Kristine Hartmann: “Ensure that you actively listen, so that you’re enabling your employees to lift and raise their ideas”

Ensure that you actively listen, so that you’re enabling your employees to lift and raise their ideas. The greatest fear for me as a leader is that I would sit in a meeting room and no-one on my team would dare to speak up, challenge me or voice their opinion. It might be uncomfortable for […]

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Ensure that you actively listen, so that you’re enabling your employees to lift and raise their ideas. The greatest fear for me as a leader is that I would sit in a meeting room and no-one on my team would dare to speak up, challenge me or voice their opinion. It might be uncomfortable for some and it’s possible that I don’t handle confrontation perfectly every time, but if you don’t promote an open forum, it can be one of the most limiting factors for a company’s ability to innovate and generate new ideas. Just be aware of the power you have around you, in your team, and enable them to ideate, share and deliver.

Kristine Hartmann is Transformation lead in Aker BioMarine, the company that was named Europe’s most innovative in 2018, in competition with more than 120,000 other companies, and Norway`s most innovative in 2017. Aker BioMarine is a Norwegian biotech innovator, harvesting krill in the Southern Ocean around the Antarctic Peninsula, making krill oil products (a source of omega-3s) for human consumption and aquaculture feed.

As EVP Transformation, there are few parts of the business that Kristine doesn’t influence. Responsible for increasing Aker BioMarine’s transparency, Kristine and her growing team connect the day-to-day operations with the company’s strategy, transforming the business to meet the ever-increasing expectations of customers, employees and other stakeholders. A qualified marine machinery engineer, prior to joining Aker BioMarine in 2011, Kristine held several senior consulting positions at both Price Waterhouse Coopers and Accenture. In 2017 Kristine was awarded SHE leader and in 2018 Aker BioMarine’s HR department (with only 2 HR dedicated employees at the time) was named the best in Norway in competition with large corporations. So, what is the secret of the culture behind this, still relatively small Norwegian based company?

Thank you for joining us Kristine! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was at the hairdresser at the age of twelve, I was asked the standard question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, my answer was “financially independent and self-confident!” Growing up as a kid in the 70s, the time for women’s liberation was beginning, and that was the one piece of advice my mother gave me. She didn’t give any guidance per se on what choices to make, but it was important for her that her daughter should be free to do whatever she wanted and wasn’t dependent on a husband. Running parallel to that, I have always been fascinated by technology and the oceans. It was therefore probably no big surprise that I decided to become an engineer and I graduated from Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and University of New Orleans (UNO) with a Masters in Marine Machinery. I was the only female to graduate from that course in 1999. So, whether it was working as a programmer during the dotcom bubble, taking the blind leap into auditing with Price Waterhouse Coopers, or joining Aker BioMarine when it was a humble start-up, it is down to a number of coincidences and opportunities that has brought me here. Fortunately, since joining Aker BioMarine I haven’t had a boring day since.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading the Transformation team?

When I had just started, Aker BioMarine was considering getting listed on the NASDAQ. We needed to go through all these internal procedures and establish a detailed compliance program. I accepted the role as the acting Compliance Officer and it came with the responsibility to train all our employees on our ethical guidelines. That also included training all of the fishermen at a shipyard in Las Palmas, Spain. So, imagine a blonde, 33-year-old Norwegian woman telling the toughest of the toughest fishermen on earth, how to behave? That was definitely one of the most fun experiences I have had with Aker BioMarine.

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

The most recent one that sticks out for me involves data analytics. This is one of the big buzz words of today, but for Aker BioMarine it comes down to using advanced analytics to improve a broad range of processes in our Houston based facility, on the vessels and also how to facilitate the fishery management in Antarctica. We have established a cloud-based data platform in which we gather data from our harvesting and production systems. Data, like volume, GPS coordinates of where the krill was caught, yield, as well as meal and oil product specifications are combined with publicly available sources for weather data, icing conditions, algae concentrations, sea temperatures, and more, and then analyzed to help us make better decisions. It also allows us to reduce our CO2 footprint as we are spending less time searching for krill. Said more simply, it will enable us to produce more sustainable and healthy nutrients from the oceans to help meet the needs of a growing world population, and at the same time reduces our negative footprint.

OK, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

If the numbers are correct there is definitely a need to call for action. I think it may have to do with not having the right culture in place or maybe it´s due to an old-fashioned way of managing and leading organizations. In Aker BioMarine, 80% of the employees say their job is a passion, not just a job. We have a constant focus to keep the engagement high and our employees happy.

