74. Thomas Luther: Sisu – leading the Finnish way

Sue Stockdale talks to Thomas Luther, CEO of Nevel, a green infrastructure company in Finland. He explains the concept of Sisu – the Finnish way of being and explains in the conversation how he embodies this approach in the way he leads the company.

Thomas was born in Finland and is happy father of five children and married to a wellness and yoga entrepreneur. He believes in wellbeing, positive change, and having a purpose driven career. Graduating in economics and engineering Thomas has been in leadership roles for 25 years in service businesses, logistics and sales, of which seven years were abroad. He believes that be a leader, deep subject knowledge is not a prerequisite. Connect with Thomas on LinkedIn

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This series is supported by Squadcast –the remote recording platform which empowers podcasters by capturing high-quality audio and video conversations. Find out more at https://squadcast.fm 

Key Quotes

‘Sisu can be described as the Finnish way of being – it’s about having guts, being humble, can-do attitude, trusting people and it’s about stamina.’

‘I want to ensure that what I do has an impact.’

‘If can’t find the purpose, how can I lead? How can I make people passionate about it if I don’t believe it in myself.’

‘When you look at companies, first is safety for people. Not only about physical safety. It’s also mental safety. You feel safe at work. You have good colleagues. You have a respectful culture.’

‘I realised I could transform a company from being passive not growing, to one with a happy people culture, which was developing strategically.’

‘My mission has to be to try to make people happy at work.’

‘I had a dream with my wife to combine growth in business and growth as people, because you have to feel well to be successful.’

Thomas Luther transcription

[00:00:00] Sue: Hello, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to episode 74 of access to inspiration podcast. The show where you can gain inspiration from people who may be unlike you. We hope their stories and insights enable you to transcend day to day challenges and to reflect on what you are capable of achieving. Well for regular listeners, you may have noticed we have some new intro music.

Our sound editor Matias sourced it from Miguel and Christian, the founders of a new company, Patagonia Soundtracks that are selling royalty free music. So we hope that you really like it. Now in our last episode, our guest was from Colombia. In this time we head to Northern Europe and to Finland. Thomas Luther is CEO of Nevel a green infrastructure company, and he’s passionate about leading people, their business, and their customers to a more sustainable future. Welcome to the podcast, thomas.

[00:01:10] Thomas: Thank you, Sue. Great to meet you.

[00:01:12] Sue: It’s great to speak to you today. And I know you’re from Finland and maybe some of our listeners haven’t been to Finland. I think you said there is a phrase is it Sisu, that describes being a Fin?

[00:01:24] Thomas: So Sisu it’s S I S U so it’s a word which doesn’t have a direct translation actually, but you could describe it as the Finnish way of being it’s about having guts, being humble, it’s about can do attitude. It’s about trusting people and it’s about stamina. It’s very hard to have, one specific word for it, but that’s a combination of it. And it’s the, I would say the national DNA of us fins.

[00:01:51] Sue: And do you think that that is related to nature in any way? Because it always strikes me that thins are very close to nature.

[00:01:58] Thomas: Yeah, good question. It is. I think that we’re very kind of close to earth to start with coming from the universe downwards. And it’s also very close to nature. I think a typical fin loves the nature in a sense you want to go to the forest? We have a lot of forest. We have another thousand lake as we’re told to have. We actually have, I think 200,000 lakes.

[00:02:18] Sue: That sounds like a lot of mosquitoes in the summer.

[00:02:21] Thomas: Oh yeah. we hope not this summer that bad, but you do have them.

[00:02:25] Sue: And I know that you are particularly interested in sustainability and the environment, and that’s part of your job as a leader.

[00:02:32] Thomas: Yes, it is. I think something changed for, let’s say, five plus years ago. I think it started of what I do want to work with, what I don’t want to work with. I wanted to ensure that, the stuff I do do has an impact. And it’s not something like, I just decided overnight that this has to happen. It’s something that came into me. I couldn’t work for something, which I don’t believe in.

I think that’s something that has changed massively in younger years. It could have been a nice [00:03:00] leadership position, nice money, whatever, but the drivers are different in today’s world. And when I work with what I do today, I, I remember my oldest daughter saying once that when I work with sustainability, dad, finally you do something proper and something good.

