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Don’t look at the challenges, focus on the opportunities – Norsk Hydro CEO

Don’t look at the challenges, focus on the opportunities – Norsk Hydro CEO


Norsk Hydro targets diversity and inclusion as strategic goals.

CEO Hilde Aasheim works with employees to make Norsk Hydro an attractive company for women.

She says her varied professional experience helped her become Norsk Hydro’s first woman CEO.

Hilde Aasheim is CEO of Norsk Hydro, a large Norwegian aluminum and energy producer with operations in 40 countries and a big focus on renewables. She was appointed to the position in 2019 after serving as executive vice president and head of the company's Primary Metal business from 2008. 
In an interview with S&P Global Sustainable1, she talks about her career path and what has influenced her leadership style.  
The following transcript is edited for length and clarity. Listen to audio from the interview on ESG Insider, an S&P Global podcast.

Read more research and interviews from S&P Global Sustainable1 on women in leadership here.

S&P Global Sustainable1: What steps are you taking to increase gender balance and diversity at Norsk Hydro?

Hilde Aasheim: Diversity, inclusion and belonging is a strategic topic for Hydro’s top management. Diversity is not only about gender. We work on inclusion and belonging so people can thrive. We work a lot on bias. For Hydro to succeed, we need creativity. We need diversity to give diverse perspectives so Hydro can move to the top of the ranks. It's a strategic topic, and we have started to set targets, including for female participation and leadership. When you can measure things, you get things done. We have set a target for female participation and leadership.

How do you implement the strategy in your day-to-day role as CEO?

I follow it up in every performance meeting I have with the business areas and in our corporate management board meetings. It's about measuring performance as a strategic topic. But then obviously, in terms of gender diversity, I hope that I can be a role model as a female CEO. When I travel around the company, I always try to invite myself to women’s networks to have a dialogue with women about how we can make them thrive even more in the company. We discuss structural issues such as day care, maternity leave. How can we make females find it attractive to work for Hydro? And how can we make our company attractive to them?

What actions or policies help promote diversity?

I strongly believe in people leadership. It comes back to inclusion and belonging, where we, as leaders, make people feel they have a voice around the table. We need to cultivate an environment where we want people to speak up. We need different perspectives. We can work on, let's say, a maternity leave or daycare, but we should make people feel good about coming to work at Hydro. And that's what people leadership is about: to create that engagement.

How does having a diverse workforce influence management decisions?

It's about how you work. I seldom make decisions on my own. I use my team as a way of bringing up ideas. We go around the table to make sure that we get all the different perspectives before we take a decision. On Hydro’s corporate management board, I have 40% female participation. I have people who come from different backgrounds. Even though there are Norwegians on my team, they have different backgrounds and experiences. And then also I have people with international experience, which also gives a lot of support to how we manage and how we lead Hydro.

Hydro operates in 40 countries all over the world. What is the company’s role in promoting diversity in those countries?

First of all, it's very much based on our values. The company’s diversity, inclusion and belonging strategic program is something we discuss in all the different countries. When it comes to sexual orientation, for example, we know that in some countries, homosexuality is not legal. We still want to discuss and to include diverse people in our workforce. And I think that takes some courage to do, but it’s embedded in our values. It's embedded in how we see the workforce and our ability to attract and retain people. There are dilemmas, though. We flag Pride Day on most of our sites, but we also have to comply with local laws and regulations. Still, the fact that we are there means we can speak up and try to influence when it comes to valuing all people’s orientation.

What kind of challenges have you had to navigate on your way to becoming CEO?

I would rather talk about the opportunities I've had, because I have been in this industry now for 35 years, and I started off as an accountant. I've been a plant manager. I've worked in HR and as an EVP. Hard work and wanting to do a good job have allowed me to achieve new positions. I've been blessed with good bosses who have seen that I am passionate about my work, and they promoted me. I've had the privilege of having leaders who have seen what I can do and promoted me to positions that I myself haven't even thought about. That has given me a fantastic opportunity to gain knowledge and experience. When people asked me about taking on the CEO position, I felt that I had taken steps on the road towards broader accountability. The best thing you can do is to take the chance when you have it, say yes rather than thinking about all the challenges, and rather look at it as an opportunity. My experience has taught me that we have to be good leaders to discover talent and to offer new opportunities. And that is why I also work a lot on succession planning in ensuring that we have a talent pipeline.

How much has your experience influenced your leadership style?

It’s given me a lot of weight over the years. I've learned by leading in different environments. When I was a plant manager, it was a fantastic experience to be close to the operations and the operators who work 365 days a year around the clock. After that, when you are at the head office, you have experienced what it is like to be in the field. You better understand the challenges and opportunities in the market.

Leadership is a balancing act. You have to work with your heart and your head. You have to work short term and long term. And you do that both consciously and unconsciously, when you've had such a broad experience as I've had over the years.