I have been very fortunate to have met some very talented and inspiring women in my career. Suvi Nenonen is no exception – currently, the tour de force behind the MBA program at the University of Auckland, Suvi has trailblazed a path for young women everywhere.
Suvi was my professor for Strategy in Q4 last year, and I loved every minute of it – her previously stint as a strategy consultant, her cute Finnish mannerisms and high-octane in-class exams made for a very engaging quarter.
In honour of International Women’s Day, I interview Suvi on her many successes, what’s coming up for her next year, and how she thinks we can strive for #BalanceforBetter.
Name: Suvi Nenonen
Occupation: Professor, Director of the Graduate School of Management, University of Auckland.
The University of Auckland launched a redesigned MBA in 2019. As well as being Director of the Graduate School of Management, Suvi teaches on Approaches to Growth on the University of Auckland’s MBA programme.
What did you study and what was your intended career path?
I wanted to be a vet, so during high school, I studied physics, biology and chemistry – all hard sciences (STEM subjects). Then I thought, perhaps not a vet, but a scientist. I thought I was going to be the woman to crack the Human Genome – which was the rage when I was at high school! Then when I was 18, I had my first quarter-life crisis and escaped to London for a year to “figure out what I wanted to do”.
It was in London where I landed on some sort of “corporate career”. Although my mother had a very successful corporate career, I had previously written that off as dull.
So I managed to get two university placements; Law at the University of Durham and the Helsinki School of Economics (now called Aalto University School of Business). My father convinced me to stay in Helsinki as my mother had died two years prior.
In Helsinki, I studied International Business, Finance and Quantitative methods and graduated on the Dean’s list. I was adamant that I wanted to become a Management Consultant because “I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up”. Back then I was under the impression that people do know!
Give us a brief background on your career to date:
My first job after graduating was as a junior management consultant at a large Nordic consulting firm. During my time there I was able to work my way up to partner.
During this time, I did my PhD as a “hobby”. Back then I wasn’t in a relationship, so I had time – everybody needs a weird hobby and mine happened to be academic research! In Finland, academic education is valued highly and a PhD is an asset for a management consultant – especially if you’re a young female. When I became a partner, I was only 30, half the age of our clients and the other partners, so educating myself was important.
At some point, I got into a relationship with a fellow academic, Kaj, who came to New Zealand first for six months as a visiting professor, but he liked it so much he stayed! Meanwhile, the other five partners and I were working towards selling the consulting company. This took a while, and after the deal was signed, I had to stay there for six months.
The long-distance relationship was challenging, as you’re always mentally in a different space. When one is having breakfast and getting ready for work, the other is relaxing and the other way around – never actually intellectually engaging with your partner. So, I decided to also move to New Zealand and take up a role at the University of Auckland – where it turns out a PhD was actually useful, as the University cannot hire you without a PhD!
My weird hobby after my PhD continued as I began researching and writing articles, so my weird hobby turned into a full-time job when I came here.
When I came here in April 2012, I was sick as a dog with pneumonia and had to give a seminar presentation, which turned out to be a job interview – which I didn’t know about. Somehow, I coughed my way through it and must have said something clever as they hired me! This was six years ago, so this is my second career.
Wow, that’s so interesting – so when did you become a director?
That was two years ago. The Graduate School of Management used to be a virtual organisation until 2013. It was comprised of people from other parts of the Business S
The first Director was the former Deputy Dean, Jilnaught Wong, who did an outstanding job at setting things up. Then there was an interim solution, our current Dean, Janye Godfrey, who was here for a year or as a ‘hired gun’. Kevin Lowe took over before going back to his research. Then there was me!
I still remember very vividly how I got the job. When there is a new head of
However, the next day, the Dean calls me and says “actually, I’ve been thinking that you should become the new director”. I was pretty shocked!
As I hadn’t thought about this possibility, I asked for at least 48 hours so I could think about it – this role would mean a significant change in our lifestyle. The normal academic job has a lot of freedom to balance your research and teaching. The new position would involve being responsible for over $20 million and a 100-people operation.
So when Kaj was supportive, I thought “ok it’s a genuine learning opportunity – what’s the worst that could happen? Let’s give this a shot!”
You become Director at 38. What was it like joining the university as a young female?
The university as a whole is quite balanced – they hire roughly 50/50 male and female, so it didn’t feel odd. It also didn’t feel strange to be a Finn because the University of Auckland is extremely international – I think that we cover all the continents except Antarctica! So, it was super easy to come here from all gender, age and nationality perspectives.