So I think that was a good way to think about it and really do genuinely believe in purpose driven stuff. And if I can’t myself find the purpose, how can I lead? And how can I create the story? How can I make people passionate about it? If I don’t believe it in myself.

[00:03:34] Sue: And what do you think was that turning point that changed your thinking into being much more purpose driven?

[00:03:41] Thomas: One could be age, you know, becoming more mature. One could be that I, I think I’ve passed the kind of biggest career aspirations already, and it’s not career driven. And I think it’s the world around us that also makes to change when you see what’s happening.

[00:03:57] Sue: Well, there’s certainly a lot of focus on the environment in the news of late.

[00:04:02] Thomas: Absolutely. And I think if you want to find a purpose driven job, I think the first thing to think about is what are the mega trends of the world. And if you’re working with something, which is the mega trend, then you will for sure find a purpose and you can write your company and people through that.

[00:04:18] Sue: Now you’re the CEO of Nevel what does that company do?

[00:04:22] Thomas: The name comes from next level. So we’re doing next level utility infrastructure. And, what that means we own, operate, develop towards greener a big, it could be heat, steam, water, infrastructure assets. So we own the assets there on our balance sheet, but with our customers, We co-developed them towards greener. So, carbon free of course, big thing is circular economy. So for example, produce heat. We also see what we can do with the residuals. They can become fertilizers to the agriculture industry, for example, where, for example, in one case from poultry residuals, we are creating biogas and so forth. So really looking at the circular economy as well as part of it. And of course, carbon positive in the future.

[00:05:09] Sue: So how does the company measure success? I’m imagining it’s not just financial success, correct?

[00:05:15] Thomas: ESG is actually very top on the agenda. And when I did my CEO interviews, before I joined, I checked and also the main owner and myself, we checked where I align on the ESG. I think that was extremely important because we are coming from an industry where we do combustion today to produce heat. How we move forward and with what technologies was really important in that aspect,

[00:05:39] Sue: just to clarify for the listener, that’s not aware of what ESG is. Tell us what that is.

[00:05:44] Thomas: So, E for environmental is for social and G for governance. So environmental it’s, I think in today’s world, it’s much more than only getting carbon neutral. I think that’s what you have to already have on your agenda. It’s the fundamental and the next [00:06:00] becomes biodiversity, circular economy inside it and so forth and recycling, everything that you reuse redevelop and all of that.

This is the social side. So I think the key things are there when you look at company first is safety for people, and I always want to add, it’s not only about physical safety. It’s about also about mental safety. You feel safe at work. You have good colleagues, you have a respectful cultures and so forth. It’s not only about physical safety in today’s world. The biggest issues in the world are more psychological than.

[00:06:35] Sue: That’s an interesting point that you raise there around creating that psychological safety in a way within a workplace, as a leader, then Thomas, how do you set the tone for that at the top of the organization?

[00:06:47] Thomas: your spot on. I think it comes from a few things. First of course, how do I behave? And even how the board behaves. And then I want to always say that in the end, we are all people, people do most of the work today, and that will be the case in the future as well. And we have to respect each other and it’s not only to be a leader that respects the subordinates in my world.

You know, 80% is positive and 20% is constructive. You have to go with the positive. Otherwise, the culture becomes very depressing, stressful. And in the end, even if you would perform people, can’t take it psychologically. It becomes just too heavy.

[00:07:29] Sue: How does that psychological safety get engendered around the boardroom table? I know these days we’re probably all working virtually, but if you’re having that leadership team conversation, how do. Create that sense of psychological safety.

[00:07:44] Thomas: Excellent question as well. I think you have to have a kind of a leadership promises. What do you promise as a leader, as a leadership team, it could be value based. We promise to listen. We promise to respect and in good and bad times, you know, not all times are good and sometimes you need to do things which are not nice. And also in those cases, you need to respect people. And if they’re not nice conversations. So I think these kind of leadership promises are very important. And then of course, how and what kind of a culture do you set in the meetings you have within the company? Is it about following agendas? Is it about listening to people, letting everybody talk, listening to different perspectives without starting massive arguments? But also understanding it’s not nice and nicely every day. And you might come into debates and you have to get out of debates and find common understanding in the end.

