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"I can't imagine a more meaningful job"

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Martin Ärnlöv. Photo: Carina Gran
Martin Ärnlöv. Photo: Carina Gran

One Sunday morning, Martin Ärnlöv spots a job ad. Shortly after, he leaves his top job in the business world, halves his salary and goes over to the ‘soft side’. 15 years later, he is Secretary General of the Swedish Red Cross and pleased to be making a difference in his job every day.

Growing up in Alingsås, Martin Ärnlöv was a bundle of energy. Alongside his studies on the Business and Economics programme at the School of Business, Economics and Law , he read Political Science and took on extra work as a freelance journalist. He was interested in social issues.

“I wrote a letter to Amnesty’s Secretary General Thomas Hammarberg, who was an alumnus of the Stockholm School of Economics, and asked him how he had got his job. He answered that I should make sure I learn a job thoroughly and keep up my social engagement,” says Martin Ärnlöv.

A job with many dimensions

After graduation and a short career at SKF in Gothenburg, he was headhunted for chemicals giant Akzo Nobel, where he advanced to international level management. But with three small children and many discussions with his wife Tove about work-life balance, Martin Ärnlöv felt it was time to change track. He wanted to make a difference. And then he saw the job ad stating that the Bräcke Diakoni foundation, a non-profit healthcare provider, was looking for a business-oriented Finance Manager.

“It was a job that spoke to every part of me, a role that reflected both the social and the business dimension. It was exactly what I had been missing,” says Martin Ärnlöv.

Deep understanding of the operation

Eventually he was appointed CEO of the foundation, leading an organisation through a period of strong growth. By the time of his departure in 2018, Bräcke Diakoni was operating in 16 municipalities, had gone from 300 to 1,200 employees and had increased its turnover from SEK 130 million to SEK 800 million. But Martin Ärnlöv was careful to maintain a deep understanding of the organisation and what it did.

“I usually work a few full days out in the organisation each year. At Bräcke Diakoni I changed my work clothes and took a few shifts at the elderly care unit and at the rehab centre, not as some sort of undercover boss, but to really understand what we do,” says Martin Ärnlöv.

Experience from two worlds

When the Swedish Red Cross was looking for a new Secretary General, Martin Ärnlöv, with his experience from two different worlds, was the ideal choice. With one year under his belt, he is both inspired and humbled.

“It’s an incredibly stimulating organisation to be involved with and I can’t imagine a more meaningful job. But it’s also something I need to keep an eye on. In the world of NGOs, people invest their own self in a shared idea. This provides deep motivation and can give an enormous boost, but there is also a risk that people will lose perspective and burn out, so it’s important to practise balanced leadership,” says Martin Ärnlöv.

Many challenges ahead

His new employer is one of Sweden’s most important civil society organisations, with responsibility for acting both in Sweden and internationally. Over the course of his first year, Martin Ärnlöv’s work has taken him to refugee camps in some of the world’s most vulnerable areas.

“Things are tough on the world stage, with long drawn-out conflicts that cause people to become stuck in refugee camps. It’s also a tough time in Sweden, where we have a level of social segregation that is leading to a more polarised society. And then we’re facing the enormous challenges of climate change. I see the Red Cross as an important actor that can make a difference by gathering resources and guaranteeing that help gets through,” concludes Martin Ärnlöv.

About Martin Ärnlöv

Secretary General of the Swedish Red Cross. Graduated from the School in 1988. Started his career at SKF. CFO at Akzo Nobel and CEO of Bracke Diakonia before he was headhunted to the Swedish Red Cross at the end of 2017.

This is an article from the School's Magazine 2019