Gitte Aabo of ‘GN Hearing’: “Change is good”

People. It is all about people. In a company you’re often focused on your product and financial results, but at the end of the day it is all about the people you serve — your customers — and the people in the company — your team. I consider listening to customers and surrounding myself with the right team as my most […]

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People. It is all about people. In a company you’re often focused on your product and financial results, but at the end of the day it is all about the people you serve — your customers — and the people in the company — your team. I consider listening to customers and surrounding myself with the right team as my most important, but perhaps most difficult, tasks.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gitte Aabo. She joined GN Hearing as CEO in 2019. Aabo is a global leader with 30 years of experience, of which she has spent nearly half as a C-suite executive in leading, global life science companies. Now spearheading the top hearing aid technology company, Aabo is on a mission to transform the industry she has become a part of. When Aabo first joined GN Hearing, it soon became apparent that the hearing industry is so focused on cutting-edge technology that, at times, it falls short of meeting the true needs of those living with hearing loss. She is now on a journey to change how we treat hearing loss, which starts with learning to listen and truly understand your customers.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started out in life sciences as a mere coincidence but, after 30 years in the industry, I can tell you that staying has been deliberate. Having just finished college, I was keen to find a job as soon as possible and found myself working as an accountant in a pharmaceutical company. I soon realized that I could make a huge difference to people’s lives working in this field with such important products. This is the main reason I have remained in the industry for so long. This is truly a place where you can transform people’s lives. From my first role as accountant, I moved into various positions, spending the past 12 years leading teams and companies across the sector.

The red thread throughout everything I do is helping people through products — and doing so together with other people. I have the privilege of going to work every day to spend time with talented colleagues who I learn so much from. When you create a team of great people, something great simply happens.

Like most people, certain defining moments have had a huge impact on me throughout my career. When I first joined GN Hearing, I had the privilege of meeting a very special woman named Mo O’Brien. Earlier this year she became the first person with profound hearing loss to row across the Atlantic Ocean. Together with her daughter and another crew member she rowed into history, becoming the fastest female trio to complete the Talisker Atlantic Challenge whilst raising funds for hearing loss charities in the UK.

Listening to Mo’s story and hearing how ReSound hearing aids helped her to communicate with teammates in the most difficult conditions at sea has had a lasting impression on me. But more so, I will never forget listening to how Mo’s childhood and personality were severely impacted by untreated hearing loss and how our technology had enabled her to transform her life and believe in her dreams. I’m humble and grateful to have the opportunity to provide heroes like Mo with the tools they need to succeed.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The proverb that first impressions last is true in many cases. My first impressions when joining the hearing industry was the lack of understanding of our customers. When I say customers, in this case I don’t mean hearing or healthcare professionals, but the people that use our products every day.

When a customer walks through the door we should treat them like family members, paying close attention to their needs and explaining carefully how to use our devices. People don’t need a hearing aid, they need someone to help them hear better, connect with loved ones and be the person they want to be.

I’m on a mission to change how we see our customers and respond to their needs. ReSound delivers outstanding technology — and we’re known for it. I saw this the first time I entered the clinic of one of our largest retailers in the US. They were so thrilled with our technology they gave me a huge (pre-pandemic) hug! It was heart-warming and a huge encouragement to see such appreciation of what we do. But we must become better at understanding our customers’ true needs and adapt our cool technology to become more intuitive and easier to use.

Many people choose not to wear a hearing aid, waiting an average of 7 years before finally asking for the support they need — and I want to change that. When those people do get hearing aids, 96% say it changed their lives, and two out of three say they wish they’d done it earlier. As the hearing industry, how can we make people want to use hearing aids? How can we make them acceptable, cool or something people aspire to use? My big goal is to make people fall in love with their hearing aids. But it all starts with understanding our customers better.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Before joining GN Hearing one year ago, I had spent the majority of my career (27 years in fact) in one company, so leaving felt like a bold move.