[00:08:39] Sue: I sense a degree of calmness that you’re exuding even in this conversation. Thomas, do you think that that has an impact on your people as well?

[00:08:47] Thomas: Good point. I think he does. And then funny enough, I’m said to be calm, I’m also very energetic, so I don’t know how that goes together. I think it comes from the drive, which is beyond [00:09:00] there, but also being calm and in leadership and leading companies, I don’t believe in this kind of extremely quick actions or sudden task forces of stuff. If you don’t have to, of course, if you don’t run into a serious crisis leadership and leading a company, it’s about taking a long term perspective, understanding it takes time to get. And, but on the same time, having energy and keeping the drive up, I think it’s an interesting mixture.

[00:09:27] Sue: So that question of drive leads me to, to take us back to your early part of your career Thomas. And when you were a young boy there in Finland, thinking about life ahead, what did you aspire to be when you grew up?

[00:09:40] Thomas: I think even when we met Sue first time for 10, 12 years ago, my thinking was I want to become a CEO of a massive listed company. I was very career driven. Yeah. I think that was the case. I thought that the career is not saying that family and friends at first for me and, and nowadays wellbeing, but I think at that time it was really about being a CEO of a massive listed company. For some reason, it was a kind of performance thing, I guess.

[00:10:03] Sue: And was that in your family? Did you have other people that you’d seen go there before you? Or where did that inspiration come from?

[00:10:10] Thomas: Yeah, I think it’s slightly inherited, but also then learning from that, for example, my father, he didn’t want in the end, by the way. Now, when you asked that I never thought about it. He had also, he took a career, but then he decided that stage at some stage that we will, he will just pause there. And stay certain levels. He, he decided then to take the, you know, family first perspective, maybe that’s something actually, which is in back of my mind as well.

[00:10:34] Sue: So as you were then going through your career journey, what have been some of the highlights that you reflect on now that perhaps have shaped the way that you lead today?

[00:10:44] Thomas: Highlights are, I think there’s a few, becuase I always think so positive. I can find highlights in lowlights. And I think one, when I was first time CEO that was in Finland, I think it was really that I could transform a company from being a passive, not growing. Maybe not extremely professionally led, not with a happy people. Culture. I could transform it into growth company, which was developing strategically. And, very importantly, the safety culture got better and the people satisfaction got massively better. I think a lot of my success stories when I’m satisfied myself comes not only from business success, but from people success.

My way of thinking is that people spend a lot of their lives or time of their lives at work. So also my mission has to be, to try to make people happy at work. I think then you do a good job and if people are okay at work or even happy at work, then you’re done a good, you know, social job as well as a leader. That’s how I look at life. Not only the business results

[00:11:49] Sue: sometimes our greatest learnings come from our biggest mistakes or our biggest failures. Thomas, I’m wondering if there are any of those less positive experiences that [00:12:00]you’ve had that you’re now able to reframe and take some important learning from

[00:12:04] Thomas: there are. And I think some of the stuff learnings come from the, the fact that I’ve said a couple of times, that when I was younger, I was overly positive and overly empathetic. So what I’ve learned, not going to specifics. I used to say that I have a empathy pint it was a British pint a big pint and the empathy pint didn’t fill up fast enough. And nowadays it’s more like a schnapps glass. It’s now it’s a bit bigger. It’s a coffee cup, but, That’s my biggest learning that empathy cup has to be smaller because then in leadership roles, you have to react faster. If you see issues, you have to react faster and you have to understand also that it’s a bit brutal to say, but not all people are genuine at work. They can be something different, but they might have different agendas at work. And maybe I was naive or too empathetic when I was younger and didn’t understand those realities. So that’s, I think the biggest learning, how big is your empathy cup?

[00:13:08] Sue: that’s a lovely image you you’ve created for us there. And with that drive with that desire that you have, or had at the outset of your career to make it to the top of lead a company. I’m wondering what are some ways that you’ve stepped out of your own comfort zone in order to get there? You’ve talked about that developing appropriate level of empathy. Are there other ways that you’ve pushed yourself along the way?

