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Human-centric leadership through the eyes of Juulia Laakso

Frame 59 (2) By Daria Loi, Ph.D. - March 29, 2023

In the report Empowering women entrepreneurs in developing countries, Eyerusalem Siba reviews emerging evidence to highlight that “current women’s economic empowerment interventions are not enough to overcome all obstacles facing female entrepreneurs.” Women entrepreneurs in emerging economies frequently face a number of “inherently different constraints” from their male counterparts – from limited “access to financial and human capital” (hence impediment to business growth) to “culturally-imposed constraints” (hence barrier to “independence, aspiration, and priorities”). Because of the many constraints they face, the author discusses how women entrepreneurs in emerging economies depend on acquired skills, innate traits and whatever support they may receive from institutions and stakeholders to “address or work around these major constraints.”

Despite these ongoing challenges, research however shows that gender equality is not only a “core development objective in its own right,” but it is also “smart economics” as it enhances economic productivity, while improving development outcomes that will impact the next generation and ensuring that institutions and policies are more representative (World Bank, World Development Report: Gender Equality and Development, 2012).

There are many reports and excellent accounts of what needs to be done to shift the landscape so women entrepreneurs across the globe can be and are allowed to thrive – and there are equally numerous reports and accounts of what to do in the context of emerging economies. That said, in this blog I will not focus on what should happen and how - I instead spotlight an example of great work in progress. 

I recently interviewed Juulia Laakso, Partner & CEO at Tramigo Africa, to learn more about her leadership journey. Tramigo, technology leader in the vehicle tracking and fleet management industry, started in the tracking business and lately expanded in the IoT connectivity space. The company’s home markets include Asia, Latin-America, Middle-East and Sub-Saharan Africa. 



I originally planned for this blog to feature Tramigo Africa’s story from the specific angle of how it is “empowering women entrepreneurs in African countries.” However, after spending quality time with Juulia Laakso it became clear that the story I should and wish to share is, in her own words, “bigger than that.”

This is a story about creating and nurturing an organizational culture where all can equally thrive, while (and hence) enabling the company’s success. It is a story about human-centric leadership and the woman at the core of what such leadership is, can and will bring to African regions. It is also a story which rejects the notion of women empowerment – a story asserting that women are not only very capable humans but also not in need of any rescue operation (to save them from alleged weaknesses or shortcomings) and in charge of their destiny (which includes leaving organizations that do not offer an environment where they can thrive).  As Cindy Gallop puts it: Don’t empower me. Pay me.

“We (Tramigo) have the market presence. We have done historical sales in over 40 African countries, and we're gathering a lot of mobility data that nobody in Africa today is gathering because they don't have the tools that we have” shared Juulia, before introducing her leadership approach: “but the missing piece is people”.

The missing piece is people

In his book Why Startups Fail: A New Roadmap for Entrepreneurial Success, Prof. Eisenmann identified six patterns of startup failure. The first one, the so-called Good Idea, Bad Bedfellows, is about how entrepreneurs “sometimes identify an attractive opportunity but fail to mobilize the resources needed to capitalize upon it.” Some of the key deficiencies Eisenmann discusses focus on “poor founder fit” – from cofounders’ conflict or lack of relevant experience to team members’ shortcomings, low value-added by investors, and “lack of alignment between the venture’s priorities and those of strategic partners.” In non-startup contexts, extensive literature documents how a company’s leadership and human capital are similarly and directly connected to its ability to succeed, thrive, scale and maintain its relevance. The existence of so many courses, specializations, degrees and books to teach leadership and coach leaders is not a coincidence.

Turns out that the missing piece is indeed people and, despite books, debates and training, it is astonishing how frequently such a key aspect is ignored, underestimated, or underinvested.

In a prior blog focused on diversity and innovation, I discussed the importance of intersectionality and its key role in a company’s ability to innovate and thrive – this is one of the reasons why listening to Juulia Laakso’s vision, goals, and directions for Tramigo Africa excited me: as she articulated with clarity and conviction what true leadership should be about and the key role of intersectionality in a company’s success. 

When I asked her about women empowerment, she shared: “it's more like human empowerment (...) we want to hold each other accountable (...) we're human beings, we all come from different kind of backgrounds, we are different age, different gender, different religions, we are trying to build something really beautiful, unique, a diverse team, so we need to get along and that's why to me it's not about female empowerment, it's more about how to create psychological safety (...) to be able to communicate what we dream about, what motivates us, what we need to thrive.”

