This month we focus on Johann Koss. Johann is the Norwegian-born President and CEO of Right To Play International (“RTP”), an organization that promotes sport and play globally as a tool for positive childhood development in areas of disadvantage. Operating in more than 20 countries, RTP reaches more than one million children each week through hundreds of staff and thousands of volunteer coaches.
Before RTP, Johann was a former Olympic speed skating world title holder who shared Sports Illustrated magazine's Sportsman of the Year award in 1994. In 2012, Johann received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Special Citation for social entrepreneurship. In 2011, Time Magazine named him "one of 100 future leaders of tomorrow" and he was declared a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
Johann trained as a physician at the University of Queensland in Australia and later completed his Executive MBA at the Rotman School of Management (University of Toronto). He is currently a board member of Gates Ltd, Dundee Industrial REIT and Secunda Inc.
According to leading psychologists, sports may provide more effective training than any business school education for tomorrow’s successful CEO. Do you agree?
Johann Koss: Sport isn’t better than business school, but there are clear areas where a sport background is helpful: 1) resilience, as individuals who have been in sport understand that, when trouble arises, they can work harder and get out of it; 2) teamwork, as athletes understand that you can’t win alone; and 3) goal setting and vision, as athletes have no problems setting long-term goals and working towards them diligently.
Born in Norway, educated in Australia and now CEO for a not-for-profit in Canada. Quite a journey! Can you shed light on how you got here, and why Canada as your latest destination?
Canada has the best multi-cultural background setting for starting a global non-for-profit and has a large amount of talent. The country has a good reputation and position internationally due to years of great international work. There has been tremendous support for RTP and the understanding that sport and play can really benefit children’s upbringing even in the most disadvantaged areas of the world. I have enjoyed living in three different countries and can say that Norway, Australia and Canada have more similarities than differences.
You went through medical school to, well, practice medicine. Or did you always know you'd become a CEO?
I thought I would become a doctor and not a CEO! When I found that no children in the most disadvantaged areas of the world play or benefit from sport, I needed to start a global organization that would do this. I used both my background in sport and medicine as a starting point to make it a high quality impact organization with large scale. With my MBA from Rotman I was able to drive new skills and growth into the organization.
What leaders have had the greatest impact on you - and why?
There are several types of leaders that have had impact on me - from visionary leaders like Mandela and Gandhi and others like them, to great operational business leaders who can successfully implement a vision and make things happen. I am always impressed with people who not only talk a good game, but deliver on its promise and drive change.
What kind of leader/boss are you?
I am a transparent visionary leader that makes things happen. It is important to both be a leader and a manager, as the CEO job requires both. It goes from bouncing back from failures and mistakes, setting goals and directions, correcting behaviour issues and finally leading the culture of achievement. I ask, listen and empathize, and, when needed, make difficult decisions. As a leader, I look at things from 30,000 feet and have the ability to get into the details when needed.
You recently decided to step down as CEO of RTP for a new challenge in the private sector. Which of your skills and competencies will transfer well to the private sector as a CEO? What challenges might await you?
We are still looking for a new CEO at RTP so I have not stepped down yet and I will work through the transition with the new CEO to make sure it will be a successful one. I believe there are very many transferable skills between leading a not-for-profit organization and a for-profit one. All general skills are very complementary such as talent management, motivation of staff, and organizational effectiveness and efficiencies. I believe personal skills such as being authentic, goal oriented and hardworking will benefit me in a for-profit setting. I believe my biggest challenges will be to learn a new industry and understand the public market and some of the main financial tools that can be used in a business setting. The not-for-profit is always a cash business and we have very limited amount of financial tools to advance and grow the mission of the organization therefore fiscal responsibility is critical. I believe there should be new options for growing impactful not-for-profit organizations through new financial tools similar to for-profit organizations.
You're a father, with three young children. Has fatherhood made you a better leader? If so, how has it?
I have three very young children and what I have not learned before about myself, I am learning now. Particularly, my own personal limitations are exposed while trying to raise three children under five. I believe very much in nurturing child development. My ability to listen to and reflect on the children’s ideas and on a number of obscure issues has given me an additional tool and ability to improve my open question technique and to check if agreement has been made.
What do Canadians most get wrong about Norway?
That it is colder in Norway than Canada. It is much colder in Canada! That might surprise many, but due to the gulf stream, Norway is a great winter nation, but not with the extreme cold weather we get here.
Last question – What is the one thing people often get wrong about you?
That I should be a good hockey player, since I know how to skate. The problem is that I can only turn to the left and have never held a hockey stick before. So I am a great novice on the ice when it comes to hockey, which is somewhat surprising to people.
The 17th edition of Odgers Berndtson’s global magazine is coming soon.
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