Establishing a high-performance culture is not an easy task, neither a clear recipe, it´s a lot of hard work to make the interaction between managers, employees and different cultures work well with the opportunity to continuously improve. The first mission for me (and a key transformation project at Aker BioMarine) was to put a good culture and people focused atmosphere in place. So, the first person I hired for the Transformation team was a People Director who has a sharp focus on leadership and organizational development, not just the traditional transactional focused HR tasks. We worked a lot on building the leadership philosophy that would become the basis for our culture, a philosophy based on trust and freedom. If people feel safe, they will dare to make decisions on their own, they will dare to raise their ideas and they will not be afraid of failing. So that’s where we started off.

We have done a lot of work on the culture and the spirit at Aker BioMarine. It is the sum of many minor things that will change and impact the culture for years to come. Challenging, but fun — using new technologies and social media to create one company and one culture. We were one of the first companies in Norway to implement Facebook at Work to ensure everyone can freely share information across all departments — from the fishermen in Antarctica, to our plant in Houston, and sales offices in Shanghai and everywhere in between. We also started changing our leader’s roles, from being bosses to becoming coaches. We allow our employees that are not required to be present at the workplace to handle continuous operations, like the plant or vessels, to plan their work schedules individually. For example, if one of our scientists is finishing a paper and wants to sit in the library, or in a quiet place, rather than coming into the office, that’s fine. Or if the marketing team gets more inspired by working in a café in Oslo, great. We trust our people to find the right balance and we as leaders have a high focus on the results of the work they deliver. Of course, occasionally you have people who don’t work to the required standards, but it’s our responsibility as leaders to handle those cases specifically, rather than drafting up policies and rules for the majority that always deliver on their work tasks. So, removing words like, ‘shall’ and ‘must’ from the personnel handbook, are initially really easy small things, but they all go together to form a culture of trust.

Back to your question, I believe companies need to be willing to invest in culture and people, and we need to dare to bring the conversation into the Board room.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Negativity is the simple answer. According to a study made by HBR, happy and engaged people increase productivity approximately 20%, and profitability 21%; this is important as it makes our customers happier. With a positive environment, you also have lower sick leave and lower staff turnover.

We have seen in the past that annual employee satisfaction surveys are not motivating for employees and that the responsibility for follow up is often set to HR, not the people managers where we believe it should be. To that end, we started using the engagement app ‘&Frankly’ to regularly take the pulse of our organization. Recently, we found that when we ask our employees simple questions like “How do you feel about coming to work?”, the majority answers happy, motivated, engaged and inspired, but the last months we have also seen that the number of employees feeling stressed is increasing. That is the flip side of a highly engaged workforce, and we are now training our managers in coaching the employees on how to handle stress, in addition to changing Executive Management priorities to reduce the pressure. The beauty of constantly checking the pulse of the organization is that we can act more agile.

Investing in culture is not the most difficult business case to make as it is a crucial step to ensuring our company is running at its best.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

I am not sure five are absolutely necessary, maybe just one will do. Ensure that you actively listen, so that you’re enabling your employees to lift and raise their ideas. The greatest fear for me as a leader is that I would sit in a meeting room and no-one on my team would dare to speak up, challenge me or voice their opinion. It might be uncomfortable for some and it’s possible that I don’t handle confrontation perfectly every time, but if you don’t promote an open forum, it can be one of the most limiting factors for a company’s ability to innovate and generate new ideas. Just be aware of the power you have around you, in your team, and enable them to ideate, share and deliver.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

That’s a big question and I’m not sure if I’m entitled to answer it, but I strongly believe in diversity and gender equality, and it is also important to understand the drivers behind engagement and motivation. Research highlights three key drivers for employee engagement: purpose, mastery and autonomy.

Studies show (as also sited by Forbes) that female leaders are considered to have more of the leadership styles that enable the drivers for engagement. I believe it is important that society works to promote a balanced workforce, also on the Executive and Board levels. As an example, in Norway there is almost an equally balanced workforce of male and female, however only 16% of all CEOs are female and only 13% of the Chairman of the Boards are female. To address this, the Norwegian government requires 40% of the Board members for listed companies to be female. Good welfare systems supporting maternity and paternity leave, to enable parents to get back to work is also important. Fathers are required to take a given part of the leave in Norway, encouraging increased gender balance at home. I do not believe that quotations are the right insensitive in the long run, but I do believe in governments using regulations to stimulate a change. Changing patterns that have been natural for the human society throughout generations is challenging and we need a push to get the movement running. Even though the numbers look good for Norway, we still have a way to go to be equal — you cannot be the CEO both at home and at work.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

