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Revisiting the Why in Leadership and Change

Per Engström is one of Stora Enso’s GROW Global Trainees, who started their journey in September 2015. The GROW Global Trainee Programme is a unique opportunity to work full time at Stora Enso in a permanent position while attending world-class strategy and leadership modules at IMD Business School. Trainees also engage in real-life transformation projects in the company to support top management. The Programme ends in December 2016, and the next Programme will begin in September 2017.  Read Per's blog post on Revisiting the Why in Leadership and Change below.​
When I think back, I still haven´t received a sound answer from my dad. Why did he always tell me to clean my room on Saturday evenings – from the time I turned 15? Saturday evenings were holy for me back then. I often told him I would just clean my room on Sundays instead, but his message was clear and undeterrable: the whole family had to clean the house together and at exactly the same time. Over and out. I didn't understand. What was it that I would get out of investing my precious Saturday evening-time in that exact task at that exact time?
 
This blog post is dedicated to one word, to such a short and simple word, yet such a powerful one: Why. The word my dad was trying to avoid as much as he could ten years back. The importance of Why has followed me since I started working at Stora Enso as a Sourcing trainee about 4 months ago, and specifically when I meet up with the other trainees. Those are the moments when the Why really comes to life and when our fresh blue eyes start to accumulate as much knowledge as possible. Those are the times when Stora Enso top leaders sometimes make the most contorted facial expressions and start explaining both to us and themselves Why things are actually done the way they are in our company. The Why is not always so simple, neither from the sender nor receiver perspective, yet inviting the Why to discussions is paramount in leadership and change.
 
What I wanted to exemplify with my personal little cleaning-story is that every human has an innate need to feel purpose and meaning. Naturally, absence of Why leads to demotivation and a feeling of being over-controlled. Would you like to clean the house with your family every Saturday evening? Didn't think so. One of my most important takeaways from our first trainee module in Helsinki was that the importance of explaining the Why is paramount in a good leader. The Why is crucial for inspiring action and motivating team members. Think about the best leaders you have ever had. Is the ability of explaining Why a common denominator? For me it certainly is.
 
The Why is also relevant to Stora Enso in another way - we are a company in change. I came to Stora Enso as someone who did not have much of an idea of where we used to be as a company. Yet I noted change in an indirect way: through new structures, processes and tools being implemented all over the company at a fast pace affecting 27000 people. Metaphorically, all employees turned 15 and were told to do things in new ways. Over and over again I heard: Why?
 
Why are we introducing this?
Why do we have to fill this in?
Why do we have to change our existing process?
Why is the organization structure changing in this way?
 
Now, where do I mostly hear these Whys? I mostly hear them in everyday discussions with colleagues, and not very often in formal places where decisions on change are made. Why? Do you remember the times when you were in school and so badly wanted to ask a question but didn't dare to? Personally, I sometimes abstained from putting forward the Why due to two reasons. 1) You didn't want to look like a fool and 2) the Why is sometimes interpreted as "I disagree" and you might suddenly be in a conflict.  You get stuck in a politeness trap, which is very typical for democratic Northern Europeans.
 
One of my most memorable takeaways from our second trainee module at IMD in Lausanne is the importance of the Why in situations of change. It is important in cases of both good and bad yet necessary change, the latter being, for example, divestment and laying people off. By really being able to explain the Why in a structured way, negatively affected employees may still get a sense of justice and a fair trial. If the Why is left out, anger and disappointment will rise and the resistance to change might intensify. A good answer is also worth repeating.
  
I talked to my dad about the cleaning last week, and this time his Why was clear:
"You had changed, turned 15, bought a Vespa and all you wanted to do was hang out with your friends downtown. Son, those Saturday cleaning evenings were holy to us."
 
I, as well as my dad, missed the Why ten years ago, and yes- the conflict became bigger than expected back then.
 
The Why is important for any change management process and for every human being- reclaim the Why. 
 
Per