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Two children’s inspirations permeated the diverse career and management style of Olli-Pekka Heinonen, the then Finnish politician, policy maker and public official: education and music.
While proposing the strategy in his new role as Director-General of the International Baccalaureate system more than half a century ago, he uses both of these influences. He is taking over a complex global organization as it seeks to expand and meet the changing needs of children and society in an era severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“My father was a teacher and I was born and lived in an apartment in a primary school,” he says. ‘I also studied in the [Turku] Conservatory [of Music] and was a music teacher for a year. Heinonen, 57, then trained as a lawyer and – at least as he describes it – was guided almost every step of his professional life by requests and pressure from others.
He was asked to become a parliamentary adviser for only 29 years, then Minister of Education, before being elected MP. Once that happened, he became Minister of Transport and Telecommunications. From 2002 he was in charge of Yleisradio, the Finnish state broadcaster, for a decade, but later joined the government as State Secretary to the Prime Minister.
The only position he ever applied for was his last post as Director-General of the National Agency for Education in 2016. This put him in charge of a school system that was a showpiece worldwide, judged by criteria such as the OECD International student assessment program, due to its conviction to balance strong academic achievement with life outside school.
“My philosophy is that you should not put your trust in the planning of things,” says Heinonen. ‘There will be surprises, and you just have to keep up with what’s evolving. The only job I applied for was at the Agency. I felt it would be a good time to return to the crime scene in education. ”
He mentions as one of his greatest achievements the period as Minister of Education in the mid to late 1990s, when he granted autonomy to towns, schools and teachers themselves. He emphasizes that the foundation has been laid over the past two decades in that all teachers should have a master’s degree. It strengthened their skills, embedded a culture of continuous pedagogical research and strengthened their high status and respect in society.
Important leadership lessons
Give autonomy – in the case of Heinonen he transferred education decisions to towns and teachers himself
Embrace the concept of ‘humble management’ and accept that leaders do not have the right answers
Leadership is not about one person; it must be distributed across a corporate or organizational system
Communication to build trust with staff and stakeholders is crucial
“My approach was to involve everyone in the process,” he says. Inspired by the style of “humble management” of his government, he adopted the idea that “at the top you do not have the right answers, you have to involve people to develop them together. Leadership is not about a person, it is a trait that needs to be widely disseminated in a system. When you emphasize the role of one person, you fail. ”
He says he learned humility, but also the need to communicate more. ‘I’m not personally someone who wants to be in the spotlight. I learned to do it. Our Finns sometimes communicate too little. We try to be very precise and leave other things out, but communication to build trust is central.
“In the beginning, I had the idea that a leadership position means you have to look, speak and dress to look like a leader,” he says. “It will not work. You have to be yourself, the person you are. Authenticity is so important and the integrity that comes with it. ”
One of his biggest frustrations was the Minister of Transport and Telecommunications, when he struggled during the turnaround of Sonera of the National Postal Service. Its shares rose sharply and then collapsed during the IT bubble. “It did not go as smoothly as I had hoped,” he says. ‘I realized how difficult it is to combine the world of politics and business. I should have involved all the partners even more strongly to find a common solution. ”
He then took a breather from politics, in part because of the need to ‘balance work with family and recovery time’, as he puts it. ‘I learned to always have more of the things in your life that give you energy than to take it away. Always make sure you have a reserve to deal with surprises. If you do not have that kind of extra energy, they have [good and bad surprises] will take you. ”
He adopted the state broadcaster and developed his identity as a manager, drawing parallels with his experiences as a hobby trumpeter leading a jazz orchestra. ‘You create something new with a shared melody that everyone knows, but with plenty of room for improvisation. It’s the same in an organization: you need to have some rules that everyone commits themselves to and leaves room to create new things for everyone by listening and connecting. “
He collected a mixture of surveys and personal diaries and interviews of the Finnish public to understand their values and attitudes, revealing how different they were from those of most of his employees. ‘You can have a stereotypical view of things. This led me to really try to understand our citizens as customers. ”
Three questions for Olli-Pekka Heinonen
Who is your leader hero?
The Finnish conductors at a very high level Sakari Oramo, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Susanna Mälkki. I had the pleasure of seeing them in action during rehearsals and concerts. It’s amazing how these on – site professionals can connect, give feedback and get expert musicians to do something together that you want them to do and do it in a way that gives them their best.
What was the first leadership lesson you learned?
I played music from a young age and a very early lesson was when I saw how important inner motivation is for leadership: to create internal motivation for a group of people to achieve something together.
What would you have done if you had not pursued your career in education and politics?
Music would have been something I would have wanted to do, I would also have really enjoyed being an academic researcher. The ability to invent and learn new things strives to find something new and thereby make a difference.
Looking back on his experiences, he questions the idea that leadership focuses on decision-making. “Actual implementation is the strategy, ”he says. ‘The way you can implement things is a very big strategic choice. Teachers will not be obedient because someone says they should. They need to understand why and have the inner motivation for it. We should talk more about the concept of imperfect leadership: recognizing uncertainty and creating learning paths for the larger system to find the solution. ”
The IB system is used today by more than 250,000 students in almost 5,500 schools around the world. It has long sought to educate students in a wide range of subjects with a broader understanding of the theory of knowledge and the use of project and team-based work along with ‘high input’ final written exams.
For many, it reflects the aspirations of many national education reformers to prepare for the challenges of the coming century – although some IB teachers complain that they love the principle of qualification, but are frustrated with the organization behind it and the slow pace of change . Like other exam opportunities, it has been criticized for the way it has changed marking systems during the pandemic.
Heinonen is confident that the IB embodies an approach – also reflected in the Finnish education system – in which “competencies become more central. It’s about what you do with what you know and how to educate for an uncertain future that we do not can not predict.
He sees ‘strong commitment to take the IB heritage into the new era’ by staff and teachers. “It’s not the strategy, it’s the implementation,” he says. “We need to have that bigger jazz band to play and improvise the same tone.”