From Trainee to CEO—Go all the way!

Lean in—and go all the way to CEO level and leadership. Lean out—and step down from the role as CEO of house and family. 

No woman nor man can do it all. Create your own path.  
Anita Krohn Traaseth has the experience to know what she is talking about.   

Written by: Victoria Wæthing


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Photo by Birgit Solhaug 
 To the left Hege Janson Skogen (31), business developer at Posten who will go all the way from trainee to CEO.  
The two of them meet every week for a mentor in the podcast: «Godt nok for de svina» Good enough for those pigs.  

Egen Boks (Her Own Box)

Anita Krohn Traaseth is a Norwegian business executive and author.
From 2014 to 2019 she was CEO of Innovation Norway, the Norwegian government’s official instrument for innovation and development of Norwegian enterprises and industry. Her experience is within large corporations such as Hewlett-Packard Norway, where she was the first female Managing Director, in addition to experience in smaller start-up companies. A role model to many young women as a female leader who has had an important voice in the Norwegian society, and always shared her experiences—both good and bad—to inspire other women to pursue leadership roles and responsibilities.

The Importance of Role Models

Anita Krohn Traaseth knows from personal experience the importance of having good role models and people who can give you support and advise.

Having had a father who was a constant source of support, she also found mentors who would guide her on her career path. However, at a young age when Anita asked how to improve her writing skills, she was faced with a teacher who told her, “You will never be more than average, a grade 3 or C.” Young Anita knew that it was wrong for a teacher to tell a student such a thing, yet she did not go home crying, or feeling discouraged. Quite the opposite. As a pragmatist, she just told herself: Well, maybe I am not good at writing essays, but I am good at a lot of other things.

Turns out that this teacher would be quite wrong.

The first book Anita wrote: Godt nok for de svina – Good Enough for Those Pigs (an expression her father often used) became a national bestseller in 2014. She then published a novel called Camel Without Filter in 2019, also reaching the bestseller list. This spring she will be publishing her third book: Fisken på disken – The Fish on the Counter, closest translation to an English expression would be keeping it real. Additionally, she is a monthly columnist for Norway’s largest newspaper, Aftenposten.

Having written about the demoralizing teacher in her first book, she received a call three years ago from the principal at her old high school. He told Anita that he had read her book, and that he would officially like to apologize on behalf of the school and ask her if she would consider visiting the school and give a lecture to all the teachers on motivation.

Masculine Leaders

When Anita was twenty-four years old and working her first job as a trainee for IBM, one of her instructors at a training program told her she acted like a man. At first, she was a bit disheartened and thought: Do I look like a man?

Then she understood that the comment was aimed at the fact she had raised her opinion in several meetings. “I have been told many times that I have a masculine style as a leader. I never quite understood why a female leader is considered masculine when she raises her hand or wants to talk about results and benchmarks. I have always envied men who in interviews are allowed to talk more about their results, their strategy and tactics, while women are so often reduced to headlines, descriptions and questions about how they manage having a family and a career.”

For Traaseth and her work, an important drive behind sharing experiences is to inspire and prepare more women to aspire to leadership positions, and not to quit while they reach mid-level managers. 13% of 200 of Norway’s largest companies have female leaders. “Three out of ten Norwegian founders are women. Don’t even get me started on the female percentage of investors and Chairman (woman) of the Boards,” says Krohn Traaseth.

In Norway we have a long way to go. In 94% of all Norwegian couples, men earn the most, with Norwegian men also having 134 billion kroners more in wealth. We also need to address distributing power differently in our country. After Anita’s time as CEO of Innovation Norway, 65% of top management were women. “Trust me—that was not so difficult considering there are so many talented, educated and capable women out there,” she says.

Creating Change

When Anita Krohn Traaseth stepped up as the leader of Innovation Norway in 2014, the Norwegian business ecosystem was changing. From being more or less entirely dependent on the oil industry, innovation was now booming. Innovation Norway experienced a pivot during these years, by becoming a voice with a mandate to be a part of changing the society and business community to focus more on sustainability and the green shift.

On a delegation trip with His Highness the King and her Highness the Queen promoting Norwegian business in China.

“I worked with some amazing people at Innovation Norway, and they were all a part of making the changes that the organization went through.” By using Kotter’s change model, Krohn Traaseth spent a little under five years to make fundamental changes to the organization.