Prof. Amy Edmondson (author of The Fearless Organization) coined the term team psychological safety to indicate the phenomena that occurs when members of a team hold a shared belief that it’s OK to take risks, express ideas, voice concerns, speak up, and admit mistakes – without fear of negative consequences. In a recent HBR article by Amy Gallo, Prof. Edmonton beautifully summarized her psychological safety concept as “it’s felt permission for candor.” 

Edmonton’s PhD research first and study at Google then (known as Project Aristotle) concluded that who is on a team matters less than how the team works together and that the most important factor in all that is psychological safety – crucial due its impact on a team’s innovation, creativity, performance, resilience, and learning.

“What is the motivation, dream, all the good stuff... where does that come from? It comes from the ability to allow yourself to feel vulnerable, just being yourself” – shared Laakso – “so yeah, we do empower women. We do try to support them, but I also try to support the men. I try to support all of us.” 

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Since the company started to talk openly about the culture that Juulia Laakso is championing, they are attracting really interesting talent, including her most recent hire: their new CFO. “She's a 31-year-old Kenyan lady. She's amazing (...) We can talk about the good, the bad, the ugly. We talk about emotions. We talk about how we want to feel.” As we deepened our discussion, she adds: “Let's be honest, I want to be somewhere where I can be authentically Juulia, I want to be with people with whom I can feel safe enough to be vulnerable.” 

As Laakso speaks I recognize the sparkle – the sparkle in the eyes of candid, empathetic, comfortable-in-their-skin leaders. These are leaders with high emotional intelligence (EQ) and skilled at embracing vulnerability as they know that it is a necessary condition for trust and belonging – aspects that play a crucial role in an organization’s success and growth.

In her article The Best Leaders Aren’t Afraid to Be Vulnerable, Janice Omadeke talks about vulnerability’s historically negative reputation, a “stubborn stereotype” that dominated the workplace for generations and has been fueled by toxic masculinity. As the CEO and founder of the Mentor Method highlights, while “the idea of showing emotion on the job was viewed as inappropriate at best, and at worst, mortifying,” in recent years the ability for leaders (regardless of their gender) to role model vulnerability “has not just grown culturally acceptable, but in many cases, it’s welcomed and encouraged.”  Juulia is undoubtedly part of a global leadership movement where EQ and vulnerability are not only welcomed, but also encouraged, expected and foundational to their organizational culture. 

As she continues sharing her views, dreams and passions, I am increasingly intrigued by and, frankly, in awe of Tramigo Africa’s CEO. What is at the heart of her drive and fearless focus? Which parts of her life journey contributed to the Juulia in front of me today? As I listened to her life story, I formed the understanding that her leadership’s vision, conviction and focus may all stem from one crucial activity: her ongoing efforts and focus to understand, accept and respect her true self – and the ability to learn and grow through that learning. 

As I discussed in a prior publication focused on senior women in tech leadership, the ability to be your true self while role modeling kindness, compassion, empathy, focus and being able to grow “thanks to and with others” are (among others) important leadership traits. These are particularly so for women that operate in male-dominated sectors, as they often experience a push or are frequently tempted to fit in and conform, compromising their identity and true nature. 

Yet, these traits are rarely innate and require ongoing focus, introspection, humility, compassion, reflective practice, self-awareness and self-care. Juulia for example talked about the confidence she built and continues to grow to lead others with conviction; her efforts to unlearn her own trauma as a woman; her selfcare steps to acknowledge and accept that if anyone tries to put her down “using her female character against me”, that action “doesn't tell anything about me”; and her compassion for those that push women down, because it may mean that “they are suffering a lot.”

All that said, a leader has a responsibility to lead and such a responsibility asks for focus, courage and strength to be decisive, unambiguous and transparent when a situation requires immediate action. For Juulia – as for all leaders with high EQ and driving a human-centric organization where core values are never sacrificed – this also means not only hiring and attracting the right people but also removing those that are not willing or capable to be part of the change and culture she created for her organization. But even in cases where a hard decision must be executed, human-centric leaders do not shy away from it, and instead embrace the discomfort to strengthen core values while making space for emotions to emerge, hard questions to be asked and learning to be co-created. 

Juulia for example shared with me of a time when she had to lay off someone because, despite being “the most skilled, with the most knowledge,” they could not embrace the human-centric culture she  is building into her organization. She explains: “my job is to support everyone, but then of course, my job is also to put boundaries and hold people accountable. First of all, myself. So when I see people who are just not our team members and even when they try, they're not able (...) I have to have tough conversations.” 

