The year 2020 started out well. Plans for Haaga-Helia’s new strategy period beginning in 2021 had been completed. President Teemu Kokko firmly believed that the coming year would also be a success.
When Kokko returned from his winter holiday trip in March, COVID-19 was starting to realign the world. Less than a week later, Haaga-Helia switched to a hybrid model, with almost all teaching and other activities arranged remotely. The change took place quickly, over just one night.
– In a crisis, people display amazing resourcefulness and creativity. We had talked about moving many things online for years, and now they were moved there overnight, Kokko says.
Exceptional circumstances also brought forth new everyday heroes, as those more advanced in digital skills helped their colleagues. The President worked long hours but didn’t need to lose any sleep over it.
– Our management system worked extremely well. Everyone also realised that it needed to be done, which simplified things from the management perspective.
A fortunate coincidence led to a career in education
Teemu Kokko has steered Haaga-Helia as the President and CEO since June 2015. His education career began as early as 1986 when the then young economist got a job at the Haaga Institute. Kokko says that it happened by pure accident – and a lucky coincidence.
– When I was studying, I worked as a croupier, spinning the roulette wheel. One evening in the break room, I saw a newspaper advertisement for a marketing lecturer position at the Haaga Institute. I put the advertisement in my pocket, and now, here we are. Sometimes in life, small things can grow into big things.
Gradually, one task followed another, and the responsibilities grew from teaching to management. Kokko has also lived several years abroad with his family, courtesy of his wife Maimo Henriksson’s diplomatic career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Kokko emphasises internationalisation in his work as well. Haaga-Helia’s international cooperation network includes about 200 partners, with an active student exchange. Last year, however, was exceptional also in this regard.
– In the spring, one of the biggest challenges was to repatriate our Finnish exchange students, and to assist foreign students in returning to their respective countries.
Another important priority for Kokko is corporate cooperation. Haaga-Helia has about a hundred business partners, with cooperation ranging from internships and theses to teaching. It is a win-win-win partnership: companies find future experts, and the students get to know the business world, with Haaga-Helia providing the platform.
Reading and physical exercise as a balance to work
Teemu Kokko spent July at the family’s summer place in the Stockholm archipelago. He had time to read books during the holiday, something he reserves time to do every day.
– For me, reading before falling asleep is a way to settle down for the night. I read all kind of books in Finnish, Swedish and English. Lots of history, sometimes classics, but also whodunnits.
Spectator sports and exercise are also part of Kokko’s free time. Born and bred in the capital city, he is known as a passionate IFK Helsinki fan, watching both hockey and football. Due to COVID-19, however, there haven’t been many matches.
– I miss the games. It’s emotional for me – when my team comes out of the tunnel, there is a tear in the corner of my eye, he says with a smile.
Kokko maintains his fitness by playing floorball and going to the gym and guided fitness classes.
– I have quite a lot of energy, and exercise is a good way to channel it. I don’t feel well if I don’t get to exercise.
The importance of meaningful work
It is quiet on the Haaga-Helia main campus in Pasila in December, but lights are on in the president’s office on the eighth floor. The autumn has been busy for the staff: the hybrid model has already been maintained for nine months.
– All in all, it has gone surprisingly well, even though there have been some signs of fatigue, Kokko sums up.
The students also have managed well, though not everyone’s studies have progressed as planned during the pandemic. In Haaga-Helia, this applies to 10–15% of the students.
– We’re trying to reach them. Much can be done together, but the most difficult are those cases where the student cannot be contacted.
Almost 20,000 people apply to Haaga-Helia each year, with another record reached in autumn. Kokko has long been concerned about the relative shortage of study places in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. The Government’s decision to increase the number of study places brought 90 new study places to Haaga-Helia in the autumn. The decision was welcome, but it did not solve the problem yet.
– Every week, I receive phone calls from applicants and their parents asking if there is any chance to get a study place. These are heart-rending conversations when an intelligent person with a relatively good certificate is left on the reserve list.
Kokko says that he enjoys being the President very much. He finds it a privilege to work in the field of education with professional people. He also praises the students.
– The students are fantastic: they are intelligent, sensible and have clear plans. In my career, I’ve always valued meaningfulness very high. What could be more important than building young people’s futures?