I did find the enormity of the University quite different from the small entrepreneurial environments I had previously been in. I think that if I were to go back to consulting, I would be a much better consultant now because now I genuinely emotionally understand what they will be going through when they’re trying to change their large organisations. Previously, I cognitively knew but had never experienced what it was like to try and change 40,000 people at the same time.
Surely becoming Director doesn’t just happen accidentally, what are some things you did to make this happen?
I am very comfortable being led, but also happy to lead if nobody else is willing to take responsibility. As in this case, it was a critical job to be done, and I thought ‘F-it, I can do it!”
This is how I approach many challenges.
I’ve never been about ego, and my self-esteem is not linked to my title or how much money I get. So I exist as Suvi, those issues non-withstanding,
How do you take on such a big job like that? Did you have support? Did you do research?
Well, it helped that as a consultant I had already led teams and that I was responsible for a profit and loss – even if it was a much smaller operation. From 10 people to almost 100!
I knew that I could lead, so it wasn’t like a muscle that I hadn’t used before – it was just on a larger scale and larger organisational context.
The University was also very supportive. For example, I was immediately put through a leadership program. Although I already knew about leadership and strategy, it was a fantastic opportunity to learn about the process of the University and to also create networks in the other parts of the University.
I also work with two professional mentors to help me to reflect my practice. Much like the topics related to the MBA Strategic Management discussed in class – e.g. how you could be constantly mindful so that you can nudge your organisational culture in the right direction? I still haven’t cracked that code – I am learning every day!
Do you think there is a perfect leader who is perfect all the time and always a box of fluffies? Or is a good leader someone who creates a good culture that propels itself?
My approach to leadership is to make myself completely redundant! I want people to feel that there are certain processes in place so that they don’t have to worry about the basics so that they can do their job. My job is mainly to eliminate problems so that they can be brilliant in what they do – such as brilliant teachers and brilliant researchers.
How are you adapting the new MBA in the future to combat digital disruption and make sure the University of Auckland stays relevant?
An excellent question. Feedback from engagement surveys still come back saying that face-to-face networking is still of enormous value, which is harder to achieve through a purely online course. The University of Auckland has a great range of teachers, professors and experts in their field, which is a great asset and is heightened by continuous research and the adoption of best practices.
Technology is improving, and we are working on the best way to utilise that, which will support us in continuing to deliver an excellent educational experience.
Younger demographics coming into universities now, and in the future, have a very different approach to networking and engaging with big institutions, so it may be a bit different in the future.
There is an enormous risk of some skills like accounting and law being replaced by software and AI, how do you counter that? Do you shift the emphasis to dialling up leadership and EQ?
Definitely. The technical skills, like whether you can balance the books, are relatively easy for artificial intelligence to do. The ethical framing, deciding appropriate behaviour, motivating people, creativity, critical thinking, leadership etc. which Alexa can’t help with, are the things that are going to be raised to a much higher role in the new curriculum.
Moving back to women in leadership, are you seeing more women signing up for an MBA?
This topic is interesting – a couple of years ago our student gender split 50/50. The split has come back to about 1/3 female 2/3 male. I don’t know why it’s like that in New Zealand – it is not the same in all geographies – for example in Europe a lot of the time it is more female.
What do you think about women and leadership in general, do you think that’s changed in the senior positions over the last few years?
I think so. It is funny, before this discussion I was reflecting that on what I have experienced personally. I was surprised to conclude that I haven’t thought about it a lot [the difficulties of being a female leader] – and it may very well be that I had a role model at home. My mother had a “flashier” career than my dad. She had a very successful business career, so I always knew that a woman could go into business and to be a leader – it was normal!
When I started as a management consultant, I was aware for a brief period of my gender. During the first year, I didn’t ever wear my hair down; it was always in a ponytail. I never wore a skirt or dress; always trousers. Then I suddenly thought “this is silly! Who am I fooling? They can probably see that I’m a girl, regardless of what I am wearing”. So, I decided I was going to wear the kind of clothes that I wanted.
I then realised, that as a management consultant, this was actually an asset to be a woman. At that point most of my colleagues and client were male – they did remember me by name because they were so few women! It only usually took 5 minutes of conversation for them to realise “she knows something!” and then gender didn’t mean anything. They were buying a service and didn’t care whether you are a girl, black or white or chequered, as long as you can do the job that they hired you to do.
It is mostly to do with context. On the one hand, I had a strong female role model at home. I also come from a country that is very egalitarian, and females are very emancipated. I have also been very fortunate that the consulting company I worked for had a deliberate policy to try and keep the gender balance 50/50 and allowing females lots of opportunities, for example, preventing roadblocks when trying to start their families and still allowing career progression.
Additionally, at the University of Auckland, if you go online and check the management team of the Business School, it is predominately female at the moment! The Dean, all the Associate Deans and most of the heads of department are female.
