In The CEO’s Shoes: What It Takes To Be A Leader

Ever since her appointment as CEO of Management Events in 2015, Jenni Tolonen has taken the company to new heights, launching new concepts and new initiatives, and further pushing the company towards greater success.

We sat down with Jenni for a candid interview where she shares with us her journey towards becoming CEO of a multi-international company, her take on the necessary qualities of being a leader, and how an ice hockey coach can inspire leadership.

Thanks again for taking the time to sit with us, Jenni. You’ve been with Management Events for close to 16 years, could you share with us how your career path in the company started? Was it your target since the beginning to become the CEO?

I started in February 2004 and I was calling top finance executives inviting them to our Finnish CFO summit. At the time, I wasn’t aiming at the CEO position – because I was so young when I joined and didn’t have any particular position in mind.

I got into a very good and interesting flow with the company because when I joined, two things started to happen. We started to go international and develop the matchmaking service, which is unique to our events.

Right at the beginning of my career, I had the opportunity to manage the first 1-to-1 meetings before the software was developed, which led to my first development project around the matchmaking. When I got started with it, I was needed to learn many things from scratch. Then I decided to put myself out there wholeheartedly and see what happens.

That has been my guiding principle through the years. I’ve had many different positions in my years with Management Events, and in most I have defined the job description and started exploring how to serve our company’s goals in the best way. This fit me well, as I like problem-solving and figuring out things.

When we started to go international, I had the same thoughts; when the email came from the CEO at the time, asking who would like to volunteer and be part of the international growth, I didn’t think too long before responding “I’m in”! 

That’s how I started coaching our first Swedish team members, when they came to Helsinki for onboarding, as we entered the Swedish market. From that experience I learned a lot so much on international business that no school can teach you. Lots of great stories from those months!

It sounds like your approach towards your professional career comes from a lot of curiosity from your side and a strong “can-do attitude”. Is it right to say that, whatever development comes your way, you just jump right in and start doing it?

More or less so, I think it’s in my DNA – I am from entrepreneur family and I’ve never been a 9-to-5 person, I tend to get deeply involved when being passionate about things. And I’ve been in the environment here at Management Events, where the leaders have been brave with trusting me to do things, even when neither of us knew exactly how to get it done. I’ve done my best to respond to that trust with delivering results.

Often it is also the environment around you that enables you to try out things. And you need to be curious and willing to learn. It needs to come from both sides. 

Speaking of being willing to learn new things, can you talk a little bit about all the roles that you took over the years in Management Events?

The first career move I made when I originally joined the company was to be a team manager and after that I took various leadership roles during the years. When we started international expansion, I got to explore different aspects of the company such as onboarding processes and training international employees, which taught me the importance of having well-defined processes and clarity of goals with a unified concept.

Beyond that, I worked on our product side in different roles such as guiding, learning, and leading until I went on maternity leave. When I came back, I started to lead our new markets and became the county manager for Norway, followed by Poland, Turkey, and Asia at the same time.

This is when I went through my internal “university of sales” to be able to lead sales as it was something I didn’t have much background in. A lot of what I’ve learned was “hands-on”, especially for leading the new markets and learning about new cultures.

From there, I was appointed COO, which meant all the departments excluding the partner sales and business support were under my wing. And after that, the next step was the CEO position.

That’s quite a long journey, and you’ve mentioned going through an internal university to learn sales. While we have a sales academy now, back then you had to develop it yourself. Was there any training program that you took in place of the sales academy? What resources did you use to learn?

Well, thinking back, we did have a sales onboarding then and it might have been good for me to undergo that, but time was a scarce resource and we were on the go – I relied on my team to teach me a lot. I had experienced sales leaders in my team and our senior at the time was very, very patient in answering my questions of which I had hundreds.

They would sit with me, explaining, not only the technical part of the sales but also the mentality we need to understand when we work with and lead sales teams. So it was my team bringing me up to speed when it comes to the sales knowledge. Again, I was lucky with the people I had around me.

Let’s talk about the main challenges that you have faced in your career path. What were the most difficult and challenging parts for you during your professional journey in Management Events?

Well, of course, there are sometimes moments when you might feel alone and insecure, and you ask yourself if you are making the right decisions.