[00:13:34] Thomas: Yeah, I think it comes a bit to the same again, it was really in the past of. Tough conversations with people and I’ve had to run also not nice procedures in my career when we’ve had to let a lot of people go and stuff like that out of my comfort zone things really. And I think the other one has been that I was quite, when I was 30 plus years, I had already really big leadership positions. It wasn’t out of my comfort zone, but the environment was typically so that the management team, I was the youngest in the management team, even if I was the leader myself. So it wasn’t like out of comfort zone, but it was something I really thought about. How does this person who is much older than me, much more senior. How do they see me as a leader? It wasn’t that I wouldn’t believe in myself. It was more to really think about the approach, how to approach that person and get the respect and the good working relationship going.

[00:14:34] Sue: So it sounds like it’s the subtlety of communication. That’s important in both of those examples, you’ve given us Thomas. . I see a lot of times people in all levels in organizations avoiding difficult conversations, how have you learned to do that? What sort of tips could you give to our listener? If they were finding it hard to have difficult conversations,

[00:14:56] Thomas: it comes with the word respect a lot. Also in [00:15:00] those communications, when you have that respect, the other person, try to understand their motives, try to understand them as an individual, do your homework. What kind of personality is it? How should they be approached? And I think it’s really about that getting individual in those, in a sense, in a good sense individual, that you understand the person, but also understand the frame where we are working in and you have to understand, Hey, this conversation is not going to be ideal. So I think it’s really the question of respect and preparation

[00:15:30] Sue: growth mindset is also another characteristic that I know has been described about how you show up Thomas. What for you is a growth mindset,

[00:15:40] Thomas: kind of in a sense, a downfall. Or a growth mindset. So it can be in between, but a very short time, then it starts to go down or then it starts to go up. I think it’s like the word says, it’s a mindset, but you have to believe in growth. You have to drive growth. You have to, of course enable growth to people. But I think being in a company. Where you don’t have growth mindset or you don’t look to build growth mindset. It’s not going to keep people motivated either.

And when I say growth, you know, if you go to a blue collar worker who works in a, you know, factor doing a day to day, maybe more simple job. It’s not like they’re gonna be, Hey, we’re a growth company. A, they don’t care about net sales or, or profitability. But I think for them, you need to have to find the ways of how people perceive growth.

What does it mean to them? Which things are important and then reflect based on that. I think it’s naive to think that yes, we talk about growth and we try to address all the people in a big company in the same way. It’s not gonna work. What a leader is interested in growth. The blue collar is not gonna be interested in same things.

[00:16:47] Sue: It strikes me that in the world today, there’s a kind of assumption that growth is good. Is growth ever bad?

[00:16:55] Thomas: I think growth is always good. As long as you understand what the will of the owners is. And as long as. Define growth, what you want it to be, then I think it’s good. I think it’s a good question that you grow in sales. For example, you might grow within your customer position, or you might grow as with your competencies in the company. You might grow strategically. I would maybe say that I think growth is needed when you talk businesses, what type of growth it is. I think that’s the question and that you have to define cos sometimes you are in a business where it’s simply best just to grow financially, the top line growth and some in some businesses where you need to do transformation. So I think it’s not necessarily only financials. I think that’s the point.

[00:17:45] Sue: And if you’re enjoying this episode, you might also want to listen to other leadership. In our back catalog. In episode 8 I spoke to Lauren Vaitkus who is leading the way in the cruise industry. And in episode 28, [00:18:00] I spoke to Vinay Chandra. Who’s an entrepreneur from India and told us all about his relentless optimism. Go on over to access to inspiration.org. And you can listen there or read all the transcriptions. Now back to this episode.

You also mentioned a moment ago about taking a long term view for a business success and having patience in a way that the growth does take time or getting to your goals takes time. What’s your timeline currently for the growth of the business you’re in? Are you looking 20 years ahead is growth three years. What’s your time skill? I

[00:18:39] Thomas: like that question. I think a company should find the right direction for the first. I talk less about strategy. I talk about direction because the world is changing so much in today’s world that I think you can’t define easily a strategy 10 years ahead. This is what we’re going to look like in 10 years. I think that’s unrealistic. We’ve seen what’s happened now last few years, but what I do like instead is that you get the big picture, right? You take the long term vision. Hey, this is about what we wanna look like this. About size of growth. You paint a picture and it’s like a funnel. You see something quite wide and aspirational say 10 years ahead, but then it kind of gets more narrow. The closer we are today, and the actions you take today this year, and maybe next year needs to be quite defined, but they need, need to have a possibility to adapt cuz the world changes as we’ve. It’s a long term vision. Then you take a kind of future back thinking you come back to today’s world and start to think what you need to do today that you achieve kind of that future state gradually.

