Aalto alum returned to the university bench - 'The discussions held at lectures were amazingly smart and beneficial'

Aalto alum Riikka-Leena Leskelä returned to the school bench to find new directions for her management work. One thing she learned was that she’d been doing exactly the right things all along.
Aallon alumni Riikka-Leena Leskelä seisoo purjevenetaulun edessä. Kuva: Mikko Raskinen
The sea is present in many ways at social welfare and healthcare expert firm Nordic Healthcare Group’s Lauttasaari office. The conference rooms are named after Helsinki islands Kaunissaari, Pihlajasaari, Isosaari and Vallisaari.

About three years ago, Aalto alum, Research Director Riikka-Leena Leskelä realised she was thinking about leadership more than ever before. 

'I need to have a better understanding, on the conceptual level, of the issues involved in leadership,' she pondered at the time. 

Leskelä had been put in charge of her first personal team at Nordic Healthcare Group (NHG), a social welfare and healthcare expert company that provides planning, development and analytics services. Being a leader felt strange and Leskelä didn’t know what else it was supposed to involve other than holding annual development discussions.

The idea of lifelong learning is that people learn new things throughout their life. The workplace and learning at work are the most important learning environments for adults, as it is only at work that a person really finds out what skills are actually needed.  

“The leadership courses taken during my studies weren’t relevant, as I had no contact surface with working life then,” Leskelä says.

In December 2019, a notice posted on the alumni Facebook page connected with Leskelä. Aalto University Magazine was looking to interview someone, who was willing to return to Aalto for further study, for this article. The alum would be allowed to pick whichever course most interested them from Aalto’s selection of supplemental studies.

Leskelä grabbed at the opportunity and signed up. She decided to take two courses: one in leadership skills and the other in qualitative research methods.

Alumni Riikka-Leena Leskelä istuu amfilla ja pitää omaa opiskelijakuvaa kädessään, kuva: Mikko Raskinen
Riikka-Leena Leskelä recalls that the last time she came to the amphitheatre was in 2008, when the Helsinki University of Technology celebrated it’s centenary.

Tech student by chance

Young Riikka-Leena Leskelä had no intention of applying for admission to the Helsinki University of Technology before she visited a high school friend and started a conversation with their mum. The mother in question happened to be a Professor of Industrial Engineering and Management. Without that chance encounter, Leskelä wouldn’t have even known about the existence of the IEM training programme.

'The fact that it was so difficult to get in to study IEM attracted me.'

It was always clear to Leskelä that she would continue her education up to a doctorate, as she was thinking of a professor’s career. Both of her parents have doctorates and have spent their entire professional careers in academia.

Leskelä’s professorship dream was put on ice, however, after she made a crucial observation: IEM, applied mathematics or business science research wasn’t something that motivated her.

'I realised that I’m good at a lot of things and a quick learner. I figured that working as a consultant would make the most out of both my education and my natural abilities.'

Leskelä’s career progressed at NHG, which was a very small outfit employing just a few dozen people in the beginning. Everybody did a little bit of everything, and there was no hierarchy. Over the years, Leskelä was given more responsibility while NHG grew into a firm of more than 100 professionals. Growth made it necessary to also plan and develop the management function.

A leader is present

People often think that leaders are larger-than-life charismatic characters. This was Leskelä’s conception as well. Aalto’s spring semester course, however, presented leadership as a mundane affair that happens amid the hustle and bustle of working as part of people’s daily interactions. Leadership occurs in everyday meetings and encounters on the office corridor just as much as it does in development discussions and feedback systems. And anyone can learn and develop the skills and practices associated with leadership.

The course provided Leskelä with a sense of relief after she realised that she had unknowingly been doing the right things all along.

'I’m now even more careful about sticking to the things I considered important earlier.'

One such thing is to be present. Good leadership often crystallises around this, and its significance is emphasised particularly in remote work. For example, Leskelä has joined a small group made up of some of the younger members of her team. Together, they arrange remote lunches and remote recreational activities. 

'When we were still working at the office, I tried to always be present at team meetings and after-work events. I made sure that other supervisors did so, too. It’s not that complicated.'

During the spring course, Leskelä also realised she had made a surprisingly important move eighteen months ago.

Place matters

At first glance, the open-plan office doesn’t seem so large – until you realise that the room continues behind the corner. This is where some 50 NHG employees do their jobs when they’re not working remotely. Eighteen months ago, Riikka-Leena Leskelä made the conscious decision to also start working in the open-plan office instead of the library room. Moving to the other side of the wall made her easier to approach.

'I work there when I’m not in a meeting. This means I get asked all kinds of questions, which is a good thing.'

And Leskelä will always reply. Should she not know the answer, she’ll tell them who they should contact. 

The insight gained in an Otaniemi lecture hall taught her that, in the final analysis, leadership consists of small, simple acts that have a big impact.

'It doesn’t have to be anything larger than life. For me, it is first and foremost about leading through example, and my approach seems to be working well.'

Riikka-Leena Leskelä toimistossa Lauttasaaressa. Kuva: Mikko Raskinen
Research Director Riikka-Leena Leskelä in the open-plan office to which she made the conscious decision to move. Leskelä handles projects for which she prepared tenders or applications.

Riikka-Leena Leskelä: 'The discussions held at lectures were amazingly smart and beneficial'

The alum kept a diary of her studies at Aalto.

Tuesday 3.3.2020

The morning reveals itself as cloudy. I get to the lecture hall at Otaniemi’s Open Innovation House well before the start of the session. This building didn’t exist when I first started my studies. 

I browsed Aalto’s course catalogue over the Christmas holiday and selected two courses for the spring on subjects in which I felt deeper knowledge would benefit my work. The sixth lecture of the Leading as practice leadership course was about to commence.

Riikka-Leena Leskelä luentosalissa, kuva: Mikko Raskinen

One thought had preoccupied me in advance: what could undergraduate students have to say about leadership? After all, I myself had no experience of the subject when I was their age.

But the lectures have included lots of lively debate of a surprisingly high quality and intelligence. It turns out that quite a few students have leadership experience from, for example, scouting or student organisations.

We prepare for the lectures by reading articles, which are then discussed in small groups. Although I don’t need to have this course marked as completed, I still want to finish all the same assignments as the other students.

Friday 13.3.2020

Aalto University announces it’s moving to remote learning. I wonder what will happen with the Qualitative research methods course that was planned for May?

May 2020

I’m informed that Qualitative research methods will be arranged online via Zoom.

This course meets a real need, as my background is in mathematical modelling, yet my present work has me dealing with research projects that utilise qualitative materials.

June 2020

The course was really good, and a lot of effort had been put into its preparation. In six days, I learned two hundred times more about qualitative research than I had known until then.

I received a comprehensive information package about relevant books and articles that contain good examples.

The course was attended by postgraduate students, and there were so few of us that the Zoom conferences worked well with everyone taking part actively.

Text: Riikka Hopiavaara. Photos: Mikko Raskinen.
This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 27, October 2020.

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