The Oulu Experience (4th in the GRLI Series)

What an intense week this has been! Given the non-stop activities at GRLI, I was not able to get my fingers on the keyboard very often. However, I was fortunate to have time to catch up on my GRLI blogs during my return flight from Finland. In this blog I’ll share about the outcomes of the Globally Responsible Leadership conference. In the next, and final, blog, I’ll reflect on what I’ve learned about GRLI as an organization.

First, a few words about our hosts which set the context and the tone for the conference. The program was sponsored by Oulu Business School’s Martti Ahtisaari Institute of Global Business and Economics. Martti Ahtisaari is a former President of Finland, and Nobel Peace laureate. (A prize for anyone who noticed that I wrote about Ahtisaari’s son, Marko in the previous blog. Marko is currently a Fellow at the MIT Media Lab.) Although the Finn’s are characterized as introverted and reserved, we found our hosts to be welcoming, warm, and anxious to acquaint us with their culture. This was accomplished in several ways. First, through the active participation of Oulu’s business school dean and faculty. Secondly, by introducing us to a number of local business entrepreneurs. Third, by feeding us huge quantities of salmon in a variety of venues, including a lovely “gala dinner” held in the atrium of their city hall (hosted by several Oulu dignitaries) and an elegant meal in a historic home by the sea. And, fourth, by taking us on an outing that included an afternoon of ice fishing and/or silent walks across the ice (a unique and magnificent experience) and an evening in a traditional Finnish sauna (even more unique – details of that experience will be shared upon request.)

Over the course of the week, I began to understand why Finland was such an appropriate location for the conference theme: “Responsible Leadership in Business and Society.” This became particularly clear as we learned how key stakeholders have coordinated their efforts help Finland’s economy and society rebound from the economic crisis. Because of their reliance on the pulp/paper and electronics industries, Finland was particularly hard hit by the crisis. In this “post Nokia” era, there has been a conscious strategic choice to shift Finland’s economy from technological innovation to business innovation. Government spending is credited as being a key factor in the resurgence of the economy. This includes an ongoing commitment to education which is provided free for everyone in Finland. (As an American, I must note the stark contrast to our societal norms!) On a local level, the Oulu business school has responded in kind by reshaping it’s curriculum to become an international, multidisciplinary institution, offering a range of programs including an international MBA. Because tuition is free and the school internationally regarded, they receive hundreds of applicants, making them highly competitive. This has not only benefited the school, but the local community because all MBA students are required to work in one of Oulu’s local companies. What became clear in this discussion was the existence of a cultural norm, a tacit understanding among Finns that business has a responsibility to society. We learned that this ethic of responsibility is one of the reasons that so many people come here to study and to work.

In terms of the conference itself, the format alternated between working GRLI sessions, plenary presentations/dialogues, experiential activities (e.g. ice fishing) and selected learning journeys to visit various local organizations to explore their approaches to sustainable business and responsible leadership. Having attended a number of conferences in the past, it was a refreshing break from the traditional hotel-bound plenary/breakout session format. In the previous blog I summarized a good deal of the content of the plenary presentations, including a series of presentations on technological drivers of structural changes in the economy. In addition to those content elements, the general assembly was an opportunity to further the GRLI agenda in specific ways. This included work and/or discussion on these key initiatives:

  • GRLI members have been integrally involved in several projects to put global sustainability and responsible leadership on the global agenda. As such, they have been instrumental in working with the UN Global Compact to create the PRME principles, an acronym for the Principles for Responsible Management Education (see and in reshaping both the EFMD and AACSB accreditation standards to incorporate globally responsible leadership into business school curriculum. This work continues as does the ongoing relationship with these key bodies and other GRLI sponsors.
  • As GRLI expands its focus beyond these first initiatives, they have launched a number of new programs, including:
      • The first GRLI’s first Innovation Cohort, comprised of members from 16 business schools and other organizational leaders. The focus of this first Innovation Cohort is on the transformation of management education. The cohort program is a peer-based, experiential (“whole person”) learning program, which meets four times over nine months. The Oulu conference was designed to coincide with the third Innovation Cohort meeting, so we got well acquainted with the cohort participants as well as the content of the program. The outcomes are encouraging: in addition to the personal/professional growth, the group has initiated three action learning sub-projects which include: 1) Integrating ethics, responsibility and sustainability into business school curriculum; 2) Developing a framework to motivate business school faculty to teach sustainability and responsibility; and 3) A peer learning process that will enhance the learning environment within business schools. Final reports/next steps will be shared in October at the next GRLI meeting in Cleveland (more on the Cleveland meeting in my next blog.)
      • Planning for a subsequent Innovation Cohort (or Cohorts) was also initiated during the Oulu conference. These may include: an executive education cohort, a business-focused cohort open to business leaders, CLO/HR professionals, and sustainability officers, and/or a second cohort focused on business school/management education. A North American focus is also under consideration. The plan is to launch the new Innovation Cohort(s) by October, so contact GRLI at if you or your institution have an interest in being notified when the cohorts are launched.
      • This GRLI Ambassadors program has also been launched. Quoting from the website, this is “a community composed of dedicated young people below the age of 35 who embrace the GRLI’s vision and are committed to sustainable human progress… The Ambassador community serves as incubator for new ideas, implements projects and raises awareness among peers.” Currently, GRLI is seeking funding to offer fellowships to a new cohort of 24 Ambassadors who will be invited to participate in an intensive leadership development program. Again, contact for more information.
      • Four other specific projects/products introduced by GRLI participants are also worth noting:
          • Our French colleague, Jean Christophe (JC) Carteron, CSR Director for the KEDGE Business School introduced a Sustainability Literacy Test, described as “the first international tool to assess and verify the sustainability literacy of your students.” The test is a multiple choice questionnaire, customized by region, which assesses the “minimum level of knowledge in economic, social and environmental responsibility.” The assessment will go “live” this week, starting with 25 countries. During this pilot phase, JC hopes that at least 100,000 students will participate. As the number of participating countries expands, the next step will be to develop a learning program to prepare students for the test. For more information see or contact
          • Izabel Rimanoczy, from Fordham University, has initiated a project called LEAP – a curriculum and process designed to create a “sustainability mindset” and capability among educators. For more information on this program, contact Isabel at and/or see
          • The GRID, a three-phase diagnostic tool which provides structure and guidance for organizations and individuals on how think and talk about their globally responsible leadership behavior and actions. The GRID is currently being tested in several organizations. See:
          • Finally, our host, the Oulu Business School, has developed a Sustainable Leadership Scorecard, with the acronym SEFE. If you Google this ( you’ll see that the site is in Finnish; however, through the brilliance of technology, Google will also translate the site.  We can only hope our friends in Oulu will eventually provide an English site for expanded use.