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Learning to Innovate

With fresh perspectives and creative ingenuity, Louise Kyhl Triolo is reinventing learning at Airbus.

BY AGATHA BORDONARO

PHOTOS BY BRIAN FLAHERTY

In 2000, Louise Kyhl Triolo was a fresh-faced, newly minted master’s program graduate in Copenhagen, helping fellow Danish citizens find jobs through her role as an outplacement consultant, when she made the decision to move to Paris.

“I wanted to know what it was like to work in a business, and I wanted to do that in Paris because I loved France and knew how to speak French,” she said. So the enterprising then-25-year-old moved, giving herself three months to find employment in the City of Lights. On the final day of her sojourn, she landed an interview — and ultimately a job — with L’Oréal.

Over the next 15 years, two more bold moves followed, first to the south of France for a position with Airbus Helicopter and then, two years ago, to Silicon Valley to head up leadership development, culture innovation and the North American Leadership University for Airbus, joining a newly created team of three in a small office in Mountain View, California. Kyhl Triolo got the job by writing a white paper explaining why the new team would need someone like her.

A deeply ingrained entrepreneurial spirit, outside-the-box thinking and willingness to take risks have made Kyhl Triolo a dynamo in the learning field today, earning her the description, “one of the most creative people I have ever known” from her boss, David Fink, vice president of human resources for the Dutch-based aerospace and defense company Airbus Group.

“Louise is brilliant. Her thinking is far beyond,” Fink said. “We love having her on our team because she will always say something that no one else has really thought of, including myself. And it’ll make us think more creatively about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

In With the New

Kyhl Triolo traces her interest in the learning industry to that first job as an outplacement consultant, where she saw firsthand how important it was for workers to continually learn and develop in order to stay relevant and employable.

“I discovered that people who had 25, 30 years of experience in the same company, the day they were laid off, suddenly lost everything — their identity, their confidence, their self-worth. They didn’t know who they were or what to do,” she said. “That’s where the desire to develop and grow people stems from. [This then expanded] to see if we can help organizations evolve and renew themselves and innovate and create the conditions for people to bring their best selves to work.”

“We’re really trying to create and infuse an entrepreneurial spirit inside the organization.”

— Louise Kyhl Triolo, head of leadership development, culture innovation and the North American Leadership University, Airbus

In an industry like aeronautics, where fast-paced technological advancements, creative business models and new market players like Elon Musk’s SpaceX have set the stage for major disruption, the ability to adapt and refresh has never been more important.

“You’ve got to move fast. And if you don’t, you’re going to fall behind quickly. And if you fall behind, you may not be able to ever catch up,” said Alex Veneziano, legal counsel for Airbus, who has taken several leadership development courses designed and helmed by Kyhl Triolo.

“The disruption that can occur is occurring — and it can have a significant impact to our business,” Fink said.

To come out on top, Airbus is reinventing itself. The company, which has more than 130,000 employees across 180 locations worldwide, has operated for decades as “a very structured engineering company that engineers everything,” Fink said. But that’s about to change.

“We are moving from this control-and-command organization to a much more open and networked organization,” Kyhl Triolo said. “We’re activating a sustainable cultural change, helping our leaders change their mindsets and ways of working. We’re really trying to create and infuse an entrepreneurial spirit inside the organization.”

In fact, Kyhl Triolo’s team at Airbus was created to help the organization “disrupt itself,” according to Fink. “Learning is the key to making that change happen,” Kyhl Triolo said. “It’s driven through people.”

Instilling Change

Igniting and sustaining a cultural change is no easy feat. Kyhl Triolo has set about creating a multilayered series of initiatives to help her accomplish her goal.

These include a nine-month transformational leadership program for all 2,500 managers in the organization; a course in digital leadership; a partnership with Stanford University to offer online leadership development courses; virtual coaching for leadership transitions; better support for remote leadership situations through the use of artificial intelligence — specifically a “beamer,” a mobile avatar that allows for a more realistic experience in remote situations; executive learning trips to Silicon Valley so that leaders “get to touch, feel and experience the culture that is here,” according to Kyhl Triolo; and her biggest achievement to date: the “Dream Big” challenge.

Inspired by the XPrize Foundation, which leverages the collective wisdom of people around the world to help solve some of humanity’s most pressing problems, Dream Big is a companywide contest for ideas and solutions to the organization’s biggest market challenges.

“I said, ‘At Airbus we have 135,000 talented people. Why don’t we tap into this huge wisdom [pool] to come up with solutions and ideas for solving our big challenges for the future?’ ” Kyhl Triolo said. “A lot of people are buried under bureaucracy. It’s freeing up this whole potential.”

“She’s really focused on the people. I think it’s quite personal for her. She doesn’t just see a number.”

— Dena Anderson, manager of industrial engineering and continuous improvement, Airbus

So last September, she and her colleagues launched the incentive challenge, which drew 700 ideas from employees all over the world. Each idea was presented in a one-minute video, and Kyhl Triolo and her team selected 150 finalists to attend a learning summit, with three ultimate winners earning a trip to Silicon Valley; Shenzhen, China; and Bangalore, India. The winners were also granted the opportunity to incubate their ideas for three months within the Airbus innovation labs.

“It generated so much energy,” Fink said. “For a very large, somewhat bureaucratic company to do something that forward thinking and have our leaders engaged — that was because of Louise.”