But I wouldn’t make that into a bigger issue than it is, because I think that in many instances, at least with many people, the perception that they have the ‘wrong discipline’, ‘wrong age” or ‘wrong race’ may often only exist in their own heads, nowhere else.
However, if you are operating in a company that is sexist, racist or other ‘ist’ – leave. I wouldn’t waste your golden years working in an organisation that does not value your contributions. Search for excellence somewhere else.
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
I was quite good at school and uni (graduated on Dean’s list, etc.), and during my final year, I had several exciting conversations with the large consulting companies about starting my working career with them. However, I graduated in December 2001: a couple of months after the dot-com bubble had burst, and the Finnish economy went through a rather severe recession (9/11 didn’t help either…).
So, not surprisingly, none of those companies who were interested in me in 2001, were able to recruit in January 2002. It took me almost a year to find a job that matched my qualifications. That year taught me a thing or two about humility, luck and the importance of timing!
Additionally, something I have worked to overcome is that I’m incredibly introverted. I remember the first time I have to stand up as a consultant and explain our analysis to a large group of clients. I was so scared! And… it probably showed from miles away. I thought “oh my god, oh my god I’m going faint, I’m going to vomit!” Everyone in the room was trying to be supportive and egging me on, and I thought “this is pathetic – I can do better than this – I am going to become a confident speaker – I don’t care how long it takes, but I won’t be condescended to anymore!” That was something that I had to work deliberately on just to overcome. Social skills are skills, and it has absolutely nothing to do with your disposition. It just means that how you recharge, is different. So, after days like this, I can’t talk to anybody, not even my husband!
How did you overcome your fear of speaking?
I was surrounded by people who were extremely skilled presenters. All of my colleagues were very good, so I just worked with everybody I could. I took notes as I watched, asked for tips and feedback. I made sure that every chance there was I would present something. The bigger the audience, the better. Then at some point, you get over it! But that took several years.
What have been some of your highlights?
- These are usually related to people or helping the people that I work with. For example, when a PhD student finds his or her ‘research voice’ and beats me in a conversion or is cleverer than me in a topic that she is researching. That is a ‘yes’ moment that matters!
- A 2007-2008 consortium research project that I ran with my colleagues at our consulting company on “Market Exploration and Entry”. That project got me excited about market-shaping strategies (still my research focus), and the book that Kaj and I wrote about the results
wonthe 2009-2010 best business book in Finland award.
- Being awarded the Marsden grant in 2013 (with Kaj) to study market-shaping strategies in detail was also a big deal; without that, it is uncertain whether I would have remained in academia and/or NZ.
- When I was voted the Teacher of the Year by the students of my alma mater, Hanken School of Economics. Unlike here in NZ, where you have to apply for university awards, in Finland, these awards are decided by the students.
- From my consulting days, it would be easy to name-drop big organisations and ‘strategy this’ and ‘strategy that’. But at the end of the day, the brightest highlights were those moments when the younger members of my team were able to solve problems that I couldn’t.
What’s next for you?
My position here is planned to finish at the end of 2019. So, 2020 is going to be my research year. While I have been able to complete some projects, I haven’t had time to start anything new. For example, I would LOVE to put together a tool kit that I have developed with Kaj about market-shaping so that companies can change their operating environment for increased sustainability. If you can shape the markets to become more profitable or grow faster, why couldn’t you use the same dynamics to make them also sustainable? To me, that would be something that would be a worthwhile cause. In my book, that’s probably the biggest problem we’re facing in our generation.
How do you define success?
It’s about making a positive impact on society. That’s one of the reasons why I’m working at the University. It’s very worthwhile if you can help people to become better leaders, better managers and better themselves. Now and then there’s a piece of research (probably not coming from my pen – but hopefully some of my colleagues), that actually makes a difference. I define success in making a positive impact on the wider world.
What would you say to your 21-year-old self?
When it comes to your personal development, although your relationships are important, it is important to invest in yourself.
As I said, I was quite good at school and got an offer to do a dual degree on a full scholarship. The opportunity meant that I got to go to America, do an MBA and then graduate with both an MBA and a Masters in Economic Sciences at the same time. But … at the time I was in a relationship (which didn’t last!), and I didn’t want to leave him for a year! How pathetic! I was furious at myself. In the end, it was probably a good thing because perhaps after that I wouldn’t have done my PhD and ended up where I am today, so I’m not bitter, but think that was stupid!
What person dead or alive would you invite to a dinner party and why?
Angela Merkel and Margaret Atwood. Wise and brave women from somewhat different walks of life; definitely an evening of stimulating conversations!