The initial feedback I get, when I ask the people reporting to me, is that I have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and have the ability to see the bigger picture and strategic needs of the company. My team also always feel that I have their back, so if they are in difficult situations, they can trust I will support them. Also, I have received feedback that I can be quite strict, or sometimes come across as confrontational, but I think that goes back to the goal of challenging and making sure new ideas are heard. Change is not easy and you need to tackle some discussions along the way. But when it comes to transformation (and if I strongly believe in something), I spend the necessary time to bring everyone along, to see the value and join the journey.

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?

It is typically a combination, but the first person to really inspire me, was the former CEO of Price Waterhouse Coopers, Norway, Jørgen Kjørsvik. That’s where I learned coaching and the positive impact of an employee-focused leadership style. The main priorities for that company at the time were employee development and working across departments. He was really interested in bringing the employees into focus, both young and the more experienced, making us coaches, not bosses. He also said that you should never take for granted that you are a leader, you need to work to deserve it every day.

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

When I got back from summer vacation in 2018, my desk was covered with postcards from a lot of people all over the world that I did not know. After some heavy googling I found out that it was from a foundation called Postcard Underground. Statements like the ones below were written on the card:

“Thank you, Kristine for your efforts to support a healthy and regenerative ocean by taking action to protect krill, the foundation of the food chain in Antarctic waters” — Louisiana

“Thank you! A bit of good news in the world. Your work to save our fragile planet is so important. Keep it up!” — Barbara, Saint Paul Minnesota

I was the project lead when Aker BioMarine and the major part of the krill industry committed to voluntarily stopping the harvesting of krill 40km away from shore, as an extra precautionary measure, to protect the penguins during breeding season. I`m very proud of the results from a joint effort of cooperation between the industry (including companies from China, Korea, Chile and Norway), retailers, NGOs and scientists, to take the leadership of protecting the ecosystem in which we operate.

On the broader perspective, I am proud of the fact that my role facilitates the strategy process and empowerment of people working in a company that is part of solving some of the global challenges we are facing today. With an increased world population and the need for more healthy and sustainable food production from the ocean, we are working to provide solutions to meet this projected growth. In fact, we were one of the first companies to adopt over strategic direction to the UN sustainable development goals lead by the Transformation department.

The success in global scale can also be used in day-to-day — “give more than you expect to get back.” Transformations’ role is to enable the rest of the organization to succeed, and the most tangible, if maybe not the most exciting example, revolves around work and the positive impact that I can leave on someone else. If one of my employees is frustrated comes to me to seek out advice, I encourage an open conversation. If that conversation can resolve the issues, and if I can see that their shoulders relax and the smile comes back, that makes me believe I can bring a bit of goodness to the world.

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

I do not have a single quote, but I really like this quote from Socrates: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”. My most important inspiration has always been from my teams, both professional and personal. Right now, it’s the employees in Aker BioMarine and my family (my husband and three children) that inspire me. They all inspire me, from the fishermen in the Antarctica, to the people at our offices all over the world. My 15, 13 and 6-year-old sons also bring much inspiration to my life. There is just so much I do not know, and the joy of still learning something new every single day really gives me the drive and motivation to be a good leader.

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.

That is a really difficult question. I was absolutely terrified by the hole in the ozone layer, when I was a kid. The greenhouse gas effect freaked me out. So, rather than starting a big movement, I would help empower one. I love Greta Thunberg, the awareness she has raised in her generation and ours is incredible. And it is our responsibility as grown-ups to help these young engaged people go from fear to action by supporting them to do something constructive about the issues they want to change in the world. From all the small steps they can change in their day-to-day life such as the food they eat, the decision to walk or take public transportation, the commitment to turn off lights and reduce their use of water, help bring attention to the larger questions on influencing governments and the industry. We need to be good role models and have the ability to act both as grown-ups, companies, regulatory bodies, academia and NGOs, fighting the global challenges we are facing today. There is no time to wait until the young and engaged join the workforce and take on decision making positions. There will always be dilemmas and conflicts and hard work to fix these issues, but I believe it is a bit like getting on my bicycle to go to work every single morning. No matter if it is minus 10 degrees, heavy rain, snow or sunshine outside, as long as you know it is for the better good for your health and the society, you grind through and just do it.

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