As you can imagine, I was touching unknown grounds in many aspects and, despite having 11 years as a pharmaceutical company CEO under my belt, things felt very new. This became clear to me when I struggled to find my way around the buildings during in my first week at GN Hearing and when trying to keep track of people’s names and the different departments. Needless to say, a few silly mistakes were made over those first few weeks, at a time when I was hoping to instil trust in people to follow my lead!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We have a strong passion for technology and providing people with the best sound experience, and we excel at this. Our most recent hearing aid innovation is a testimony to this, as we have finally managed to place an additional microphone in the ear canal which is where you would naturally hear sound. Engineers have struggled for years to make this a possibility, and after 10 years, our engineers have finally managed to create a powerful hearing aid and a system that allows us to place a microphone and a receiver in the ear without causing feedback. We call this a M&RIE or Microphone and Receive in Ear design. People are amazed that this technology means they can finally hear sound with their own ears. People who use this new technology, ReSound ONE, often find it difficult to put this into words as they haven’t experienced such natural hearing before when using hearing aids. Just a couple of weeks ago a YouTube vlogger was fitted with the devices. It was amazing to see her reaction to the hearing aids as she had forgotten what her own voice sounded like, she could even hear very quiet sounds again like rustling plastic and the noise of a fan.

We are resilient and, where others quit, we keep on going until we succeed. We do this because we’re aware of the huge impact we can have on people’s ability to hear and the transformative impact this can have on their lives. Around 10 years ago, GN Hearing was in serious financial turmoil. Instead of giving up, we used our amazing technology know-how and engineers to innovate the world’s first 2.4 GHz hearing aid. At the time, it was a breakthrough, because it gave people a much greater sound quality and enabled new streaming opportunities. Doing something of this calibre and in such difficult times requires resilience and determination, and this is a huge part of the character of our company.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I want to change the experiences of people who use hearing aids.

When one of my daughters got her first smartphone, she used it for several months before making her first call. Today, phones are used for so much more than just making calls. They are used for socializing, getting information, gaming, listening to music (and often wasting time!). Could a hearing aid do the same? Could they help diagnose diseases? Could they help to prevent accidents like falls or predict health related issues? We’re already implementing many accessibility features by working with academia and big tech companies like Apple and Google so people can stream calls, music and use their hearing aids like advanced headsets. But we want to do more and work towards providing hearing aid wearers with health benefits and advanced hearing options. For example, hearing aids could provide flight updates and information when you’re checked-in at the airport or weather updates for your GPS location.

Right now, we’re focused on improving our customer experience so it’s tailored to each individual’s needs. We’re also improving our digital customer offering to include more support for people when they need us most. Unfortunately, every third hearing aid ends up in a drawer for a variety of reasons, including lack a perceived benefit and the associated stigma of hearing aids. We know that the first 90 days of wearing a hearing aid are extremely important in determining whether someone will use their device successfully, so we are doing more to encourage people to wear their hearing aids from the very beginning.

Due to the pandemic, we’ve all had to change our ways of working and the hearing industry is no exception. We knew we needed to quickly change our care model, moving away from in-person consultations to remote sessions between hearing care professionals and their patients. It’s intriguing to be a part of this change, despite the difficulties and learnings associated with navigating unknown waters.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

My advice to any leader irrespective of gender is to listen to the customers and the business will follow, build a strong team, and don’t shy away from asking for help when needed.

Healthy discussions are always part of high performing teams, and team members must trust that interpersonal relations will stay intact despite of disagreements. This is a crucial part of a team that can truly collaborate and work together effectively.

There is a lot of focus on diversity in terms of gender, but building a diverse team is so much more than that. It is essential to compose a diverse team with different personalities, competencies, backgrounds, nationalities, and approaches to the company’s challenges and opportunities. It is well documented that companies that are run by diverse leadership teams outperform — not least in a changing marketplace.

To become a successful and respected leader you must practice becoming a good listener. Hopefully, you will have hired a team of people that are more talented in their own respective fields than you are — so listen to them. When you have a team of talented people that you trust and listen to, you can’t go wrong. Great people make great things happen.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Companies are organisms that live and breathe through the people that constitute it. My advice to any leader is that you must inspire people to rally around a shared vision, so everyone has a common understanding of the future of the company and its purpose in the world.