I think decision-making and taking action, especially on decisions that are tough or might disappoint someone are the moments that often feel challenging. As for job substance or actual tasks, it’s not hard because we have skilled people who can educate and help me with those.

And also, I think, having everything in motion on time, with clarity and direction has been something that I needed to focus on since my mind works very fast, and I want to act very fast. And at the same time, I always want to be there for my team when something unexpected happens.

What helped you overcome leadership challenges? For example, when you feel alone, what gave you the confidence to make those decisions?

I talk about it a lot, but it is always the team. I’ve always had good colleagues around, and both my current and former boss, the former CEO, and current chairman have always been very good leaders in terms of having an “arms wide open” approach when I talk through my thoughts.

That has given me a very good example of how somebody actively listening to your thoughts will help you to either come to a solution or go back to your thinking process. A good mix of feeling unconditional support and being challenged every now and then, is something all leaders should provide and experience – that’s when people, in my experience, function the best.

Coming back to the leadership topic, we know you work with amazing colleagues within Management Events, but outside of the company, are there any personalities that inspire you? 

Actually, a recent inspiring case that I shared with my leadership team was about my son’s ice hockey coach. My son is 10 years old and he plays junior ice hockey. I quite often go and watch their practice because I think it’s fascinating to see how the coach can manage 34 little boys on the ice.

We can all learn from him – if there’s a hassle on the ice, if the boys don’t play as a team, the coach needs to immediately sit them down and go through the common rules. He doesn’t have the choice of waiting for the time to fix the problems. And in the corporate world, we sometimes allow ourselves to “wait and see” how the situation develops – which is very human. But oftentimes we need to take clear the situation sooner rather than later.

I also admire the way he communicates with the little boys through positive authority, emphasizing that the practice is not only about learning ice hockey, it’s also about practicing teamwork, playing as a team in all situations and having a  “winning together” attitude.

That’s amazing how international business can take something as simple as kids’ ice hockey team and use it as an example of how to work better! Do you have any inspirational figures from the business world as well?

During the Nordic Business Forum in Helsinki back in October, I heard the keynote by Carla Harris and I was impressed by her background, the way she built her career, her presence and authenticity.

One of the things she emphasized during her presentation is how leaders need to take distance from the team’s actual work while understanding their accountability. Zooming in and out and finding the right balance to provide your teams the best possibilities to succeed. 

So we have two quite different ends of the spectrum: a junior ice hockey coach and a Wallstreet banking executive. This probably gives a good example of how broad the spectrum of good leadership is and how interesting, inspiring leadership can be found in many situations. 

As the CEO of a big international company, how do you maintain your work-life balance? How do you have time for your family and hobbies? Do you even have enough time to sleep?

Yes, sleep is the number one factor. As long as that part is somehow handled, I operate very well. That’s almost the only non-negotiable rule in my life (laughs). I do yoga whenever possible, it has a positive impact on my sleep and concentration.

I also try to follow the principle that wherever I am physically, I am there mentally as well. Of course, even outside of the office my thought processes are often working, but it doesn’t mean I would constantly be occupied with work. 

Since my work and private life are both quite social environments, I often need quiet, alone time by myself. This is why I find benefits in traveling for business, where I spend evenings mostly on my own, going to bed early and getting a good rest.

What about your ambitions? What is your ambition for yourself and the company?

To put it simply: continuous development of our products and people. Both of those taking the right steps and our company being healthy and growing. 

Right now we are in an interesting time for both of our continents: Europe and Asia. We are launching new concepts and initiatives, which I trust will provide growing customer value and interesting opportunities for our people.

I’m very much looking forward to 2020 and our next big launches! We have a lot of new leaders, who have internally taken their next steps with us and I am excited to see their careers starting to evolve with us.

Lastly, do you have any advice for young professionals who are starting to grow their professional careers?

My approach for when I’ve been asked to take a new role has always been to not overanalyze by asking myself if I know everything and if I have what it takes to make it. I’ve learned many things the hard way but would probably not be here without some of those learnings.

And throughout my career I’ve learned so many things the hard way! But those have been valuable learnings and probably brought me to where I am today..

At the end of the day, I would say, trust that the journey will continuously educate you – be eager to learn and hold on to the good people around you.

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