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Laura Aalto: It means a lot to be seen and heard

In this ‘Walk in My Shoes’ interview, Aalto’s Director of Communications Laura Aalto talks about change management and how her free time is largely intertwined with Alvar and Aino Aalto.
Laura Aalto, photo by Mikko Raskinen.
Photos: Mikko Raskinen, interview: Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne

You started as Communications Director at the beginning of August. What path did you take to Aalto?

I came to Aalto out of curiosity. I saw that I could learn a huge number of new things and also make use of all the knowledge I had accumulated during my career. Another reason why Aalto is interesting is that it is interdisciplinary - you need to know, understand and be interested in many different things. It's rewarding. Coming to Aalto was also very much a value choice for me.

I have worked extensively in communications, marketing and general management in a wide range of organisations. For the last 13 years, I worked for the City of Helsinki, where I lead the production of cultural and leisure services before coming to Aalto. Service management requires the ability to navigate in a complex environment with a wide range of passions, interests and even conflicting views.

I had completely forgotten that I had been involved with the Helsinki University of Technology (the predecessor of Aalto University) in the 1990s. I had just graduated from the University of Helsinki with a master’s degree in philosophy and was teaching art history basics to future architects. I only remembered this after I’d already come to work at Aalto. I also rediscovered the lecture hall where I used to lecture on Mondays.

Back then, I was really nervous about lecturing. I remember how much it meant to have the opportunity to teach. People believed in me as a professional, and I was seen and heard. I succeeded despite being nervous. The great thing about a university or educational organisation is that you see human potential. And this organisation saw my potential.

The great thing about a university or educational organisation is that you see human potential. And this organisation saw my potential.

Laura Aalto

Has Aalto been similar or different to what you expected?

During the long and thorough recruitment process, I built up a good picture of Aalto as a community. But even though I knew how international Aalto was, for example from the figures, it only became apparent in my everyday work. It has surprised me in a positive way.

Can you tell a story about your work?

In November, we had International Aalto event, where we responded to the international community's concerns about government policies, such as the three-month rule. It was great to see how seriously and earnestly the community takes the concerns of international researchers and students.

A hundred of Aalto's international researchers and students were present at the event. The event was hosted by the Provost and was also attended by the Director General of Migri and the Director of Immigration of the City of Espoo. In addition to the presentations and panel discussion, the event was open to open questions. One of the researchers asked a very touching and wonderful question. The question was basically that you always talk about integrating us into the Finnish society, but how are you going to change?

It's not that we just integrate people from elsewhere into our system. We have to genuinely reflect about what the international community gives us and how we ourselves will change. It’s always a two-way street.

Laura Aalto, photo by Mikko Raskinen.

What will you focus on in your work as Communications Director?

I believe that the best things always come together. I want to build closer and stronger collaboration within communications, within the wider university and with external stakeholders. Everyone succeeds better when they get things done together with partners who share the same goals. I want to bring with me a culture of working together.

Communication and marketing never take place in a vacuum but always in the context of the surrounding society. Communication is a bridge builder, a glue between your own bubble and the outside world. We need to put the work we do here in the context of the outside world and be relevant outside our own community.

What inspires you in your encounters with people?

If we don’t know how to work together, the end result is always less than it could have been. I’ve become a leader because I’m interested in people and in managing people. When you get a group of people to do things together, it's more than anyone could achieve on their own. Making a difference in the way people think together is interesting.

Would you like to share a moment of failure in your career and what you learned from it?

I have been in many roles and organisations making change. In the early stages, I made the mistake of going into change with tremendous enthusiasm and excitement. Only a small group of people were committed to the new way of thinking, and the wider organisation didn't follow. Understandably, this led to resistance to change. Change only happened when I could motivate, justify and engage the whole team to work and think differently.

We have to genuinely reflect about what the international community gives us and how we ourselves will change. It’s always a two-way street.

Laura Aalto

What would you like to see develop at Aalto in general?

There are many things that are absolutely great about Aalto! But we could turn our thinking more towards a customer- or user-centric approach. Things are always made for someone, whether they are students, researchers or the surrounding society. It’s important to understand the needs of the end users.

Has Aalto University already had time to change you?

I have learned quite a lot of new things and felt the joy of learning new things. My head buzzes at night. Perhaps the most alien to me was technology, which is the field I’ve had the least contact with in the past. I’ve learned a lot about the mindset of a scientist and a research organisation, the importance of basic research and maybe a little bit about quantum and the Low Temperature Laboratory. I also find myself thinking a lot about topics related to life-wide learning.

How does it feel to walk in your shoes?

In my shoes, you can get involved and see things from many different angles. I feel privileged to be able to look at communication from the perspective of the schools, departments, management and other services. I’m wearing rather busy but interesting shoes, and my calendar is a bit wild.

Culture, in a broad sense, is a way for me to distance myself from things.

Laura Aalto

What do you do in your free time and why is it important to you?

I've been on the boards of a wide range of organisations over the last 10-15 years. It’s been an important entry point to leadership and making change. Board work has been educational and in many cases substantive for me. For example, I’m on the board of the Paimio Sanatorium Foundation, which is trying to save an important architectural site by Alvar and Aino Aalto.

I am also on the board of the joint-stock company of the Museum of Architecture and Design. The current Design Museum and Museum of Architecture will merge at the turn of the year, with the aim of creating a new museum of national importance in the South Harbour. I’ve also been on the boards of the Amos Rex Museum and the HAM Helsinki Art Museum Foundation for a long time, and earlier I was also on the boards of UN Women and Docpoint.

I have contributed a small part of my own expertise to these organisations through my board work. I have a deep interest in culture, art, architecture and design. Culture, in a broad sense, is a way for me to distance myself from things.

I also strive to save the Finnish architectural heritage. We have a small apartment in Sunila in Kotka, an industrial complex designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto in the 1930s, which we have renovated.

If you have experienced ice breaking in Aalto, can you tell a story about that?

I’ve spent a lot of time meeting people with an open and questioning mind. I have been delighted with the way I have been received at Aalto. The ice has been broken many times. I have felt welcome. It is a richness to see things from different angles at Aalto.

And perhaps I have been particularly pleased with how well Aalto's management team has welded together. It feels as though I’ve been at Aalto much longer than I have.

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Walk in my shoes

If you would like to share your story for the Walk in My Shoes series, please contact Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne. Walk in my shoes is part of the Aalto Cultural Development project led by Carita Pihlman.

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Walk in my shoes, illustration by Anna Muchenikova.
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