Leadership

‘I have a fantastic team, and I don’t speak first’: Leadership lessons from Hydro's Hilde Merete Aasheim

Norwegian aluminium producer Norsk Hydro CEO Hilde Merete Aasheim.

“I seldom take a decision on my own," says Norsk Hydro CEO, Hilde Merete Aasheim. Image: REUTERS/Terje Solsvik

David Elliott
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Energy Transition

  • As CEO of global aluminium and renewable energy company Hydro, Hilde Merete Aasheim and her team have an important role in the energy transition.
  • Her path to her current role has taken in many different positions – and delivered lessons she still employs today.
  • Aasheim joined the World Economic Forum Meet the Leader podcast to share her perspective.

On the face of things, there might not seem to be many parallels between baking cakes and leading a green aluminium company.

For Hilde Merete Aasheim, though, a job in a bakery at a young age taught vital leadership skills that she employs to this day as CEO of Hydro, a company working to produce carbon-free aluminium.

It’s an important role. Aluminium will be vital to the energy transition as a material for renewable energy infrastructure, energy storage and in the manufacturing of electric vehicle components. But aluminium production today emits about 3% of the world’s direct industrial CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.

CO2 emissions in primary aluminium production
Aluminium production emits about 3% of the world’s direct industrial CO2 emissions. Image: WEF

Aasheim recently joined the World Economic Forum’s Meet the Leader podcast to discuss Hydro's work and how leaders can inspire their teams to innovate and deliver results.

Here are some of her leadership insights.

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The route to the top doesn’t have to be linear

Aasheim’s path to becoming CEO of Hydro has taken in many roles.

From that early job in a bakery to positions as an auditor, HR leader and plant manager, she has built a diverse range of experiences that she says inform her work today.

And she advises others to rotate in their organization to build experience and broaden perspectives.

“My career has not been laid out. I have been blessed with leaders that have seen what I have done and then asked me, would you be interested in this position? Most of the time, I have taken that opportunity.”

People that embrace opportunities that come their way, she continues, can avoid being “sucked into many years” in the same position and broaden their experience.

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Being a leader is all about people

Aasheim’s bakery job shaped how she leads and engages with people she works with. She worked there in her teens, turning up at 6am as part of a team that baked cakes for the day.

It was her boss at the time that left an indelible impression on her that she would take into her future leadership roles, she recalls.

“He was out there on the floor. And he was very engaged with his people, including those of us that had come to work there for the summer or at weekends. And I learned that it is all about people. Giving feedback. Applauding the results.

“He taught me a lot about what leadership is about and how to inspire people and bring everybody along.”

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Inclusion should be more than a buzzword

For Aasheim, if an organization is going to deliver its products and results in a responsible way, everybody working there has a role.

“It’s about taking out the full potential of the organization. Everybody counts. And everybody should feel that when they come to work that they are part of the team.”

She says she and her team spend a lot of time on increasing a feeling of belonging and working to build an agile environment in which a range of views and perspectives are brought to the table. And she is keen to point out the role leaders have in making sure everyone’s voice is heard.

“We have to listen to all of our people, not just have the ideas ourselves. You have to invite people to come forward – and show that you actually want them to come forward.”

The most important person in the room is… everyone

In practice, Aasheim says, this means she tries to physically sit back and let her team take the stage.

“I have a fantastic team and I don’t speak first, because when I speak first, it’s almost done.”

And she believes that by doing this and listening to all of the views around the table, leaders can cultivate a more innovative and resilient organization.

“I seldom take a decision on my own. As a leader, you should use the full potential of your team.”

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