When Lena Olving came to Micronic Mydata as the new CEO in 2013 it was a company with leading tech products but stagnant sales and low profitability. Six years later, when she retired according to plan, sales had increased almost fourfold and earnings were sky high.
“It was a fantastic journey and it felt good to be able to hand over such a well-functioning company to my successor,” says Lena Olving.
The journey of success at Mycronic (Lena Olving was the one who pushed for the name change) confirmed her standing as a successful leader in a tech-heavy industry. Her long list of merits includes several leading positions at Volvo Personvagnar and defence and security company Saab.
She is well known for making things happen. The motto her mother passed down to her is: How hard can it be? She has high expectations – for herself as well.
“I don’t just sit in a corner office giving orders; I’m ready to put in as much effort as everyone else and get my hands dirty”.
At Mycronic she encountered an organisation with indecisiveness and low self-confidence. It was also in need of a clear product strategy. Lena Olving had the recipe from her 25 years in the automotive industry.
“There you work with product roadmaps, making small and incremental improvements to products and all the while staying in contact with the customers to understand what they want”.
The first step was to put an ear to the ground and listen to the customer’s needs. For a small company in Täby outside Stockholm that builds advanced machinery for the global electronics industry, it wasn't all that simple. The company sells, for example, mask writers for plants that make photo masks for display manufacturers. The displays end up in everything from TVs to mobile phones. It wasn’t just a case of shortening the distance to the customers, but also all the way to the customers’ customers.
“You don’t just call Samsung and ask if you can see their plans for the future,” says Lena Olving.
Despite the fact that her father was President of Chalmers University of Technology and her older brother was studying engineering, the technical route wasn’t an obvious one for Olving. When she was young she was a “sports freak” and wanted most of all to be a professional golfer.
“But my dad thought I should get an education first so I followed his advice and applied to Chalmers,” says Olving.
“After looking at several areas I decided to pick mechanical engineering. Civil engineering was too muddy, I wasn’t interested in chemistry, engineering physics was too hard and electrical engineering was what my dad was teaching”.
After graduating she started at Volvo Personvagnar and her curiosity and willingness to learn new things quickly secured her her first management position. She describes the automotive industry with its very tough competition as a fantastic place to learn.
“You have to constantly deliver better products with more technology content that are preferably cheaper than the previous ones”.
She benefitted in particular from her years as head of production, first at Volvo Komponenter in Skövde and then at the assembly plant in Torslanda, which was Sweden’s largest industrial workplace at the time. She thinks that anyone with leadership ambitions should work in production management.
“You really learn how to make decisions, and often with very little information. Later when you have more information you can make a new decision if necessary”.
In 2010, which was when Lena Olving was appointed as Deputy CEO and Chief Operating Officer, she was named the most powerful woman in industry. She is often asked about quotas and female leadership, a term that she doesn’t care for.
“I don’t think there is anything feminine or masculine about leadership. There are only female and male leaders. We are all different individuals”.
She doesn’t believe in quotas either. The talent is out there – it’s just a case of looking properly for it. Men should try harder to understand how women are different from them, according to Olving.
“We as women in a male-dominated world spend our whole working life trying to understand how men function and think”.
She gave one example in 2010 in her episode of “sommarprogram”, a summer series of radio broadcasts by prominent individuals, when she started by singing a popular children’s song called “Lilla snigel” (Little Snail). She has sung the song silently to herself at countless meetings while men were discussing solutions she had already proposed, but too early in the process. She tells of a time she was so immersed in the language of the men that a colleague once asked her during a meeting: “Lena, if you were a woman, what would you think?”
Her departure as CEO last spring was planned. After having commuted weekly from her homes in Gothenburg and Hjo for almost 30 years, Olving wanted to spend more time at home with her husband.
But she isn’t planning on taking it easy. With seven board appointments and regular meetings with a number of leaders that have Olving as a sounding board and mentor, her calendar is still quite full.
She often meets with female leaders and shares her experience with them. Olving hopes to be able to inspire more girls to become engineers.
“I actually don’t like being seen and heard but if, by being in the media, I can get one woman to choose to be an engineer, then it’s worth it.”
Education: MSc in Mechanical Engineering at Chalmers University of Technology, 1981.
Career: Lena Olving worked for 25 years at Volvo Personvagnar in many leadership positions. Five of them were spent in Asia and seven in the management team. At the beginning of the 1990s she served as CEO of Samhall Högland in Nässjö for a number of years. In 2008 she was named Deputy CEO and Chief Operating Officer at defence and security company Saab. In 2013 she became CEO of the electronics industry company Mycronic.
Distinctions: H.M. The King’s Medal of the 12th size with the bright blue ribbon, 2018. Member of IVA since 2006. Ruter Dam, 2013. Gabrielsen Award, 2012. Named the most powerful woman in industry by Veckans Affärer, 2010. Member of the boards of Assa Abloy, Latour, Munters, NXP.