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Mikko Kosonen: Empathy is needed to communicate across disciplines

In this ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview, Mikko Kosonen, chair of the Aalto University board, says that moving the School of Business from Töölö to Otaniemi was important but also quite a struggle.
Mikko Kosonen, photo by Mikko Kosonen.
Photos: Mikko Kosonen, interview: Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne.

What was your path to becoming the chair of the Aalto University board?

I'm an Aalto alum, so I grew up at the university, but that was ages ago. I graduated with a master’s degree in economics and business administration in 1982, and I worked for Nokia in various roles until 2007. After that, I moved to Sitra, where I was the president until 2020. Throughout my career, I’ve had a close relationship with Aalto University and in particular the School of Business, where I also did my doctoral defence in 1991 while I was working.

What has been most meaningful for you during these eight years?

The most significant topics have been internationalisation, multi-disciplinarity and tight collaboration with companies. Otaniemi is one of Europe’s leading innovation hubs today, and Aalto is one of the most international universities in Europe. During my studies, the university was all Finnish, and collaboration with companies was almost forbidden, even at the School of Business. The change has been enormous, and that’s why Aalto’s social impact has grown significantly.

Aalto also has an international board with a wide range of experience, which allows for quality dialogue and management sparring.

Cooperation between different disciplines isn’t always easy. What do you want to say about that?

It would indeed be easier for the different disciplines to live separately. After all, they almost naturally repel each other. For example, if you think about nuclear physics and art performances, they’re quite different creatures. But thanks to a shared campus and many joint courses, Aalto's different disciplines have found each other, and together we’ve found solutions to many of society's most wicked problems. We already know how to make clothes from wood, and new business models in the circular economy are enabling a much more sustainable future.

This shows how important joint projects on the same campus are, and the combination of skills at Aalto makes it possible to tackle the wicked problems society faces. It’s also been really great to see how value-driven our current students are, even at the School of Business. When I was there as a student, nobody was talking about the sustainability crisis!

For example, if you think about nuclear physics and art performances, they’re quite different creatures.

Mikko Kosonen

Can you tell us a concrete story related to the board’s work?

The board played a key role in getting the School of Arts and Design and the School of Business to move to the same campus. Getting the School of Business to Otaniemi was quite a struggle. In Aalto’s early days, moving from Töölö to Otaniemi didn’t seem like an attractive option to most of the staff and students at the School of Business, and our dean at the time, Ingmar Björkman, had to do a tremendous amount of work to sway the students and especially the faculty.

It was the right choice to implement the board’s decision in stages. Once word spread that the first group to move – the undergraduates – really liked Otaniemi, it became easier to get the rest of the school on board. I don't think anyone wants to go back to Töölö anymore.

What is your main focus as the chair of the board?

I’ve tried to draw attention to cognitive diversity, which refers not only to different people but above all to people who think differently. We have different nationalities and personalities on our board, and that makes the discussion rich and diverse.

We also have fun on the board. Agendas and issues are prepared well, so we can focus on the most important matters in sufficient depth. So far, we’ve always managed to find a consensus without having to vote on anything.

It is also extremely important that the board, the president and the Academic Affairs Committee have clear, complementary roles and all have trust in each other. We also want to have a genuine dialogue with other key stakeholders, such as personnel groups and representatives of the student union.

What would you like to develop further at Aalto?

Internationality, multi-disciplinarity and company collaboration are hallmarks of Aalto, and there’s still a lot of room for improvement. International competition is increasing all the time. The geopolitical situation also strongly influences who we do and don’t cooperate with and on what grounds. We can’t rely on an increase in public funding since security policy and healthcare take an increasing share of the available public financial pot – so we have to increase the share of private funding.

When you disagree or feel defensive, it’s important to really try to hear what the other person is saying. That requires empathy.

Mikko Kosonen

What inspires you about meeting people?

I’m inspired by people who are excited about the future, who are sincere and who want good things. Intelligence alone is not enough. I learned long ago that a person’s eyes say much more than their CV. You can tell if they’re genuinely passionate by the sparkle in their eyes, and when they’re enthusiastic, they’re also motivated to learn new things. That’s the kind of person I like to work with.

You’ve also written about genuine dialogue. What is most essential in genuine dialogue, especially between different disciplines that don’t overlap?

When two different worlds meet, you first have to create a common goal so you have the motivation to find something in common. Then you have to ask the other person what they think and what their experience is like. When you disagree or feel defensive, it’s important to really try to hear what the other person is saying. That requires empathy. If disciplines have different languages, it’s easy to talk past each other. Sticking to your own familiar arguments and facts will get you nowhere.

Debate is a battle of wits to see who wins. Dialogue, on the other hand, is building on each other’s thinking. No one tries to defeat the other. What helps in dialogue is genuine listening, an attempt to understand, and the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. But it’s not easy. For example, I have a tendency to sometimes unintentionally think out loud and get excited and talk too much. Those kinds of habits are where you have to check yourself and find ways to improve your way of working – sometimes in a rather unconventional way.

As the president of Sitra, too often I would ask a question from the head of the table and answer it myself. I wanted to get rid of that bad habit, and I fixed it by appointing my second-in-command to chair the meetings of our management team. I still made the final decisions, but the chair led the discussion and always gave the floor to others before me. This worked well, and most of the time I was only responsible for summing up and sealing the final decision. I learned that a smart management team is many times wiser than me. 

Encouraged by this experience, as soon as I became the chair of the Aalto board I decided that my main task was to prepare the board meetings well enough with the executive management so that I could concentrate on the chair’s duties during the meetings. I’m pleased to say that I’ve made some progress in this role, at least according to the feedback I’ve received.

Photo by Mikko Kosonen.

What’s it like to walk in Mikko Kosonen's shoes?

I’ve always been a passionate sportsman. In the winter I ski a lot, and in the summer I cycle and swim. I also do weightlifting nowadays – it’s important for mobility and muscle strength. I almost love to sweat and masochistically torture myself. It’s a daily lifeline and escape for me. My wife knows very well that I’m a much nicer person after I’ve blown my extra energy doing sports.

But family is most important to me. My wife and I have three lovely grown-up children and a first grandchild born last year, all of whose lives I now enjoy following from the sidelines.

I’m also passionate about reading fiction. I don’t much enjoy reading nonfiction books, even though I’ve written some myself. They’re often boring and too familiar. Fiction teaches you about the world and history in a broader sense. This spring I fell in love with Murakami’s books and read almost all of them back-to-back. And even though I said I don’t read nonfiction, Ville-Juhani Sutinen’s Vaivan arvoista (Worth the Effort) explains why it’s important to read – and to read difficult books. They force you to stop and slow down your clock, and they suck you into another world. It’s a Buddhist experience that is disconnected from the hectic reality of the moment. I recommend that everyone read at least the preface and epilogue of Sutinen’s book.

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Walk in my shoes

Inspired by the saying that you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand them, the ‘Walk in my shoes’ series aims to share some of the experiences, thoughts, perspectives and challenges faced by another Aaltonian.

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