What kind of leadership is needed in a growth company? A look at Solita’s journey since 2019

Outi Sivonen Chief Human Resources Officer, Solita

Published 19 Sep 2022

Reading time 5 min

Planning for 2023 is already well underway, but somehow, I wanted to look back a bit. When I started at Solita about 3,5 years ago, we were a community of over 800 mainly Finnish Solitans. We had grown rapidly and as an organisation at a point where it was necessary to take a closer look at how and what we lead. I joined right at this point. This is the story of what happened then – and where we are now.

Starting situation 2019: What is leadership at Solita

So, as said, we felt it was important to increase a mutual understanding of the following topics: Where and how do we see leadership? What does it sound like? Who does it? How does it relate to structures? To people? For business? What is communicated, and what is not? By whom? Why and where is management needed in this organisation? In what context is it done and how does it work in practice?

After several iterations, the Solita leadership principles, which were identified in a total of ten, were created.

Once the principles were defined, we had discussions on their meaning in the different teams and metrics were set for their implementation. In addition, they were linked to everything related to leadership, starting with recruitment, and onboarding.

In the same context, we also described the leadership dimensions, i.e. how and in which roles leadership takes place at us. How do we lead ourselves, what do the people lead, or project lead, do? What does leading people in customer work mean for us etc.

Increase understanding to support leadership development

However, we soon noticed that the realisation of the principles requires knowledge and capabilities: how would we know the current situation?

We decided to interview all our people leads (approx. 80 Solitan at that time) and thereby try to understand how they experience their work as leaders. The topics included were:

  • Your everyday life as a people lead;
  • Your strengths and development areas as a people lead;
  • Your expectations for people lead work;
  • Your wellbeing (own ability to cope and perceived resources to do leadership work);
  • Commitment (motivation, desire, and commitment for leadership work).

The interviews brought a great deal of understanding to us, to the developers, to the management and the people leads themselves, about how everyday life is experienced, how we can support with coaching and training, where common practices are needed and what kinds of things can be clarified by just organising work. Interviews and discussions were also precious moments of encounter.

Support for leaders in practice and setting the everyday metrics

Based on the discussions mentioned at the beginning, these interviews (as well as the results of the brief survey we use to measure employee experience) we started to plan how we can better support leaders, and thereby all Solitans.

Various practices were created (for communication, leadership forums, etc.), a training package for handling challenging situations, renewed leadership onboarding path program and a peer group concept for people leads and those in other leadership roles. We also started coaching the leadership team based on principles – on a very practical level.

At the same time, self-leadership and community skills training was added for all Solitans – and much more.

We also set up a few metrics so that it would be easy to track in which direction we are developing:

  • The first measure was that leadership support (the experience of whether I get as much support from my manager as I need) was perceived to be at a good level (on a scale of 0–10, the average at least 8.5).
  • The second measure we set was the uniformity of leadership in all teams.

In addition, we were able to observe what kind of conflict resolution cases emerged from the organisations, and to what extent they were related to leadership work.

Where are we now

Since then, we have grown into a community of more than 1,500 Solitans. We operate in six countries and 500 of us work outside of Finland. There are already well over 40 nationalities. We all do lead ourselves, there are more than 100 people leads, and our practices for leadership onboarding have established themselves as a multi-stage path, including for example coaching, support for everyday tools and handling challenging situations as well as self-leadership and building diversity and inclusion. Various peer groups are constantly ongoing to support leaders in everyday life, as well as the service of an in-house coach and many everyday support networks.

The metrics show excellent results and there is clearly less dispersion in the results than before. For the question of “Do you feel you get the support you need from your manager”, we now get an average of 8.8.

Currently, the focus area of leadership development is leading people in customer work: in projects, in continuous services, and in any variety of customer situations. What kind of support structures and help can we strengthen so that they better support all Solitans in customer work?

What could have been done differently?

Looking back many things have been successful, and we can be satisfied with the results. If I would invest more in something, it would be talking to people. I would ask more and assume less.

When defining the principles, in retrospect, we moved too quickly to the “ready-made principles”, when they could have been iterated several times. I think it would have been important because the discussions increase mutual understanding.

In general, I would stop for a longer time to think with the community, why we need the principles and what they are meant to describe. I would also have tied the definition of principles and leadership development measures more to Solita’s history and expressed the perceived challenges and problems more boldly.

I know that at some point, there will be a moment when we as an organisation must return to the questions: Where and how do we see leadership? What does it sound like? Who does it? How does it relate to structures? To people? For business? What is communicated, and what is not? By whom? Why and where is management needed in this organisation? In what context is it done and how does it work in practice?

Why again? Because the organisation grows and changes all the time, as does the environment in which it operates. If you are not open to questions and reflection, you will no longer see the forest from the trees.

As said: leadership development is a cultural practice – not a single project.

  1. Culture