During Anita’s time in Innovation Norway, the organization’s focus on sustainability and environment shifted from being at 27 % of the investments, to approximately 50 % in 2019, and the case processing time for founders was cut from 60 days to 4 days.

Innovation Norway was ranked as the most attractive workplace in Norway three years in a row, and their sick leave among the employees was at 3,5%. In comparison, the sick leave on public communal levels at 7,9 % and on state level 6,1%.

Most of the work was done in-house, led by the leadership team with external assistance to analyse in some instances 7,500 financial cases to gain insight in how to proceed and where to make changes. Although Anita received a lot of support within the organization, she would also experience how only a few dissenting voices would receive massive attention.

600 Speed Dates

When she first started her job at Innovation Norway, Anita went on a world tour visiting all the offices of Innovation Norway nationally and globally, conducting no less that what she refers to as speed dates. Short conversations with every employee, getting to know the company from the ground up. “I met so many amazing people—and they are all so unique. We have a diverse pool of employees and they have so many more talents than what they do daily at the office, for example musicians, artists, writers, farmers, founders—the list can go on. I wanted to get to know them. And how they felt about working for Innovation Norway.”

So, what did Anita ask during these speed dates? She asked the same three questions every time:

  • What constitutes the soul of this organization that I, as a new leader, must under no circumstances try to change or alter?
  • Who are you, besides your job?
  • What could make you turn and walk away from the office? Anita was looking for bottlenecks and obstacles.
By focusing on sustainability, Innovation Norway created a separate department for sustainability in 2015. 

All of the conversations were confidential, but the overall results and the opportunities to change were shared with the leadership team and in FridayMails across the organization. As a leader, Anita always made sure to share her experiences, her insights and what was happening on a general level within the organization by writing an email to all the employees each Friday, the FridayMails. “I wanted full transparency and for all of our employees to follow the journey of changing the organization.”

When Anita left Innovation Norway, she received a gift from her employees: onethousand of her Friday emails, bound together as a book.

“It was a great job. I actually believe it is one of the most exciting jobs you can have as a leader in Norway. Inspiring on so many levels, constantly working with the small percentage of Norwegians with a high willingness to build new companies, products or services. One day I would sit at a potato farm in Norway, the next day I would be at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing.”

A Leader With a Clear Direction

Krohn Traaseth has experience from global companies and start-ups, and her approach as a leader has been very different: “When coming into a big company where there already is an existing culture, traditions and habits, you have a legacy to uphold while also trying to implement new visions and ideas. However, in start-up company you have blank slate. Driving change and results are challenging in both situations.”

“Being a leader is about understanding the task, setting directions and goals, and to mobilize and motivate people for change. When I first entered Innovation Norway I said: We are going on a journey together, and over the next five years there will be a lot of changes, and we had to explain why. Demonstrate the macro and micro drivers and how they would impact our services, our way of doing things.” Krohn Traaseth says being a leader is also about having a clear picture of what drives the company and which projects that can contribute to change.

“It is about understanding what happens outside of the organization, listening to customers, involving colleagues, giving them the freedom and responsibility to be part of the new ways of working.”

She continues, “As a leader you have to know the people you work with. Some people want a clear mandate—some employees want to have freedom to figure out everything on their own. Some get demotivated when faced with change, some thrive upon it. You will never get everyone on board for change, or even interested in strategy or leadership. But that is ok, you only need a critical mass to start the changes.”

“As a leader you and the leadership team can set the direction, but you also have to make room for your employees to thrive and be creative.” Anita also believes that a leader on a mission to create change, should not stay at her post too long. She said from the very beginning that she would be at her position for five years. “I was a leader aiming to change the organization. After five years of this kind of work, I believe that it is not healthy for the organization that this particular leader remains, but to pass on the role. These roles are only to be held for a period of time.

Women Have to Lean In and Out

Anita is crystal clear when saying that quite often women also are each other’s worst enemies, pulling up the ladder behind them and gossiping behind each other’s backs. Yet, more women should also take a clear initiative if they want to pursue a career with leadership responsibilities. They should learn from the men and lean in—even if the possibility to be rejected is there—put themselves out there. “When I worked at Hewlett Packard, we were searching to recruit for a mid-level manager position. All the men who wanted the job, would stop by my office and have a coffee, telling me why they were the best candidates for the job. Not one single woman did the same thing.”

