IB World Examination Leader: How Jazz Delivers Management Education



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Two childhood inspirations have permeated the varied career and management style of Olli-Pekka Heinonen, once a Finnish politician, decision-maker and civil servant: education and music.

As he strategizes in his new role as Director General of the International Baccalaureate system launched more than half a century ago, he draws on these two influences. He takes over a complex global organization that seeks to grow and meet the changing needs of children and society at a time severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“My father was a teacher and I was born and lived in an apartment in a primary school,” he says. “I also studied at the [Turku] Conservatory [of Music] and for a year was a music teacher. Heinonen, 57, went on to train as a lawyer and – at least as he describes it – almost every step of his professional life has been guided by the requests and encouragement of others.

He was asked to become parliamentary counsel, then Minister of Education at only 29, before being elected MP. Once that happened, he became Minister of Transport and Telecommunications. From 2002, he spent a decade running Yleisradio, the Finnish state broadcaster, but then joined the government as State Secretary to the Prime Minister.

The only post he applied for was his last post as Director General of the National Agency for Education in 2016. This places him at the head of a school system considered a centerpiece in the world, judged by benchmarks. like that of the OECD. Program for International Student Assessment, for its belief in the balance between good academic performance and life outside of school.

“My philosophy is that you shouldn’t trust planning things,” says Heinonen. “There will be surprises and you should just follow what evolves. The only position I applied for was at the Agency. I felt it would be a good time to return to the crime scene in the education field.

He cites as one of his greatest achievements the period as Minister of Education in the mid to late 1990s, when he granted autonomy to cities, schools and teachers themselves. He points out that the groundwork had been laid over the previous two decades by requiring all teachers to have a master’s degree. This has strengthened their skills, integrated a culture of constant educational research and strengthened their high status and respect in society.

Key Leadership Lessons

  • Grant autonomy – in Heinonen’s case, he delegated education decisions to the cities and to the teachers themselves

  • Embrace the concept of “humble governance” and accept that leaders don’t have the right answers

  • Leadership is not about one person, it must be distributed throughout a business or organizational system

  • Communication to build trust with staff and stakeholders is crucial

“My approach was to include everyone in the process,” he says. Inspired by his government’s “humble governance” style, he embraced the idea that “at the top you don’t have the right answers, you have to involve people in their co-development. Leadership is not about a person, it is a quality that must be widely held in a system. If you emphasize the role of one person, you fail.

He says he learned humility, but also the need to communicate more. “I am not by character someone who wants to be in the spotlight. I learned to do this. We Finns sometimes communicate too little. We try to be very specific and leave other things out, but communicating to build trust is essential.

“At first, I had the idea that being in a leadership position meant that you had to look, talk and dress to look like a leader,” he says. “It won’t work. You have to be yourself, the person you are. Authenticity is so important, and the integrity that comes with it.

One of his biggest frustrations came as Minister of Transport and Telecommunications, when he struggled during Sonera’s split from the National Post Service. Its shares rose sharply and then collapsed during the IT bubble. “It didn’t go as well as I hoped,” he says. “I realized how difficult it is to combine politics and business. I should have involved all the partners even more strongly to find a common solution.

He then took a break from politics, in part reflecting a need to “balance work with family and recovery time,” as he puts it. “I’ve learned to always have more things in your life that give you energy than they take away. Always make sure you have a reserve to deal with surprises. If you don’t have that kind of energy available, they [good and bad surprises] will take you. “

He took charge of the public broadcaster and developed his identity as a manager, drawing parallels with his experiences as an amateur trumpeter at the head of a jazz group. “You create something new with a shared melody that everyone knows but with a lot of room for improvisation. It’s the same in an organization: you have to have some rules that everyone agrees to and leave room to create new things with everyone by listening and connecting. ”

He set out to collect a mix of survey data and diaries and interviews with the Finnish public to understand their values ​​and attitudes, which revealed how different they were from those of most of his employees. “You can have a stereotypical view of things. It got me to really try to understand our citizens as customers.

Three questions for Olli-Pekka Heinonen

Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo conducts the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

Sakari Oramo

Who is your leadership hero?

Top level Finnish chefs Sakari Oramo, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Susanna Mälkki. I had the pleasure of seeing them in action in rehearsals and concerts. It’s wonderful to see how these professionals can make a connection on the spot, provide input, and get expert musicians to do together something you want them to do and do it in a way they give. their best.

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

I played music from a young age and a very early lesson was when I saw how important inner motivation is for leadership: being able to create internal motivation for a group of people. achieve something together.

What would you have done if you had not pursued your career in education and politics?

Music would have been something that I would have sought to do, I would also very much have liked to be a university researcher. The ability to educate oneself and learn new things, to strive to find something new and to make a difference.

Looking back on his experiences, he challenges the notion that leadership is about decision-making. “In fact, the implementation is strategy, ”he says. “How you are able to implement things is a very big strategic choice. Teachers won’t obey because someone says they have to. They must understand why and have the inner motivation to do so. We should talk more about the concept of imperfect leadership: admitting uncertainty and creating learning paths for the system as a whole to find the solution. “

The IB system is now used by more than 250,000 students in nearly 5,500 schools around the world. It has long sought to educate students in a wide range of subjects with a broader understanding of the theory of knowledge and the use of projects and teamwork alongside the “high stakes” final written exams.

For many, this reflects the aspirations of many national education reformers to prepare for the challenges of the coming century – although some IB teachers lament that if they like the principle of qualification, they are frustrated by it. organization which underlies it and its slowness of currency. Like other review bodies, it has come under fire for the way it changed its rating systems during the pandemic.

Heinonen is convinced that the IB embodies an approach – also reflected in the Finnish education system – in which “competences become more central. It’s about what you do with what you know and how to educate for an uncertain future that we can’t predict.

He sees “a strong commitment to bringing the IB legacy into a new era” from staff and teachers. “It’s not the strategy, it’s the implementation,” he says. “We have to have this bigger jazz band trying to play the same tone and improvise.”


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