• Afsheen Ismail-Wey

Authentic Leadership Dialogue: Kirsi LoFrese


A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Kirsi LoFrese, Senior Global HR Leader, as part of my passion project - the Authentic Leadership Dialogues. Below I share our thought provoking and pragmatic discussion that touches on self belief, taking action, helping people connect with the "why" of anything they do and the importance of trust and vulnerability in leadership. We also discussed the current COVID19 pandemic and the opportunity it presents for leaders to learn from this crises.

Kirsi, I’d like to start by learning more about your leadership journey. Can you share some key moments that brought you to where you are now as a leader? What drives me is the fact that I typically don’t say “no.” Early on, I have decided that my life is a journey, so I don’t make firm and long-term plans upfront. I try to make prompt but informed decisions, give life a chance, then enjoy the ride! I believe this is the right approach to grow, learn, have an impact on the world and stay happy. I think you learn a lot about leadership basics during your childhood. I was lucky. I had a modest life, loving parents, and a caring, stimulating environment in which I was raised. I knew I needed to work for what I wanted. They raised my brother and I to believe in ourselves and they always believed in us That kind of belief system is fundamental. People have said that I have a clear view of what is right and wrong and personally, I know that I’m able to stay grounded no matter what situation I’m facing. I developed these traits in my childhood and I’m grateful for that. I also understand what I'm good at, and what I'm not. This allows me to find people who can help me perform at my best and it is perhaps one of my most important skills.

How have you lived your life to achieve your goals and aspirations? I grew up on a farm in the middle of Finland. I always thought big and knew I would do something big with my life. When I was at university, I wanted to go abroad but I didn't have funds to do so. But, there was an internship program at CERN in Switzerland that could give me the opportunity to do so. I knew it was hard to get in – I wasn’t even a physicist – so I had to figure out how to differentiate myself. I printed my CV in ‘cream’ color, thinking that would make it stand out from the hundreds of plain, white applications that would be in the same pile. I was accepted and arrived in Switzerland in 1995. I fell in love with the country and decided that, at some point in my career, I wanted to work and live in Switzerland. When it was time to select which company I would work for as I completed my master’s degree, I chose ABB because it was a popular business in Switzerland. I had the clear goal in mind to work with ABB for about two years – however, I ended up being with ABB for 24! So, my journey has been about knowing what I want and taking action that may sometimes have seemed to be illogical but got me closer to my goals. This is one way I stay authentic – I’m not afraid to state my goals aloud. That’s also how I ended up here in the U.S. – I had expressed my desire to work here together with my leaders.

What is your unique leadership contribution to your organization? I am an engineer and so naturally think about how to solve an issue. But even more I'm always thinking about how to help people understand the issue and the possible solution. How do you get an organization to understand why it needs to change, or help an individual understand why they should change their approach? I’ve found that people need to experience the “why” for themselves – not just through words, but through experiences or simulations. That’s one reason why I have done trainings on different types of experiential learning or simulations over the years and I do believe on those. In addition to this, I always aim to engage people. It started when I first came to Switzerland. My manager believed in me and allowed me to run the show. I knew I needed to pull in the right people together because at that time, I knew so little about IT. I set up virtual meetings (during a time when that was not common). I engaged the team to participate in those calls, had regular project meetings that ultimately created trust. As for me trust and collaboration has always been the basis for any work relationship. The world is so volatile, and we’re facing so many challenges and changes. As a leader, I try to build clarity around the complexity. Clarity comes when you set clear goals, your team builds something together and achieves it. Everybody needs these successes, and to feel that their work is meaningful and something they can take pride in. As a leader, I try to enable that process and give the team the platform to perform at their best. It's fantastic, I love it!

What does the future need from authentic leaders? Leaders need to restore the balance. In modern times, we are “on” 24/7. We have so many areas in which we need to excel. However, we’re also just human beings – superhumans don’t exist. If we always pretend that we are something that we are not – that’s stressful. Success is how honest you are with yourself as a leader, and how you can build teams around you and be authentic within that team. You have to be able to hire people into your team who are more competent than you are at certain things. That requires courage. I also think that the more you seek to speak to be understood, rather than to impress, the better. Finally, on a personal level, leaders need to make sure that every day, week, and moment counts. You can’t be a true leader if you don't feel good about yourself. As they say, ‘put on your oxygen mask first before helping others’. For me also, my kids and husband really help me stay balanced. They ensure I stay grounded.

Vulnerability and courage seem crucial to your leadership style. You can't change other people – you can only change yourself. You have to be able to create an environment in which your team can perform and trusts you, and your team must know that their trust will never be abused. It is incredible what can emerge from teams built on this type of trust. And as a leader, you have to give a lot of yourself in order to develop this type of trust.

Currently, we are operating in unprecedented times. Would you share your advice to leaders in this moment? Unprecedented times also offer opportunities - this can be on the individual level, team level, and global, economic level. We need to look at these situations through that lens as well – what we can learn from them and what we can do in this moment. In earlier times, people went to the factory or went to the office – people knew each other. They were almost like a family. People knew whether their team members had kids or pets. Living and working virtually and globally has removed that kind of connection between people. And now, as we all are home-based, that brings a tremendous opportunity for us as human beings to connect with each other in this virtual environment, and globally. So, I really don't like the word “social distancing” and I learned that the WHO has recommended to avoid this term – they now talk about physical distancing, which is more appropriate. Socially and mentally, we might need each other now more than ever. Leaders should seek to understand how this impacts each and every one of us and how you can support the adjustment of your team members to this new reality. But also, employees have to bring themselves in and contribute in new ways. I let my employees know it’s their responsibility as well to bring their opinions because the leaders can’t do it all by themselves. It’s so complex. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed sometimes. It’s okay to make mistakes. We are all on a learning journey. We are all learning to walk in this new environment. I recently read a memorable article. It said you should put your people first, then provide clear leadership, and then be aware and sensitive to shifting work dynamics. I love this article. It’s 100% what I believe.

Thank you Kirsi for sharing your perspectives and ideas on leadership authenticity – especially relevant to us in these unprecedented times. It has been a pleasure!

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