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Timo Korkeamäki, Dean of Aalto University School of Business in Finland: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

Timo Korkeamäki

My favorite life lesson is “don’t underestimate yourself”. My second favorite is “don’t overestimate yourself”. I have way overdone those career expectations that I had some 30 years ago, but at the same time, you have to be realistic about what you can and what you have time for. By overcommitting, you are unfair to your community, your family, and yourself.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Timo Korkeamäki -the Dean of Aalto University School of Business in Finland. He didn’t grow up wanting to be an academic, but his curious mind led him onto the career path he is on now. His areas of expertise include corporate finance, financial markets, and financial institution. Over the last few years his research has been published in a number of top tier journals, and he has even published policy-related work for the Finnish Prime Minister.

Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us about your backstory and how you go started?

My story is rather non-linear, in that I did not grow up wanting to be an academic, a professor, let alone a dean. I have been driven by a curious mind, taking advantage of opportunities that have presented themselves along the journey. My academic journey began at Umeå University in Sweden, where I completed equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. During my bachelor’s studies in Sweden, I spent a year in the US on an athletic scholarship, and after my degree, I returned to the US for what was supposed to be a half-year visit and turned out to last 16 years.

I was living in Spokane, Washington, and enrolled in the MBA program of the local Gonzaga University. It was at that point, when I really fell in love with the academic atmosphere and realized how much I had enjoyed for instance doing research on my thesis back in Sweden. So, after the MBA and a year in the business sector, I started my doctoral studies at the University of South Carolina. After four years in the doctoral program, an opportunity to “move back home” opened, as Gonzaga University was recruiting an Assistant Professor in Finance. I ended up spending another seven years in Spokane, before another door opened. Our family moved to Finland, and I started as a Professor of Finance at Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki. Another 11 years at Hanken, progressing from professor to dean of research and department chair, I have now been the dean of Aalto University School of Business since January 1, 2020.

What motivates you?

There are two things that make academic institutions great to me. First, we get to generate new knowledge, and in the process question the existing knowledge. Academic research can be simultaneously creative and structured, and to me, connecting the dots in a new way is very motivating. Secondly, in the academia, we are blessed as we can work with our students, who are the future leaders. Supporting them along their journey is very rewarding, and any experienced teacher probably agrees with me in that the amount of learning that we get from our students is priceless.

In my current role as a dean, I see myself as a cheer leader, helping our faculty excel in doing what they are doing in education, research, and impact work alike. It is wonderful to join them in celebrating their successes.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

No doubt, the most critical role is to be a listener. In academic institutions, we have a highly educated workforce, and their opinions are typically well thought-out and motivated. They are thus well worth listening to. Alignment of deviating opinions can obviously be a challenge, but a clear strategy and a transparent way of implementing it go long ways.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire their team?

There is a delicate balance between providing assurance of “everything is going to be ok” and overdoing the message. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this has been particularly challenging as the common spirit within the community has gone through shifts, while at the same time the normal information channels have not been working very well. We miss all the informal cues that we normally receive along the corridors and around the coffee machines. During the Spring of 2020, I felt a huge need for reassurance in the community, as nobody knew much about how the world would look like next week or next month. Now a year later, everyone seems fed up hearing about the bright future waiting around the corner.

In a bigger picture, our field of business administration is going through big changes, and constant news flow of “robots will do our work” can be demotivating to researchers and teachers in the field. I believe it is important that while we listen to our society and even the latest fads, we stay research-based. Failing to discuss and debate the global transformation of business would be cheating, but going after popular opinions without scrutinizing them would be equally so. I believe that this uncertainty is best cured by reminding both our faculty and our students that the basics of business and how human interaction affects it continue to be well worth studying, now and in the future. In other words, what they are doing is very important.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson is “don’t underestimate yourself”. My second favorite is “don’t overestimate yourself”. I have way overdone those career expectations that I had some 30 years ago, but at the same time, you have to be realistic about what you can and what you have time for. By overcommitting, you are unfair to your community, your family, and yourself.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

We often have a temptation to be overly analytical about the future — especially if we are trained in a university to do it. In real life, the future is unknown, and for instance, we can look around ourselves today and any direction we look at, we see a huge number of very important issues that hardly anyone could have foreseen five or ten years ago. A leader can prepare herself for the future by being informed and educated. Strong knowledge-background, paired with good listening skills, allows one to be agile when the world throws surprises at us.

If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?

I think I would tell him my life lesson quotes above. Also, something that I often tell my students is, “do not get pressured by the need of immediate progression and success”. If you don’t have a job waiting when you graduate, don’t panic. Sometimes it takes time before you get the payoff for your efforts, but quite often that payoff comes to the person who persistently works to move forward in life.

What are your hopes for the future and for Aalto University School of Business?

Personally, I am very happy and excited to be where I am at. I get to work daily with researchers and teachers who are moving the knowledge frontier forward, and with bright students who will take our world forward. For Aalto University School of Business, my hope is that we can further improve as a conduit between knowledge creation and learning, and the society in Finland, Europe, and the world. The world has a lot to learn from the Nordic model that combines strong education, business, and societal welfare. I see our school playing an important role in spreading that good message to the world.

Thank you so much! We wish you continued success

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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