CEO Karin Tenelius: Breaking the "Cycle of Safe"
Leadership in corporations is traditionally thought of as the responsibility of CEOs to push managers to drive profit for shareholder satisfaction. As sustainable practices become increasingly commonplace in the private sector, employee wellbeing, change management, self-selection, and design thinking among other topics take center stage. Karin Tenelius is a leader in creating “workspaces that work for people and bring out the best in them.”
After studying marketing and different non-hierarchical leadership styles, Tenelius founded Tuff Leadership Training to provide training in the skills needed to succeed for managers who wanted to lead in a more collaborative and involved way. Without managers in self-organizing teams, leadership evolves only on an individual level even though the team shares responsibility for the business together. Everyone has to provide leadership to have things work.The eternal question then arises: what is leadership when it is not the manager’s job? How does leadership emerge in a group? What are the leadership skills needed?
Here is an excerpt from Margareta Barchan’s interview with Karin Tenelius:
Karin Tenelius: My mission in life is to make people see that hierarchy is dated and not valid anymore.
I was fairly lost after school. By accident, I was in the service sector for many years and read all the books about service management. They recurrently emphasize that you should empower people and trust them, etc. But I did not see that in reality. I was really shocked to see how little trust there was when I worked in a major training company. That was when I got an interest in marketing, and when studying I found the same theories there.
I became a freelance consultant fairly soon after and developed during that time a management dialogue methodology. I found out that attitude is so important for being able to achieve what you want. My methodology was based on how people find out for themselves what’s important and understand the need for shifting attitude to generate the results they wanted to have.
I had the idea for employee-driven organizations and was given the opportunity to try out radical ideas to turn around troublesome unprofitable businesses successfully. I realized that leading is more about being rather than doing. However, I wanted to spread it even more and formed a company with the purpose to give training and to get a showcase for this. After some years of struggling to get on the market, we worked with large corporate clients but I soon became impatient with the recurring traditional hierarchical structure I witnessed. I wanted to learn more and be more radical. We bought and started a couple of small companies in different sectors and changed them inside out to make the employees in charge. These companies wound up becoming much more profitable. We became experts in handling difficult conversations, conflict management, group development, cooperation and leadership, and shared our knowledge in our training programs for managers.
Margareta Barchan. What you have done for organizational management is ahead of your time. Have you ever thought about this in terms of braveness and courage?
Tenelius: I am a very non-academic person coming from an academic and traditional family. I have always been brave, done things that were not expected. I am still shy among people, but I always did what I thought was the right thing to do. My ideas, my drive, and engagement were behind it. And I remember my parents saying “Oh Karin, not one more of your projects.”
I have no fear walking into toxic workplaces. I have learned so much in life by trying out new concepts and making mistakes. Being ok with trial and error is a form of courage I have developed over the years.
Barchan. Can you tell us about a specific example?
Tenelius: At university, I realized that it was not my path to be an academic. I decided to quit my studies and travel around the world by myself. I broke the cycle of a safe career path that my whole family had adhered to.
Later, I was assigned by a big training company to start a new business with short courses like “learn how to make sushi in one evening”, etc. where people could learn something new in just a couple of hours. This company was completely new, it was right in the center of Stockholm and was marketed in a new way. Unfortunately, we opened just before the worst economic crisis hit Sweden in 1991, and in hindsight, the idea was about 15 or 20 years too early.
My father said that he thought it was crazy at the time, but some years later agreed that it was the right thing to do, that having your own business is something everybody dreamed of. My methodology of non-hierarchical organizations used to be very controversial but is not any longer.
Barchan: Have you faced any dilemmas?
Tenelius: I was exposed to other types of communication. These were so different from the family I come from. I broke with the traditions by divorcing my first husband, and I was scared to tell my mother. In the end, she took the news in a good way.
Barchan: Where do you personally get the courage today?
Tenelius: I have been through a very difficult time in terms of financial security. After getting through that, nothing worries me as much. I am true to myself. My relationship to my word is strong, I don’t give up easily. One of the things we want in the world is to be liked. This is one of the most dangerous things for us and is hindering us from being true to ourselves. I learned not to comply in order to become liked.
Barchan: What was the turning point for you?
Tenelius: It was really when I broke with the traditions of my family, dropped out from university, left Sweden and travelled around the world for a year.
Barchan: Do you think anyone can develop courage?
Tenelius: Yes, by doing things you are really scared of and doing them over and over again. You can overcome your fears and develop courage that way. I don’t think you can teach it, but you can become courageous by doing what you’re terrified to do. That is my definition of courage.
Barchan: Do you have any recommendations for future leaders?
Tenelius: Investigate early what is your mission and take it seriously. We should ask children who they want to be.