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Leadership made simple

I went to an office sharing event at kontoret and heard a man say things about leadership that I’ve always thought should be common sense at workplaces. Unfortunately, they’re not. But perhaps they will be. The man’s name is Ari Rämö, he’s the managing director of a SICK company (yes, meaning a good one, awarded Great Place to Work for several times), he blogs, and he has just written another book about leadership. I asked to blog his ideas in English in order to promote to the world one of the clever people and ideas we have in Finland. Here’s the interview on leadership 2014 we did by e-mail.

Q: What was the decisive moment in your career that made you interested in appreciative leadership?

A: Well, I wouldn’t call it appreciative leadership. More like appreciating people in every situation. What moment… I guess I’ve always been interested in the subject, and when I started work at SICK Oy in 2004, I decided to summarize my way of leadership for the whole personnel. At that point; I probably didn’t understand the idea in exactly the same way as I do now, so perhaps autumn 2008 would be the time when I worded my thoughts about appreciation for the first time. Of course I’ve always been interested in leading people and in communication.

Q: When did you decide to write a book and how has it been received in Finland?

A: To my recall, I made the decision in autumn 2011, and I started writing in spring 2012. The book has been received really well. To my understanding, a business book is a success in Finland when it sells more than 1000 copies during its lifetime. Mine’s been sold for approximately 2000 copies in 8 months, so I guess we could say it’s been received well. There’s a second edition on the way.

Q: What leadership theories have you learned or been influenced by, and are there any that you’d particularly want to address or reflect upon?

A: I’ve read some leadership theories, and one of the best has definitely been Jim Collins’s Good to Great. There are not that many theories I’ve learned because they always set the same challenge: how to apply the theory into practice amidst the busy lives we live. In general, any theory where the boss works together with their people is close to my heart.

Q: How has your style of leadership been received in your company vs. others?

A: We used to be one of the less known companies in our field in Finland, and since 2008, every year we’ve been among the 3 greatest companies to work in our category of small companies (Great Place to Work). That record is unique in Finland.

Q: Is there a difference in how your ideas are received at employee vs. management level? Do you hear many “yeah, buts”?

A: I’ve visited many companies to talk about the subject, and people have been excited about being able to simplify things. “At last there’s an idea that is immediately applicable to practice” – this is the usual comment I get. I don’t see a difference depending on the level of organization. This challenge concerns everybody, you see, whether in a relationship at work, as a couple or as friends. A narcissist would want others to look in the mirror, not to improve their own behavior. But yes – feedback has been positive on all levels.

“Management’s role is to lead strategically and develop continuously, to create the kind of conditions where people will want to work, and to enable personal success and finding one’s strengths.”

Q: Can an employee promote appreciative leadership or are they automatically labeled to lobby for trade unionism or similar?

A: Sure they can. Most of the success stories are made by working together. I would not want to generalize, however, as it is the boss’s attitude that counts.

Q: Have you been in contact with international organizations to promote your ideas?

A: Not yet, but this is an important topic that should be discussed in English, too.

Q: What is your opinion on middle management in expert organizations?

A: In my opinion, self-management is far more important than managing from the middle. Indeed the role of the management is to lead strategically and develop continuously, to create the kind of conditions where people will want to work, and to enable personal success and finding one’s strengths. People make big decisions in their private lives: they buy a house, get married, have children etc. Why should they not be able to make this kind of decisions at work?

Q: What are the core elements of simple, appreciative style of leadership?

A: Instead of assessment, let’s appreciate each and every employee. Leading by appreciation and respect brings much better results. This starts by greeting everybody equally in the office and applies from companies to families. An example: When you come home and smell the cookies baked by your children, you will not ask about cleaning the kitchen, will you? You will praise them for cooking despite the mess. Accordingly, it is just as important for executives to promote the ideas of the staff above their own. This is bound to bring more results. We all need appreciation and so do the people who work for us. Now, I don’t mean forced appreciation or positive feedback but the tiny things that respect is made of. Human beings form their opinions about others based on small things: saying hello, sharing a smile, listening, accepting ideas, being allowed to participate and influence things. People appreciate a boss who has lunch with everybody, not only the management team. A guru who stops writing e-mails when somebody enters the room. A boss who doesn’t shoot down others’ ideas. A manager who roams around everybody’s desk equally. A director who says: “Oh, but you know best. Decide for yourself”. Leadership is easy when you just think what kind of behavior you would yourself appreciate from others. In order to improve working life, the best thing you can do is to think how you relate to others, in every encounter and communication. Is it better to assess or appreciate? Which method is smarter for the future?

Q: Sounds great. Are you going to write another book or is it all said now?

A: I have plenty left to say. Perhaps my next book could come out in 2015. One of my best incentives is that the company’s turnover has tripled. We can all do much better focusing on achievements, not mistakes.

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