This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world. We want to celebrate all of our fantastic female leaders at Citycon who contribute to shaping a more equal future and to the recovery from the pandemic every day. Therefore, we present four leaders from four Nordic countries. Each of them has their own unique career path at Citycon. 

Sanna Yliniemi, Vice President, Centre Management, has been working at Citycon for 11 years. Sanna has an extensive retail background, which has helped her to understand the tenants’ businesses and to build long-term tenant relationships.

When I started as a Centre Manager, it was a totally different market environment and company. At Citycon, I have been offered wider responsibilities and new challenges every few years and I have had time to grow into my current role step by step. Currently, I am responsible for the centre management of our entire portfolio in the Nordics, at a total of 40 centres. 

Helen Metsvaht, Commercial Director, has also seen the industry and company change over the years. She became acquainted with Citycon while working as a Leasing Consultant for the Rocca al Mare extension project in 2007. Afterwards, her career path continued outside of Citycon and crossed again at the beginning of 2016.

I joined the team as a Leasing Manager, and it was great to meet again with all the people I had worked with previously and to get to know new Cityconners. In 2018, I was given the great opportunity to start as a Commercial Manager for Estonian assets, and after a while, I started as a Commercial Director managing a cluster consisting of Estonian and Finnish assets. It has been an exciting journey and I am very grateful for all the trust and support I have been given while at Citycon.

Anne Lene Falch, Head of Leasing in Norway, has been working successfully with sales for about 30 years and has gained retail and shopping centre experience by working closely with local shopping centres as customers for several years.

–  I started at Sektor Gruppen in 2014, just before Citycon bought the company, with the responsibility to grow specialty leasing and media sales in Norway. After two years, I started in a new role as a Leasing Manager for retail premises, and after approximately another two years, I was appointed as Head of leasing in Norway, managing a team of 8 Leasing Managers. It has been an exciting journey and I appreciate the opportunity to grow my skills and get new challenges within the company.

Veronica Palmgren, Development Director, Sweden, has been working across many industries, companies and different roles in marketing, operations, development and executive management. She started to work at Citycon in 2018 and is responsible for ensuring that the right team is in place to execute Citycon’s mixed-use development strategy. 

I found my passion in real estate and development around 20 years ago. The complexity, different perspectives and people make work both fun and interesting.   

We asked the leaders about their experiences during the pandemic as well as their thoughts on leadership and gender equality.
 

How have you handled the COVID-19 crisis with your team?

The crisis was something no one could have foreseen or prepared for. The situation forced us to react quickly, think outside of the box and step out of our comfort zone. It was of great relief to know that I had my competent team and supportive peers. This year, we are all much more confident after gaining experience in 2020. We have a good routine and know how to react and what to expect, says Helen.

At the beginning of the pandemic, one of the most important things was to dare taking a deep breath and wait before taking decisions and answering all the questions and demands that we received. More than ever, it was important to make sure we all kept each other informed about the situation and that we were coordinated in our communication, both internally and externally. We also always made sure to have a good and constructive dialogue with our tenants, describes Anne Lene.

It is all about the people, teamwork and our ability to adapt at the right speed. In my view, Citycon has the right people with the right mindset for sure. Working in development, we are used to managing processes with both expected and unexpected events that come our way every day. This however was a new experience in its character, scale and impact, says Veronica. 

The crisis was something none of us had experienced before. The crisis management required rapid adoption to the constantly changing situation and visibility of the near future was extremely low. With good teamwork through the organisation and the ability to make fast decisions, we have navigated through the crisis, says Sanna.

What is the most important trait of an inclusive leader?

For me, it is important that we have clear goals so that we all know where we are going. Give trust and expect results from individuals and the team. Involve, include and encourage initiatives for taking responsibility and ownership. Find the motivation triggers for the different team members and develop them, emphasises Anne Lene.

A genuine understanding that the end result improves with the contribution of all stakeholders and an interest and ability to engage with a variety of people in a mutual dialogue, says Veronica.

I have two cornerstones in my leadership. One is clear structures and targets, which create the clear framework for the team’s work. The other one is to create a working environment with “psychological safety” and trust. That kind of an environment makes people flourish, and it brings the best out of them, says Sanna.

The most important thing is to trust my team members as well as to be honest and clear in my communication. Open discussions and working as a unified team towards unified targets will bring success. In my opinion, it is important to recognise differences in the team and take advantage of the best your people have to offer. Every person has strengths and those should be seen and used in a smart way to take the team forward, says Helen.

How do you see gender equality in today's business world?

We are not there yet and, for me, it is important to start with my own leadership where I can affect the balance. I strive to give women the same opportunities for a prosperous work life as men. At the same time, it is equally important to give men the same opportunities for a prosperous family life as women. When we create equal opportunities, regardless of gender, we will be able to influence everyone’s work-life balance and make equal choices. It is also important for all of us to understand that gender equality is not something that just happens but rather something we all need to fight for in the choices we make as well as voicing a willingness to change, says Veronica.

Women are more and more appreciated as leaders due to having a different “toolbox” than men. Women leaders tend to be more emphatic, consider more people and their needs and be more balanced when making decisions. I think Citycon is a good example. We have so many great female leaders. I don’t think people should be preferred due to their gender – it should be their knowledge, personality and other characteristics, says Helen.

I have seen the significant change towards the better, and especially in Finland there are many female leaders in the shopping centre industry. We are on the right path, but it will still take time before we can truly say that there is gender equality in the business world, says Sanna.

Unfortunately, there are still challenges when it comes to equal salary for equal positions. Seeing it in a Nordic perspective, there are more and more women in managerial positions, but fewer in both Director and CEO positions. The good part is that young women today are aiming much higher than just a few years ago. Unfortunately, this is not standard and there are big differences from country to country. The topic is still an important focus area, emphasises Anne Lene.

In the main image from the left: Helen Metsvaht, Veronica Palmgren, Sanna Yliniemi, Anne Lene Falch.