most successful organizations embrace change as an opportunity for growth.  

To make any transformation succeed, you need to have strong leaders who can execute a clear vision. In over 30 years working for Finnish energy company Neste, I have been focused on developing leaders who can execute change successfully. Here are my three takeaways for how to get your top management, employees, and shareholders on board with a major change. 

1. Transparency is critical 

Early on in my career, I was assigned to take part in the task of transforming the strategy of Neste’s R&D Innovation Center. The project involved identifying new avenues for innovation and the necessary competencies that matched the company’s priorities for the future. The R&D executive team quickly recognized that renewable technology was an area where Neste needed to invest heavily and build up technology and capabilities. Yet, at the same time, we were facing significant cost pressures and we needed to restructure the R&D portfolio and cut jobs and positions in many of our research facilities. 

During the two years that we were given to implement the new strategy, I learned that the key issue in any organization is to be as transparent as possible. We had frequent open discussions inside the organization with human resources and the unions about the progress we were making. Our aim was to find new positions within the business for as many of the people we were making redundant as possible. And we were successful in doing so, but it required transparency and cooperation.  

2. Courageous business decisions require constant communication 

In around 2005, and as a standalone oil business, we were demerging from Fortum Corporation and Neste was going to be listed separately. I was asked if I wanted to join human resources. At this point, Neste made a €2 billion (US$2.1 billion) bet on renewables. In the beginning, it was a business in which many of the people on the ground did not believe. We were then thrown a curveball by the financial meltdown caused by the Lehman Brothers collapse, and there was suddenly no market readiness for our new renewable diesel product. Refined using our own NEXBTL technology, it turns renewable oils and fats into renewable fuels that could replace fossil diesel and bring substantial GHG emission savings to its users. At this stage, some shareholders even thought that we should pay back what we had invested in renewables production. 

Hannele Jakosuo-Jansson, CHRO Neste

We needed to convince everybody – our own people, our shareholders, the unions, all stakeholders, in fact – that we were on the right path. We decided to come up with answers for three simple questions: 

  1. Why are we doing it? 
  2. What are the main drivers for this strategy? 
  3. How are we going to do it? 

As we communicated with employees, we also carried out surveys to measure engagement across the company. Eventually, the whole organizational structure and operating model coalesced, and we moved from a business area structure to a matrix structure. 

3. Provide coaching for your top leaders 

Any business transformation is stressful, especially for those at the top. A challenge for us was to get the whole senior leadership group to work together to implement our new growth strategy. At the same time, some key individuals who didn’t believe in what we were trying to do were heading for the door. This put an enormous strain on the executive leadership team; even the Chief Executive was finding it difficult. My suggestion was to have a separate coaching program just for the executive team. We were one of the first companies among the listed companies to take this kind of proactive measure. 

I recruited an external executive coach just to work with our executive team. To begin with, there were individual coaching sessions for every person in the executive team – including the Chief Executive – followed up by joint coaching sessions every quarter. It worked thanks to the support we had from the Chair. I am confident the program wouldn’t have been successful without his – and the rest of the board’s – total support. In the end, the program lasted three years. Proof of its success is that finally, in the first quarter of 2014, we had positive financial results for the renewables business for the first time.  

Since then, coaching has become part of the DNA of the company, and we have continued to use similar customized programs to help with strategic implementation. We need to keep developing ourselves, our way of working, our leadership, our culture, and the ways we implement strategy. Employees have always been enthusiastic and engaged when we want to try something new, thanks to the maturity of the culture of the executive team. 

Change management is difficult; it can be as much of a shock to the leadership team as to the employees. But with coaching and communication, it can be put at the heart of the company.  

The three questions that companies going through change need to address

Why are we doing it?
To help the company align its employees around a shared understanding of the goals and objectives of the change.
What are the main drivers for this strategy?
Helping employees understand the broader reasons for the change and how it fits into the company’s overall strategy.
How are we going to do it?
By providing employees with a clear roadmap of what to expect and how to develop capabilities during the change process.


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