‘You don’t need to be a superhero to be an executive’
Sofie Irgens knew from an early age that she wanted to work in business. The child of a teacher and school psychologist, she shocked her parents when, aged eight, she announced her plans to become a trader and buy a sportscar after watching the 1987 movie Wall Street.
As she grew older, her interest shifted away from making profit to having an impact on people and the planet. She studied engineering at The Technical University of Denmark, combining her technical skills with a desire to work on real world problems.
“This triangle of working with people, making an impact on society, but also having a business technical perspective is one thing that has followed me all the way through my career,” she said.
A further thread has been her passion for the green transition. She spent over a decade working for VELUX Group, the Danish manufacturer of roof windows, blinds, and shutters, which has an ambition to become carbon neutral by 2030. She later joined sustainable energy solutions company Vestas, fulfilling her dream of getting to work with wind turbines, before moving to her current employer Danfoss, an industrial machinery manufacturing company that aims to make products more energy efficient by lowering consumption.
Since joining Danfoss her rise has been rapid, moving from a general manager role with technical expertise to a business leader responsible for six business units, €400m in annual turnover and 1,000 employees.
It was during this period that Irgens started IMD’s Transition to Business Leadership program. Directed by Professors Albrecht Enders and Michael Watkins, the program combines personal leadership development with the skills to execute organizational change.
“The challenge for me was where do I focus my time and my resources? How can I lead through others? In a business leadership role, you have all these functional areas, so you really need to figure out how to spend your time most efficiently,” she said.
Learning more by slowing down
When taking on an enterprise leadership role, it can be tempting to feel you have to become hyperefficient to deal with all the challenges and crises that come your way. For Irgens, one of the biggest takeaways from the program, however, was that she should slow down.
She recalled being in the mountains with author and coach Nicholas Janni, who is a speaker on the program. Irgens was getting impatient with the speed of the coffee machine when Janni reminded her it can be good to use these moments to take a deliberate pause.
“What he was trying to teach us was to deliberately slow down our thinking,” she said.
“It’s not just about thinking, it’s also about feeling. When you slow down, you not only focus on your rational thinking and problem solving, but you also look at the people you’re with and try and understand where they are coming from. This is when you start listening with more than just your ears.”
For Irgens, a rational thinker who had relied on her strength of mind to shape her life and career, this was mind-blowing. She learned that she needed to incorporate her own and other people’s emotions into her leadership toolbox.
“I realized that if I get a deeper understanding of my emotions, my triggers, and my responses, it can unleash a great amount of energy and power while reducing my inner stress level,” she said.
Irgens has since used this technique to start detecting things in others she hasn’t seen before. She recently took part in a conference with 200 internal leaders. A fellow panelist was full of bravado about the event, but when she was sitting on stage with him, she noticed the sweat forming on his upper lip.
“I realized he was just as scared as I was,” she recalled. “Nicholas taught me to notice those things. I’m a better leader today in those moments when I remember to look for those nuances, because I start seeing how people really are instead of only listening to how they say they are.”
An authentic leader
Before participating in the program, Irgens had thought that to lead she must be tough. TBL made her realize that her strength can come through vulnerability.
“I left TBL realizing that I can be both human and an executive leader at the same time and I’m using this very deliberately in my communication,” she said.
“I think it’s important to say in front of your colleagues that you are not super comfortable with a situation instead of pretending everything is fine.”
Another key takeaway for her was learning to connect her emotions to her decision-making style. Take the example of negotiation. Understanding your personality type and your default negotiation style – whether this is to avoid conflict or confront issues head-on – can help you to apply negotiation tools more effectively.
“If you’re the type of person who would naturally try to reach for more pragmatic and practical solutions, then your standard approach to negotiation might be to step back and analyze the situation. But there may be times when you analyze the situation and realize you need to be more direct. If you know this is not your natural personality type, it becomes easier for you to do if you deliberately acknowledge the discomfort, which can lead to better results when you apply it.”
Following the program, she created her own executive summary, which she consults from time to time to make sure she’s on track.
“When you go into business leadership, you want to go from being a bricklayer to being an architect,” she explained.
“When I act, I try to be more visionary, setting the direction and then leaving my teams to lay the bricks and figure out how to build it.” Irgens remains as ambitious as she was as a child, and her long-term goal would be to rise to the role of CEO.
“If you’re a business leader, that is the place to create impact. So that’s the ambition, but it’s not what I focus on every day,” she said. “I focus on helping my teams and businesses to grow and develop – and showing my employees that you don’t have to be a superhero to be an executive.”