With 20-year career in top roles at Meritor and Volvo already behind her, Laila Österholm is a successful career woman by anyone's measure. She certainly didn't need to change anything - but thanks to the SSE Executive MBA, she's decided to take a leap into the unknown.
Ever since she was a child, Laila Österholm has been driven by the desire to make things - and herself - better.
“That has led me on a career path where I have always continued to develop myself, both in terms of education and in terms of different roles,” she says. “I have worked in automotive now for two decades, and have had a career where I have been quality manager, supply chain manager, assembly manager, and held various roles where I work with change management and lean projects.”
But after so many years in the industry, Laila was no longer sure if she was developing.
“I like when things happen,” she remarks. ”I have this curiosity and hunger for development - but I also wanted to confirm my knowledge somehow. Much of what I have learned was on the job. When I went to school there weren’t any good supply chain courses at university, for instance, so I have done various types of certifications at other places - but I wanted to understand what level I really was on.”
She decided that an MBA might be the best route, and she began Googling schools abroad, particularly in the US.
But she was surprised to find that when she searched for the best international MBA schools, her homeland kept popping up.
“I didn’t search for anything in Sweden - I just wanted something challenging. But the Stockholm School of Economics came up. And I looked into it and realized it was one of the best.”
She was also attracted to the flexible, international format of the MBA at SSE, where the program is broken into week-long blocks. Many other schools would require her to attend two days a week - something which was difficult to combine with a high-level, fast-paced career.
At the Stockholm School of Economics she certainly found the challenge she was looking for.
”The tempo was challenging. I was expecting it to be tough, but it was even harder than I imagined,” she admits. ”I have always felt that I have a high capacity, but even I had the chance to meet my own limits. Which was great, because now I know where those limits are.”
For the next two years, Laila found herself studying every single weekend. She had to put her social life aside, but throughout the program she felt it was worth it.
”I went there to learn and to grow as a person - not just to get an MBA. I really wanted this.”
The Executive MBA at SSE is split into seven different modules, and within these the students learn about a variety of areas such as Accounting and Finance, Value Creation, Sustainability Management, and more. Many of the fields were far removed from Laila’s experience, and at first she wasn’t always sure it was relevant.
”There are different blocks with different focuses, such as business law and finance,” Laila explains. ”We often were assigned books to read and projects to complete in groups, which was a great way of looking at things deeper and from a different angle. You meet so many different people with such skill in their respective areas; it really opens your eyes.”
Finance and marketing are two areas where Laila feels she gained competence she didn’t have before.
”I learned a lot about the financial world, how the markets work, how to analyze financial figures and close the annual books, etc,” she says. ”Earlier I delegated those tasks because I didn’t have much knowledge or interest, but now I can ask better questions, reflect, and get more involved. I have matured, I reflect more, and I am definitely a better manager and leader.”
But Laila’s core takeaway from the MBA - if she had to choose just one - is more personal.
A section of the MBA is devoted to professional development and personal growth. The students receive personal coaching, and are also required to write a letter to themselves, which they read one year after completion of the program. Laila’s letter had to detail her plan for the future and what she needed to accomplish during the coming year.
It was harder than expected.
”There are so many other things to think about that frequently you don’t take the time to really reflect,” she muses.
”When I had to think about what I want, and where I wanted to go, I found that it wasn’t that simple to write down. ’Where am I going with this? What’s coming next?’ It’s easy enough to write down something from the heart, but then you have to actually figure out how to move towards that, and then you think - ’Oh god. How do I actually do this?’”
It led Laila to the realization that she wants to do something different - although she’s still not sure exactly what. During the MBA she had started a new role, as Site Manager at a Meritor site with over 1,000 employees. But after three years in the role, she’s decided it’s time to leave for something new.
“I have 20 years behind me as a successful path in what I do. Meaning that if I continue as is, things will be the same for another 20 years. But I want to develop. I’ve had a fantastic career, but if I want to do something different, I’ve got to get moving.”
As of October 2019, Laila has handed in her notice, and will be leaving after the new year. She has offers, but she’s still waiting for something that feels right. But she says she’s not afraid of the wait, of the uncertainty - not anymore.
”I wouldn’t have taken that step if not for the MBA. Now I know I have what it takes. So I am continuing my journey - a little bit braver, a little bit bolder,” she says.
“I learned that the world is rather like orienteering. You can’t just walk out into the woods and hope to get somewhere - you have to take your map with you, and take small steps in the right direction and keep checking that you’re on track. And now I have my roadmap. The SSE MBA showed me it is up to me to steer my life, and to take the next steps to make things different. I’m not afraid.”