Date published: 03 October 2021
Two childhood inspirations have permeated the varied career and managerial style of Olli-Pekka Heinonen, the sometime Finnish politician, policymaker and public official: education and music.
As he plots out strategy in his new role as director-general of the International Baccalaureate system first launched more than half a century ago, he is drawing on both these influences. He takes over a complex global organisation 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 for a year was a music teacher.” Heinonen, 57, then trained as a lawyer and — at least as he describes it — nearly every step in his professional life has been guided by requests and nudges from others.
He was asked to become a parliamentary adviser, then minister of education at only 29, before he had been elected an MP. Once that had happened, he became minister of transport and telecommunications. From 2002 he spent a decade running Yleisradio, the Finnish state broadcaster, but later rejoined government as state secretary to the prime minister.
The only position for which he ever applied was his last post as director-general of the National Agency for Education in 2016. That put him in charge of a school system held up as a showpiece around the world, judged by benchmarks such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, for its belief in balancing strong academic achievements with life outside school.
“My philosophy is that you should not place your trust in planning things,” Heinonen, says. “There will be surprises and you should just go along with what evolves. The only position I have applied for was at the Agency. I felt it would be a good time to return to the crime scene of the field of education.”
He cites as one of his greatest achievements the period as education minister in the mid to late 1990s, when he granted autonomy to towns, schools and teachers themselves. He stresses the groundwork had been laid over the previous two decades by requiring all teachers to have masters’ degrees. That boosted their competence, embedded a culture of constant pedagogical research and reinforced their high status and respect in society.
Key leadership lessons
- Grant autonomy — in Heinonen’s case, he devolved education decisions to towns and teachers themselves
- Embrace the ‘humble governance’ concept and accept that leaders do not have the right answers
- Leadership is not about one person, it should be spread throughout a corporate or organisational system
- Communication to create trust with staff and stakeholders is crucial
“My approach was to include everybody in the process,” he says. Inspired by his government’s style of “humble governance”, he embraced the idea that “at the top you don’t have the right answers, you have to involve people in co-developing them. Leadership is not about a person, it is a quality that should be spread widely in a system. If you emphasise the role of one person, you are failing.”
He says he learnt humility, but also the need to communicate more. “I’m not by character someone who wants to be in the spotlight. I’ve learned to do that. We Finns sometimes communicate too little. We try to be very precise and leave other things out, but communicating to create trust is central.
“In the beginning, I had the idea that being in a leadership position meant you should look, talk and dress to look like a leader,” he says. “That won’t function. You need to be yourself, the person you are. Authenticity is so important, and the integrity that comes with it.”
“Leadership is not about a person, it is a quality that should be spread widely in a system. If you emphasise the role of one person, you are failing.”
One of his greatest frustrations came as minister of transport and telecommunications, when he struggled during the spin out of Sonera from the National Postal Service. Its shares rose sharply and then collapsed during the IT bubble. “It didn’t go as smoothly as I hoped,” he says. “I realised 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 break from politics, partly reflecting a need to “balance work with family and recovery time”, as he says. “I learnt to always have more of those things in your life that give you energy than take it away. Always make sure you have a reserve to cope with surprises. If you don’t have that kind of spare energy, they [good and bad surprises] will take you.”
He took charge of the state broadcaster, and developed his identity as a manager, drawing parallels with his experiences as a hobbyist trumpeter leading a jazz band. “You create something new with a shared melody that everybody knows but with a lot of room for improvisation. It’s the same in an organisation: you should have a few rules everybody is committed to and leave room to create new things with everyone through listening and connecting.”
He set about collecting a mixture of survey data and personal diaries and interviews from the Finnish public to understand their values and attitudes, which revealed how different they were from those of most of his employees. “You can have a stereotypical view of things. That led me to really try to understand our citizens as customers.”
Three questions for Olli-Pekka Heinonen
Who is your leadership hero?
The very high level Finnish conductors Sakari Oramo, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Susanna Mälkki. I had the pleasure of seeing them in action in rehearsals and in concerts. It’s marvellous how these professionals can create a connection on the spot, give feedback and make expert musicians do something together that you want them to do and do it in a way that they are giving their best.
What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?
I played music from a very young age and a very early lesson was when I saw how important inner motivation is to leadership: being able 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 looked to do, I would also have really enjoyed being an academic researcher. The ability to inquire about and learn about new things, strive to find something new and through that to make a difference.
Looking back on his experiences, he questions the notion that leadership centres on decision making. “Actually implementation is the strategy,” he says. “The way you are able to implement things is a very big strategic choice. Teachers won’t obey because somebody says they must. They have to understand why and have the inner motivation to do so. We should be talking more about the concept of imperfect leadership: to admit uncertainty and create learning paths for the larger system to find the solution.”
The IB system is today used by more than 250,000 students in nearly 5,500 schools around the world. It has long sought to educate students in a wide range of subjects with broader understanding of the theory of knowledge and the use of project and team-based work alongside “high stakes” final written exams.
To many, that reflects the aspirations of many national education reformers to prepare for this century’s challenges — although some IB teachers bemoan that while they love the principle of the qualification, they are frustrated with the organisation behind it and its slow pace of change. Like other exam bodies, it was criticised for how it modified its marking systems during the pandemic.
Heinonen is confident that the IB embodies an approach—also reflected in the Finnish education system—in which “competences are becoming more central. It’s about what you do with what you know and how to educate for an uncertain future we cannot 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 have to have that larger jazz band trying to play the same tone and improvise.”
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