Finland’s Female Leadership Sweep

The nation’s new prime minister is 34—and allied with an all-female-led coalition. The challenges she and many young leaders face.

Around the world, millennials have been assuming leadership en masse over the last two years, and this week another member of the generation has one of the toughest leadership tasks: running a country.

Sanna Marin, 34, was appointed Finland’s new prime minister, immediately becoming the world’s youngest serving prime minister. (The next two youngest, the prime ministers of Ukraine and New Zealand, are 35 and 39, respectively.) But what may be attracting as much attention is how she is leading a coalition government of five political parties that are all led by women. All but one is a millennial as well.

Such a female gender sweep is rare, of course. “Among Fins, there is a certain pride that we are forerunners in this diversity,” says Johan Blomqvist, Korn Ferry’s general manager in Helsinki, Finland. Indeed, the nation has a long history in such matters, with women being given the vote in 1906—before the US, Sweden, UK, Norway, or Denmark, to name a few. But given the large portion of younger voters relative to older ones, experts believe there will be more youthful world leaders soon.

In Marin’s case, there are some clear Finland-specific issues. The Scandinavian nation has a growing economy but a stubbornly high jobless rate, says Blomqvist. Overall unemployment is 6.2%, but for the age group under 24 it is 14.9%. “The Finish labor market is in a critical situation,” Blomqvist says. Also, Marin will have to deal with industrial action by organized labor, which could bring the economy to a halt.

But Marin likely will encounter challenges that many millennial-aged managers face. For instance, Finland has a large population of elderly citizens, which places an increasingly heavy financial burden on the country. Like most young managers, she’ll face a balancing act of meeting the country’s needs while juggling a group full of different generations, all with their own wants and needs. 

Marin must also contend with the same problem many of today’s new managers face: a lack of experience. While Marin has been an elected official since 2015, she has spent less than six months in the role of a relatively minor minister. Marin’s ascent, in a way, is the exception to how many women have achieved leadership roles. In the Korn Ferry study, Women CEOs Speak, many women who have run large US corporations said they had to work more years than their male counterparts to get the top job.

“This is a wildly different role to anything she’s held before,” says Kirsta Anderson, Korn Ferry’s global solution leader for culture transformation. To be successful in her new role, Marin will need to be confident but still question herself, says Anderson. “It’s a fine line,” she says. So is forming a team of trusted advisors with diverse perspectives. “It’s creative abrasion,” Anderson says.

Like many millennials, Marin also could turn her relative lack of experience into an advantage. She may have a more common-sense approach in problem-solving and won’t be dogged by past deals, says Anderson. “She won’t owe people favors,” Anderson says.