Leaders must strive to ensure everyone in a team feels seen and heard, which can be more difficult in larger teams. Each individual must feel valued for the skills and contributions they bring to the table as this is key for providing people with the opportunity to thrive and grow.

As a leader, it’s crucially important to provide colleagues with opportunities to network and form relationships across teams, as this is when the best ideas are born. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of a leader to ensure work is an enjoyable place for people to be — if your team look forward to a Monday morning then you’re doing a good job!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Throughout my life I have met many people that have helped me or inspired me. When I was first appointed as CEO in my previous company and felt the huge responsibility of leading several thousand people, I felt overwhelmed to the extent that I began doubting that I was the right person for the job. Even though I had a great team of colleagues supporting me at the time. One person that stood out to me during this process was Poul Rasmussen, the former chairman of LEO Pharma. I counted on Poul’s support during those early days and he helped me steer in troublesome waters at a time when I took a giant leap and ventured out on a personal journey. I am deeply grateful for his unwavering support.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The companies I’ve worked for have all delivered products that have a transformative impact on peoples’ lives thanks to the efforts and dedications of all teams. Hearing aids connect people to sounds, but more importantly to their loved ones. Many people don’t realize that not treating hearing loss means so much more than just missing out on the chirping of the birds. Over time, many people withdraw from conversations and social situations such as parties and restaurants, slowly becoming lonely and isolated. Untreated hearing loss can cause depression, mental health issues and illnesses associated with cognitive decline such as dementia. These things can all be helped by treating hearing loss early, so our mission to change hearing loss care has the possibility to impact peoples’ lives and society in a massive way.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. More so than I had realized, you’re alone in this job. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true. When you become a CEO, you cannot maintain the same relations to colleagues as you’re used to. Some years back we had just bought a company, and soon after I signed the contract new information came up on potential side-effects related to one of their key products. It turned out not to be an issue but I did wonder for some time if I’d got an expensive lesson. While many people were celebrating the signing of the agreement, I was alone in worrying about this new development. A colleague gave me a big hug that day. That was heart-warming.

2. People. It is all about people. In a company you’re often focused on your product and financial results, but at the end of the day it is all about the people you serve — your customers — and the people in the company — your team. I consider listening to customers and surrounding myself with the right team as my most important, but perhaps most difficult, tasks.

3. People will look at what you do more so than what you say. This has made me more self-aware because people assign much more meaning to my words and actions than ever before. When launching a significant change at my previous company I was struggling to make people believe in this until I changed my car, believe it or not! Before then, it had been company policy for all senior managers to drive a dark blue Volvo. When I changed to an Audi one day, people started to believe that I was serious about driving change.

4. The expression “change is good” is not always true. Change can be great if you’ve chosen it yourself, but you don’t always get to choose. It’s my responsibility to look to the horizon and see where we should be taking the company. That naturally instils change, and I do this to keep the company safe and sound. Our company has existed in over 150 years, through world wars, revolutions, times of unrest and change, and today it’s leading in hearing aid technology. It’s my duty to make sure this company exists and thrives for many years to come. To ensure this, it’s my responsibility to successfully guide the company through change. When I retire from GN Hearing I want to pass on a stronger company to the next generation of GN employees than I inherited.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Improving access to healthcare for all people has the impact to transform lives. When we bring smarter, cooler and more customer-centric products and experiences to those who need our help, we can be the catalysts to change society for the better.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” by Margaret Mead. Mead studies small, native societies as an anthropologist, but what she says is true for anyone who wishes to make a difference and change things for the better. Change in a company happens when you have a common goal and commit to it. We can all make a difference with actions driven by passion.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Unfortunately, one of my great sources of inspiration, Nelson Mandela, is deceased. I would love the opportunity to learn from his resilience and dedication to create change. He was able to gather a team around him, rally people to follow his vision and fight against inequality. He also endured years of injustice and hardship during his years in prison, and despite this, never gave up on his ideals and dreams. Mandela once said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” This is true for many aspects of life, both in business and at home.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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