Meet B Team CEO Halla Tómasdóttir

08/15/2018
Halla Q&A

Can you share a little bit about your path, and what you’re most excited for as The B Team’s new Chief Executive Officer?

To me, everything I am and everything I have done comes together in The B Team. Coming from Iceland, a country that leads the world when it comes to gender balance and punches well above its weight when it comes to sustainable solutions, I studied in the US and started my leadership career in corporate America. There I became passionate about the power of principled leadership, but also faced the downside of corporate cultures where short-termism has taken hold.

I returned to Iceland after a decade in the US and joined the founding team of a new university with the purpose of raising Iceland’s competitiveness. We believed in the transformative power of education, equality and entrepreneurship and I had the pleasure of creating and leading many programs and initiatives that I know made a positive impact. I was later asked to become the first female CEO of the Iceland Chamber of Commerce and surprised many people when I decided to leave that high-profile position to become an entrepreneur myself. I guess I lost faith in the sustainability of the underlying values of business and finance and decided to make an honest attempt at working from a better set of principles. I co-founded an investment firm that ended up being one of the few investment firms that survived the infamous financial meltdown in Iceland.

Surviving Iceland’s meltdown made me even more fierce about using my voice and values to make a difference in this world. I have since been on a quest to empower and inspire authentic, gender-balanced and principled leadership. On a mission to make a meaningful difference, I ran for President of Iceland a couple of years ago. Fortunately I came in second, as I frankly can’t imagine a more important quest than the one The B Team is on. I am honoured to join a team of like-minded leaders, who are collectively building a movement that will change the world. I am excited to join a team that embraces principled leadership, is courageous enough to collectively discuss bold solutions and brave enough to make change happen.

As The B Team is celebrating its five-year anniversary, what do you see as the key priorities for the organisation over the next five years and beyond?

I believe The B Team has been successful in conveying an ambitious vision and in raising its collective voice and vision. The B Team excels at inspiring action within themselves and others to lead brave action in their individual companies, countries and regions. To me, the next phase for The B Team is all about galvanising bold dialogue and brave action, not just among the committed, but also among the reluctant. We will continue to push for increased business ambition on climate, better governance and greater transparency to build a new social contract, and world, that truly embraces inclusive values and bolsters human rights.  

Why are you passionate about driving private sector action on some of the world’s most pressing issues?

I have had the privilege of serving in the corporate world as a leader and a board director of diverse companies. I have been involved in numerous social movements as an activist and I have also been an entrepreneur, worked in the world of finance and nearly assumed the highest office in my country. This combined experience convinced me that we can’t change the world without the full engagement of the private sector. I am eager to engage private sector leaders as well as other change catalysts in creating the world we want and need.

What, in your opinion, is one of the biggest challenges facing the movement toward a purpose-driven and principled private sector currently?

I immediately think of three things:

  • We have to re-think what we measure and reward. Our definition of success has been too narrow. We focus on economic profit alone and forget about our impact on people and the planet. We measure GDP, but forget about social progress, happiness, environmental protection and other issues that matter just as much. If we set greater ambition than economic profit and GDP growth, and if we measured progress toward such goals, we would be more purpose-driven and principled in our approach to success. If we continue to speak to the market quarterly and incentivize only financial achievements, we will fail to deliver The B Team’s vision.
  • We need diverse leadership. I believe sameness brought my country off the cliff. We will never be truly innovative if everyone in leadership looks and talks the same. We need more female leaders and we need to embrace the beauty of difference in dialogue and decision making. We can’t continue to do the same things over and over again and expect a different outcome. New solutions are needed, now more than ever.
  • We need to make money a force for good. Money has enormous influence in our world and reevaluating the strength of this influence would be a positive step toward a better future. I also believe we need to encourage our institutional investors to embrace leadership when it comes to redefining success. Why would any pension funds settle for making narrow financial returns if they are in a position to ask for so much more than that?

These challenges can sometimes feel overwhelming or daunting. Who, or what, do you turn to for continued inspiration and perseverance in these moments?

First and foremost my inner voice and values. I spent the first years of my career learning from others and I was lucky enough to have some truly amazing mentors and sponsors. I achieved what most would consider traditional career success rather early in life, but it didn’t feel like enough. I was searching for  greater meaning and following that burning need to make a difference I slowly got rid of that “imposter syndrome” and realized that truth resides inside of me—and in every one of us. When you find a way to serve a purpose that is greater than your own ego, happiness and success appears in abundance. Now I meditate, journal, spend time in nature and with myself and my family to make sure I stay centered and in line with my quest.

But these challenges also spark new, creative thinking, innovation and art around the world. Are there any movements, moments or art you’ve found especially significant or inspirational in your work?

In 1975, the women of Iceland went on a “strike” for a day. Icelandic women refused to do any work that day, whether they held professional jobs or worked within the home. Nothing worked in Iceland that day, and while many of these women faced negative consequences, their courage, sisterhood and solidarity sparked a movement that probably allowed us to now be the global leader in closing the gender gap. This historic event, that took place when I was only seven years old, influenced my worldview and made me think I could matter. I believe this event partially inspired the most powerful social movements of our time particularly those of women rising up, running for office, marching in the streets and generally not keeping quiet. Nearly every woman I know wants to make a positive impact in this world. We have held that ambition back long enough. It is time for women to sit around the decision-making tables. When they get there in equal numbers the world will be a better place.

Stories are an especially important part of these endeavors. What was the last book you read?

I just read a book by James E. Ryan, the Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and soon-to-be President of the University of Virginia, called Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions.  It is a small, but powerful book that discusses the important questions we should ask. Asking the right questions can often be more important than jumping to answers. Listening to the answers we get when we ask good questions is an essential leadership skill and will also help us come up with effective answers. I sometimes wonder if we are experiencing a “political crisis” across the world because we have failed to listen and learn.

2018 marks a monumental year for global action on sustainability issues. How do you think The B Team is uniquely positioned to mobilize at this crucial time especially with new regional Members on board?

We are a team of courageous leaders willing to lead brave action. All our Leaders have achieved success, but also realized that true success is not about yourself—but about the difference you make in this world. I can’t think of a time when there has been a greater need for B Leadership and we are ready to lead the way, encouraging others to join us. We will enlist global leaders, but we will also make sure that all of the amazing, emerging entrepreneurs design their new and innovative companies in a principled way. We will set out to transform existing leadership and support  incoming leadership to be Born B. We will partner with those who are aligned in values, but also seek ways to bring along those who are not there yet. We need everyone’s leadership to create and maintain a sustainable world and we are committed to catalysing such a movement!

Photo by Chela Crinnion provided courtesy of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools

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