Anita went up to one of her female colleagues—one of the best qualified people for the job—and asked: Why don’t you want the job? The woman most definitely wanted the job, but she was unsure if she was qualified. “This happens a lot. Women tend to believe that they have to cross off every box in the job description. I told her: Nobody can do that. It is a wish list, not one mentioning all the obligatory qualifications.”

The female colleague applied for the job and got it.

“It is always better to raise your hand. Make that call with confidence and say, even if it feels weird: I want the job and will apply. And if you don’t get it, well—at least you tried.”

While urging women to lean in and put themselves out there, Krohn Traaseth also emphasized that we have to have a sense of nuance while talking about women in general, and quite frankly that we should ty to avoid to generalize too much based on gender. “You seldom hear male CEOs talk on behalf of all men. Yet, women are quite often asked to talk on behalf of their gender—and do so as well.”

A Fragile Project

Minding the generalization that is difficult to avoid when talking about female leaders, Krohn Traaseth says she does not consider herself as someone who has paved the way for women considering there have been many women as leaders both in politics and organizations before her.

Anita with the Minister of Agriculture on a trip where Anita headed the Governments committee on innovation for the green industry in 2019/2020

Her project is to share experiences and insights from her journey from Trainee to CEO, and by that better prepare other women who wish to pursue CEO positions. She believes incentives such as paternal leave and paid kindergarten have been, and continue to be, essential for women to pursue a career, and especially as a leader.

“I am happy my daughters can choose whatever career they want, but we also have to remember that the equality project in Norway is still fragile. Few of the leaders in the private sector of Norway are women. Women still choose traditional; we are still influenced by structures and perceptions on what a man or a woman is suited for and deliver on the role as CEO. Female leaders are still being described differently in the media than male CEOs.

A Mother and a Leader

Krohn Traaseth has experienced how being a mother of three and still pursuing a career resulted in both snide comments and judgement of her as mother. “When I say lean in when talking about your career, I would say lean out when talking about the home situation. Nobody can do both one hundred percent.” I don’t know any men who believe it’s possible to be CEO at the office and at home.

Anita tells me a story she had told a reporter about how one of her daughters once decided she wanted to wear her gingerbread pyjamas to school and that Kohn Traaseth simply said: “If she has the confidence to go to school dressed as gingerbread, I am not going to tell her that she can’t. This confidence will not last forever, there will definitely be somebody trying to put her down as she becomes older, and it sure will not be me.”

But as always, there are people who just cannot help themselves, and who will meddle in other people—and families’ business. “I wrote an article last year in our national newspaper Aftenposten, five advices to young women wanting to pursue a career. A psychologist responded by saying that my three daughters were used as decorative dolls and that they were neglected.” It was a commentary breaking all the rules of press ethics, and since Anita had not been informed when it was published, she chose not to respond.

Then, a few days after, when she was sitting on the airport express train, she received a Facebook message from her daughter, Hannah (19). She had written a response to the psychologist. She was upset and defending her mother; calling out the psychologist on all accounts, as well as the publication that had allowed and posted such slander. Anita comments, “I was not going to say anything, and then she did. She was 18 at the time, and wrote this defence of her mother and all other women with ambitions. Tears were just pouring down my checks.”

The original commentary from the psychologist was removed, and several of Norway’s largest newspapers published the daughter’s commentary. A poignant critique that not only demonstrated a daughter’s love for her mother, but also a future law student speaking up for women and female leaders everywhere. And a clear affirmation that it is quite possible to be successful leader while also being a good and inspiring mother.

Anita’s advice for young women aspiring to be leaders:

  1. Do it, go all the way to CEO positions.
  2. Figure out your key preferences: management or leadership. It’s two different skills.
  3. Find mentors on your way.
  4. Work smarter and harder than the average.
  5. Raise your hand for P&L positions and responsibilities.
  6. Develop your own leaderships style: be genuine, always.
  7. Ask for advice and corrections.
  8. Learn how to build teams.
  9. Educate and seek new insight continuously.
  10. Care for more than work. Family and friends are key. Always.