Årets Förändringsledare recognizes Annica Bresky in the Large Companies category, presented in partnership by Boyden Global Executive Search and Interim Search.

By Ulf Skarin

"Change means sometimes making difficult decisions"

Regardless of the significant size of the organisation, Annica Bresky has succeeded in the art of being an accessible, inclusive leader who is not afraid to go down to the operational level. She is described by co-workers as a uniquely involved and committed business leader – human, values-driven, talking to everyone, working the hardest herself, and actively driving change toward a renewable future.

In conversation with one of Sweden’s top journalists, Ulf Skarin, we took the opportunity to hear from Annica about her experiences and insights that led to the recognition of Change Leader of the Year.

The Finnish-Swedish forestry company Stora Enso is a global giant, but Annica Bresky, President and CEO, is an accessible and inclusive leader. This year's Change Leader is uniquely involved and committed – human, values-driven, talking to everyone, working the hardest herself and actively driving change towards a renewable future.

Annica Bresky took over as President and CEO of Stora Enso in December 2019. And since then, there has hardly been a quiet moment as the leader of the world's oldest joint-stock company. When the world was paralyzed by COVID-19, she had only been CEO for two months, just a month earlier, 9,000 Finnish paper workers and 6,000 employees in the forest industry went on strike. Around the same time, pulp prices on the world market began to drop dramatically and when the giant ship Ever Given stranded in the Suez Canal, it had a major impact on Stora Enso.

At the same time, the entire company is on an extensive transformation journey, from 15 years ago conducting a business that was 70 percent based on paper, to today having around 85% sales in growth areas. The focus today is on renewable packaging, wooden house components and innovations from biomaterials.

"We have come a long way in our transformation in renewable materials. Most of our business today is in growth areas that contribute positively to the climate transition for a fossil-free everyday life," says Annica Bresky.

For example, Stora Enso has started a pilot plant in Sunila, Finland, for the production of wood-fibre-based battery parts that, among other things, can be used for the electrification of cars.

What are your main challenges as a leader in Stora Enso's ongoing change process?

"One of the biggest and most important challenges now is to increase the pace of our innovation work. We have come a long way in several research areas where new materials from wood fiber can replace fossil-based products. But innovation alone is not enough if we are to meet our customers' and their customers' demand for sustainable materials and solutions."

"We also need to bring these new products to market and commercialize them in order to seriously compete with existing solutions. There is also a lot about focus about which product areas should we invest in and allocate resources to. There are also discussions about which products and segments can we prioritize away. Through a clear focus, we can also increase our growth rate," says Annica.

Before her appointment as President and CEO, Annica originally joined Stora Enso in 2001 when she completed her degree project for the company. After some time developing her career as development engineer and production manager at Stora Enso's Mill Kvarnsveden, her career really took off, first as CEO of Billerud Korsnäs Karlsborg AB, then CEO of Iggesund Paperboard AB before returning to Stora Enso as head of the consumer board division.

Annica grew up in the Greek port city of Thessaloniki but moved to Sweden as a teenager to be given better opportunities for education. Annica studied science and technology, in addition, she took courses in environmental and water technology long before today's intense discussions about climate and environmental impact took off.

How do you work concretely to create change?

"Our entire business is permeated by sustainability and we want to be a leader in the green transition through constant innovation. Therefore, our quest to live our values every day, 'to do good for people and the planet', in all our decisions, is big and small. It's about how we behave towards each other, but also how we work in the communities in which we operate," says Annica, explaining that a fundamental aspect of achieving that is to create a culture where diversity and inclusion are self-evident.

A culture where everyone can reach their full potential and everyone's talent is harnessed.

"We are far from finished on our journey, but this is something I am personally passionate about," she says, and concretely, it means that the company is working on a broad front.

It is about steering through their incentive programs, their talent work and with internal campaigns where they make visible and awareness obstacles and opportunities.

"We involve all our employees to move us forward. Then the entire organization itself must also support this direction and enable 'empowerment' for lack of a better word. Therefore, we have also implemented a more decentralized organizational model where business units are given greater freedom, but also increased responsibility, to run the business in line with our strategy and values. We are already seeing a result with faster and smoother decision-making processes, which increases our ability to act on the many events we are now seeing in the world."

"Open and regular communication is also extremely important. I believe enabling others to succeed is a critical component of leadership through supporting the team and removing obstacles. We are a relatively large company with operations in many countries; we spend a lot of time reaching out and connecting to as many members of our team as possible. We take advantage of the channels that are available and regularly organize appreciated 'all-employee calls' and webcasts where you can actively participate and ask questions."

Employees have testified in the media about how she spreads positive energy when she almost always starts her meetings by asking if anyone has a positive story to share.

What are your best insights and advice for leading in change?

"I am a strong believer in creating a proud and courageous organization that sees that the strategy, our goals and values are visible in everyday life. Therefore, clarity and responsibility are central to successful change leadership."

"When everyone in the company, our customers and partners understand where we are going and why, as well as how they themselves can contribute, then we get the power to drive change throughout our value chain. This is about involving and clearly and pedagogically communicating, because if all of our 22,000 employees are to contribute to our goals, they must also be given an opportunity to embrace them."

"And while I don't sit on all the answers, it's my responsibility to lead the business in the right direction. Here, of course, it is valuable to surround yourself with a strong and well-functioning team, a team where trust is the leading star. Then there is also the courage to support and even question important decisions, because change also sometimes means making difficult decisions. It may take a hit, but ultimately it's about doing the best for the company to have a sustainable future financially, for our people and for the planet we live on."

About Årets Förändringsledare / Change Leader of the Year Awards

Presented in partnership by Boyden Global Executive Search and Interim Search, Årets Förändringsledare / The Change Leader of the Year Award recognizes business leaders who, in times of change, have led their team and operations in an inspiring and successful way. The award also reflects the company’s positive impact on society. This is the seventh year that the Change Leader of the Year Award has been presented.

The Change Leader of the Year – Large Companies is the final of three categories to be awarded.  As in previous years, the awards are presented across the following categories: Large Companies, Medium-sized Companies, with one category reflecting a unique theme for the year. This year, we present the Agile Leadership category.

Read more about Årets Förändringsledare / Change Leader of the Year Awards

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