[00:19:43] Sue: And with short term actions towards the long term vision, when there are demands or pressures from outside parties to change direction or add in additional areas, how do you keep the focus?

[00:19:56] Thomas: I think that’s, if it’s a sudden thing that happens in your surroundings, like COVID was the war that Russia started against Ukraine. I think those are things where you need to then act fast. And even if I said in the start, I don’t believe in task forces or this kind of a rapid changes in these cases I do.

Then you would set up of course, weekly meetings and, and these kind of forums, how to deal with that. But then if we come to the more longer term development, then I think you have to have a structure, a leadership where working and this kind of business rhythm, what you do every year, every month. And then you just need to get that change into that cycle.

[00:20:35] Sue: You bring up an important point, Thomas, around the more recent behavior of your neighbor, country, and the impact that that may have on Finland and where it’s getting its heat and power from. Does that impact your business?

[00:20:48] Thomas: Yeah, I think it impacts more or less all Finnish businesses. Finland is again taking a small store. We were in our, our term successful in the second world war and we kept our [00:21:00] independence. That was a win. But after that, we were obliged to pay to our Eastern neighbor and, and we started to create, build our industry based on that. Actually the Finnish industry started after the second world war and the Finnish success came based on the fact that we had to deliver stuff to, to our Eastern neighbor. Funny enough. And I think that sits in our DNA. We’ve always balanced between the relationships to Russia versus being a very Western developed country, highly digitalized, high technology. And all that. Now it’s changed. You know, we are entering NATO, which is a big thing here. And then also what it does to the companies. We have a lot of companies who are having businesses in, in Russia, and a lot of companies has exited. That business left factories there left big businesses. And I think we’re now seeing this happen, unfortunately. So leading a business can be demanding making these decisions, being aware of what’s happening globally and how that impacts your company.

[00:21:57] Sue: How do you then relax and recover? How do you take time out?

[00:22:00] Thomas: I think again, always seem to come with a story here, but I think something happened when I turned 40 about ish. I think about five plus years ago, I just realized that life is not only about work. And then I took a general guidance to myself that wellbeing is key. I’m not a, you know, single sports guy that I would have a single sport or single aim. I just want to feel well. And wellness comes from friends and it comes from family and physical and mental wellbeing. It’s a combin. I think you can’t just do one thing and say that you are happy of those.

What I do is I’m, lucky to have a yoga teacher as a wife and a wellness teacher. So I do yoga two, three times a week. I’m not very agile, basically. Mentally. Yes. But I do yoga then I do. I want also balancing that I do boxing mountain biking, walking, running, of course, being out on the sea, swimming, ice, diving, many things. I just like to do many things. I don’t have a single way. And it’s more like a, I don’t have really big routines on that. The more important thing is that I do something for myself.

[00:23:15] Sue: And what is the work life balance culture like in Finland?

[00:23:19] Thomas: I think it’s getting better. I think also the, the unfortunate thing COVID, it’s helped a lot. It’s more accepted even if, as a CEO, I could do whatever I want in theory, but it’s also this mental acceptance has changed that, like I told you today, I’m working from distant and from my boat being a British boat, and this is this Monday it’s sunny outside. I will work. I will go out for lunch. In the town to meet my colleagues and back to the boat. And then it’s, I think that’s important thing that you can adapt better in today’s world.

[00:23:53] Sue: Mm-hmm that sounds great. Another point you just made there promise. I’m curious to discuss and help our [00:24:00] listeners learn about the reality of the impact that technology has in Finland. What are your lives like? It just seems that you’re always miles ahead with technology.

[00:24:08] Thomas: Yeah, I think it’s just amazing how digital Finland is. I remember I had to visit the bank half a year ago. I haven’t been to the bank for two, three years. The reason we had to go to a bank physically was that my two, I have five children, but my two oldest daughters, they needed to have a bank account or actually digital IDs.