What was her next step after the cut? Have a transparent, open, group conversation – “let's talk about this and let's try to figure it out, together” to “promote a culture of openness and transparency.” She invited the entire team to her place, ordered a meal to share and then embraced the discomfort, opening herself to her team. “Please ask me everything or anything you want to know, so you do not go back home with gaps in your brain (...) let me try to fill those gaps.” The result? Shared clarity and removal of all doubts, fears and ambiguities, alongside the realization that their leader genuinely cares and will never compromise the foundational values of the company. 

Ultimately, Laakso embraced the situation to strengthen her organization. She could do that so skillfully as she deeply understands the ways in which our brain works. “I'm a brain-based coach and learned about the biological shortcomings of the brain,” she often asks, “are we driving ourselves towards the threat state or the reward state? Once we slip to the threat state, it's really difficult to find innovation, creativity, real connection, authenticity.”

Neuroscientists study the structure and function of the human brain and nervous system to understand its relations and impact on behavior and cognitive functions (valuable information on this topic available through the Society for Neuroscience). The Neuroleadership Institute that Juulia referred to pioneered work that applies neuroscience principles to workplace and leadership – as soon as she mentioned this training yet another piece of her puzzle fit in its beautiful place. 

I had the opportunity to directly experience basic neuroleadership training years back and I found the learning game-changing, especially in terms of self-discovery and self-care. One thing I recall during that time is how unburdened I felt after learning about the science behind my own emotions in toxic workplaces or in environments where my authentic self could not thrive. I finally had a way to name things and practical instruments to observe, acknowledge, reflect, and move forward – without denying my identity and comfortable speaking my truth.

Juulia’s reflections on authenticity are disarmingly contagious as they tell the story of a leader that learned to let go of her burden and that, daily, works to become a better version of her authentic self. While reflecting on her relationship with Arto Tiitinen (Founder & Group CEO, Tramigo), she for instance shared: “what we learned together was that we're going to talk about everything super openly. We're not going to sweep anything under the carpet, even if it's difficult things (...) We learned it's really important to always stick to the truth and speak up.” 

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Later in our conversation she shared that it is easier to embrace feedback when we “teach our mind to start looking for the five things we learned” and has no hesitation in admitting that “even as a leader, I make mistakes. (...) But if we focus on those learnings, it's much easier to get out of that state when you are judgmental to yourself.”  Her focus is on facing the truth, acknowledging her emotions and telling herself “let me help myself out of this rabbit hole (...) what did we learn?”

Years ago, thanks to a collaboration led by the Fetzer Institute, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Richard J. Davison and visit his Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Davidson, known for his groundbreaking work focused on emotion and the brain, is leading inspirational and cutting edge work to develop tools and techniques to cultivate and measure wellbeing. Based on decades of research, the institute identified four areas that contribute to well-being – areas that are “trainable and measurable in the lab: awareness, connection, insight and purpose”. 

When Juulia Laakso shared that we can “teach our mind to start looking for the five things we learned,” she is articulating what decades of research have demonstrated: the neuroplastic nature of our own brains. Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change through growth and reorganization in response to experience, is something that Dr. Richardson has documented through numerous experiments (including well-known ones in collaboration with the Dalai Lama, focused on the effects of meditation on the brain), with results indicating that the brain is fundamentally trainable. Not only do our brains change and adapt in response to experience, but also we can train our brains to tackle everyday experiences in healthy, constructive ways. 

Jullia’s accounts are living examples of how a skilled leader can contribute to her organization’s wellbeing (and, consequently, its growth, innovation and success) by focusing on the four areas that the Center for Healthy Minds advocates for: awareness, connection, insight and purpose. The good news for all current and aspiring leaders is that these areas are not only measurable, they are trainable. That is to say that with focus as well as the willingness to learn and grow anyone can become a human-centric leader and lead a successful organization – where success is measured not only through what is produced but also how.

Serendipity. What started as a blog about women became a story about African leadership and role modeling – and, importantly, about an extraordinary woman behind it. It also became an opportunity for me to revisit many personal passions and, I like to believe, find a new friend. 

Before our goodbyes, I ask Juulia Laakso what her biggest dream is – her response is delivered, once again, with a spark in her eyes: 

“My dream is that we're going to have a really fearless organization.” 


[Images courtesy of Juulia Laakso]

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