November 2014 | 

Challenging Scandinavia’s Top Public and Private Sector Leaders

Challenging Scandinavia's Top Public and Private Sector Leaders

Goals don’t get much more ambitious: Mette Laursen founded the LinKS (Leadership in the Knowledge Society) program fifteen years ago to move Scandinavian society forward by helping leaders across public and private sectors grow their strategic thinking and challenge the status quo. To achieve that goal, though, she needed a partner. “LinKS focuses on influence and shaping important agendas — we’re not in the education business,” says Laursen. “We had to find a school that could provide world class education and work with us to design programs that would meet our needs.”

After an initial launch in Europe, LinKS went global. In 1999, Ms. Laursen reached out to Wharton, beginning a partnership that continues today. Each year she brings together a select, gender-balanced group of executives, politicians, board members, and policy makers for a week-long LinKS@Wharton program designed to provoke thought, confront comfortable frameworks, and provide cutting-edge knowledge and research from some of Wharton’s most esteemed faculty.

Newly appointed European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager, who has attended LinKS@Wharton, describes the result of LinKS going global: “LinKS gave me insights that I have used ever since. It is a great combination of understanding the similarities and differences between public and private sector and a global perspective on the Danish challenges. It gave me a trusted forum based on content where societal and business agendas can be discussed and change can be initiated. I have found it very fruitful and constructive — I learned a lot and hope for this collective way of thinking to spread more widely to solve the complex challenges we all face.”

Most recently, LinKS met in Washington, DC and in Philadelphia. “We went to the cradle of democracy to help us understand what it means to open up your problems and use every resource available to create a solution,” notes Laursen. “That is what Democracy is — everyone has a voice.” Ambassador Peter Taksøe-Jensen hosted the group at the Danish Embassy, where they discussed the geopolitical landscape, health care reform, and more with former U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Laurie Fulton. Former Danish Defense Secretary Søren Gade, who is also on the LinKS Advisory Board, notes, “The key issues are to create alliances across interests; this goes for business, politics, and organizations. The times we live in bring the need to expand your bandwidth and look at the systems as a whole.”

Laursen says guests such as Secretary Cohen, like Wharton faculty, gain as much from their sessions as the LinKS@Wharton participants do. “These are some of the most influential executives and government officials in Scandinavia. We bring a very high level of interest and achievement. We’re going to ask questions, and push the discussion.”

In Philadelphia, LinKS convened at the Constitution Center, where they stood in Signers’ Hall and viewed a rare copy of the foundational document. “This is why LinKS went west,” explains Laursen. “Learning about the brave men who wrote and signed the Constitution creates a powerful image for us. It exemplifies the freedom of thought and freedom to set new ambitions that exist in the United States like in no other country. We can go home inspired to make changes, whether in the Danish Ministry of Defense or in Microsoft or H&M.”

The program is in many ways a modern version of the Grand Tour, in which travel and education combine to create a more expansive view of the world. Laursen says the program encourages participants to look out — not in. “Wharton helps us create experiences that challenge our mental models. They give us new ways of seeing and new ways of finding solutions.”

That new way of seeing was made clear during a visit to the Barnes Foundation, home to one of the world’s finest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern paintings. Sessions on transforming both business models and mental models were held amid the artwork, which is hung in tight groups that encourage the viewer to make new connections and emphasize certain elements of each piece. “Mr. Barnes was brilliant,” says Laursen. “This museum illustrates what we do in LinKS — challenging ourselves to redesign and reorchestrate. The Barnes collection shows you that the truth is not always what you think it is.”

For Wharton academic director Jerry Wind and program director Sanya Sharma, working with LinKS is a highly collaborative partnership. “It’s different than any other custom program,” says Sharma. “We start the design process early in the year, with Mette providing us with market and political trends in Scandinavia. She also tells us who will be in the audience; recently it was mostly government officials. We then create a program that addresses the trends and the needs of the participants. Each year it’s different.”

Although the most recent LinKS program just ended, planning is already underway for next year. The group is considering a week at the school’s San Francisco campus, that would focus on network orchestration and digital business models. Laursen says wherever the LinKS@Wharton program meets and whatever the content, the outcome will be the same. “We come to Wharton to think. This is a place where great decisions are made.”