And, for that, you have to go physically to the bank to show your face. And it felt so annoying, but at then I understood it. You have to do that, cos actually again, the, the bank codes you have in Finland, your personal bank codes there, your digital ID today, you do everything. Digitally government taxes, applications, you name it and you always use your bank codes and ideas. So it’s kind your digital ID and signature. So that’s the reason I had to go to this bank. so maybe it reflects the digital level of Finland and it’s really extremely digitalized.

[00:25:06] Sue: So given that our podcast is called access to inspiration. Thomas, who or what inspires you?

[00:25:12] Thomas: I think I’m inspired about good people who do good stuff. I think it’s a bit a vague statement then I’m inspired about good leaders. Because, like I said earlier, I think good leaders create also happy people in the big context. And that’s important. I’ve never had somebody ask, who do you look up to? Or who do you admire? I don’t really have those people. It’s it could be a bunch of people in different situations like I said,

[00:25:40] Sue: And do you get your inspiration, your learning from reading articles, books, speaking to people, I guess, how do you source that inspiration?

[00:25:50] Thomas: Yeah. I used to read a lot, but that I had a pause on that of some reason, but what I do, I’m very networked to other CEOs and board members. Then also being an active board member in different boards and working at, in advisory roles.

I think that gives a lot of perspective to me. Then I do listen to audio books. I have a single way. It’s networking board memberships being a CEO, going to different courses, different seminars. So I don’t have a, you know, specific dream of doing an MBA for example, which could be great, but it’s not my thing.

[00:26:22] Sue: And just looking ahead into the future, if you were looking 10, 20 years down the line for yourself, we’ve talked about your business. What would be in your vision for your long term? I know it.

[00:26:35] Thomas: So I’ve been always clear that I enjoy working with different companies and different people. So let’s see, I stated here with Sue online, let’s see what happens in LinkedIn in 10 years time. But my aspiration is not to work operationally anymore in maximum 10 years time. So it’s then about board memberships, advisory jobs, maybe some kind of light consultative work [00:27:00]with different companies. I would have a base for that already, but, then also enjoy working operationally still, but that’s my target.

[00:27:08] Sue: And maybe there’ll be a few more advanced yoga pauses that you can do by then as well.

[00:27:12] Thomas: Absolutely. And we’ve even had a dream with my wife to combine this kind of a growth in business and growth as people. You have to do feel well to be successful.

[00:27:23] Sue: Well, I think that’s what you’ve given us today in this conversation, Thomas, a sense of wellbeing from a leadership perspective, what is the combination of financial, social and environmental focus for a leader and perhaps how also your country has shaped how you lead. If, if there was a question that you would want to leave in the listener’s mind to prompt them to think about some of the things you’ve explored today, what would that question be?

[00:27:54] Thomas: If the listener would be a leader, we take that assumption. I would just ask a simple question and challenge. What type of leader do you want to be?

[00:28:04] Sue: Well, there’s a great question for everyone to ponder and reflect upon even those that are not leading other people, but leading themselves.

[00:28:12] Thomas: Absolutely. And I think that’s a good add on, and I think it’s a simple question. But you can put a lot of thought behind that.

[00:28:21] Sue: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Thomas. It’s been great speaking with you. If the listeners want to follow up, is LinkedIn the best way to find you?

[00:28:30] Thomas: That’s the best way to find me? Yes.

[00:28:32] Sue: Well, I hope you enjoy your day on the boat and it’s been lovely to have conversation with you today. Thank you for your time.

[00:28:39] Thomas: Thank you, sue. It’s been a pleasure as always.

[00:28:43] Sue: Well, thanks a lot to Thomas Luther for sharing his insights with. I do think that he embodied the essence of Sisu in what he said. Remember, you can help us out by telling other people about this podcast. We are a not-for-profit venture. So we do rely on your Goodwill and support to help us reach a wider audience around the world. You can find all the episodes on the website, access to inspiration.org or on apple podcasts, Spotify, and many other podcast platforms. Remember, you can also connect with us in. We’re on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Next week, my guest is Adeyanju Olomola from Nigeria who will be here to explain to me what imposter syndrome is and how she overcame it. I hope you can join us then.

Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)
Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)