The Dream Big initiative dovetails with a methodology Kyhl Triolo is working to instill into the organization called “think wrong,” which derives from a book titled “Think Wrong: How to Conquer the Status Quo and Do Work That Matters.” The book proposes novel frameworks and tools to come up with creative solutions to existing problems.

“We use [it] to help us break away from the status quo and current culture and come up with unexpected, innovative solutions to our business challenges,” Kyhl Triolo said.

Building Relationships

According to many who have worked with her, Kyhl Triolo is the perfect person to be spearheading these groundbreaking initiatives.

“She has this real liveliness about her,” said Dena Anderson, manager of industrial engineering and continuous improvement at Airbus in Grand Prairie, Texas, who recalls a recent experience working with Kyhl Triolo to hire trainers for the company’s leadership university.

Louise Kyhl Triolo, head of Airbus’ North American Leadership University, says learning is the key to making change happen.

“After we did each interview, we had a little debrief among the four or five of us who were [hiring]. She had some really interesting perspectives,” Anderson said. “It made me think when I was looking at the next candidate who came in the room — and even when I do interviews now for hiring other people onto my team. That’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve learned from her.”

“Louise is very high energy,” added Veneziano. “And because she’s a true believer, and she’s so high energy, it’s infectious working with her. She makes it kind of obvious that this is the way of the future, so it’s time to get on board.

Fink said Kyhl Triolo is also a talented relationship builder — a critical skill for bringing about cultural change at a legacy company like Airbus.

“Louise is one of the most compassionate human beings. She’s just very approachable,” Fink said. “She connects with people so easily at any level. It doesn’t matter if they’re the CEO or head of a division or a first-line manager. She treats people the same no matter who they are.”

“She’s really focused on the people,” said Anderson. “I think it’s quite personal for her. She doesn’t just see a number. She doesn’t say, ‘OK, I have a training goal where I need to make sure that 500 people are trained in North America this year.’ To her, I feel like it’s more about the change that it makes in people and how it helps their development.”

“After we did each interview, we had a little debrief among the four or five of us who were [hiring]. She had some really interesting perspectives,” Anderson said. “It made me think when I was looking at the next candidate who came in the room — and even when I do interviews now for hiring other people onto my team. That’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve learned from her.”

“Louise is very high energy,” added Veneziano. “And because she’s a true believer, and she’s so high energy, it’s infectious working with her. She makes it kind of obvious that this is the way of the future, so it’s time to get on board.

Fink said Kyhl Triolo is also a talented relationship builder — a critical skill for bringing about cultural change at a legacy company like Airbus.

“Louise is one of the most compassionate human beings. She’s just very approachable,” Fink said. “She connects with people so easily at any level. It doesn’t matter if they’re the CEO or head of a division or a first-line manager. She treats people the same no matter who they are.”

“She’s really focused on the people,” said Anderson. “I think it’s quite personal for her. She doesn’t just see a number. She doesn’t say, ‘OK, I have a training goal where I need to make sure that 500 people are trained in North America this year.’ To her, I feel like it’s more about the change that it makes in people and how it helps their development.”

Indeed, Kyhl Triolo said organizations too often send their employees to training courses to check a box.

“Organizations have a tendency to just send people off to a two-day course and then say, ‘Oh, good. Now the person has learned something,’ and then go back to their jobs,” she said. “That’s just not how it is.”

She believes learning should be constant, experiential and “totally integrated into how you work, how you live your life, how you drive your goals.” It’s a philosophy that’s partly influenced by her Danish upbringing.

“There’s actually a word in Denmark — arbejdsglæde — that doesn’t exist in any other language. It means happiness at work,” she said. “It’s still, for me, an overarching goal of how I see life, how I see work and how I should be.”

Current Success and Future Challenges

Kyhl Triolo’s learning and leadership development courses consistently receive a 4 or 5 out of 5 in survey feedback, but she said the most satisfying results are those that bring about real change. For example, in 2017 she ran an executive master class around agile leadership that brought together North American leaders to work on relationship building and tackle current business issues.

“What came out of that was a discovery that there needed to be more work happening around identity, strategy and vision for Airbus in North America,” she said. “You’re getting people together to learn how to work differently together and create relationships, and the outcome ends up being, ‘Hey, we need to have a clarified strategy and vision and identity.’ For me, there could not be a better outcome.”

Her creative mission doesn’t come without hurdles, however. While building initiatives from scratch is Kyhl Triolo’s specialty, it’s also one of her greatest challenges.

“You don’t really have anything except for a white piece of paper and someone telling you, ‘You tell us what to do.’ That’s a massive, massive challenge,” she said.

On top of that, getting executive buy-in — “so that they support you in the right way” — is particularly daunting when it comes to new and untested projects. But Kyhl Triolo has a knack for connecting and inspiring leaders to think differently, Fink said. “It’s not easy in this company where you’re up against a lot of engineers who have been doing their work [the same way] for a long time.”

“What came out of that was a discovery that there needed to be more work happening around identity, strategy and vision for Airbus in North America,” she said. “You’re getting people together to learn how to work differently together and create relationships, and the outcome ends up being, ‘Hey, we need to have a clarified strategy and vision and identity.’ For me, there could not be a better outcome.”

Her creative mission doesn’t come without hurdles, however. While building initiatives from scratch is Kyhl Triolo’s specialty, it’s also one of her greatest challenges.

“You don’t really have anything except for a white piece of paper and someone telling you, ‘You tell us what to do.’ That’s a massive, massive challenge,” she said.

On top of that, getting executive buy-in — “so that they support you in the right way” — is particularly daunting when it comes to new and untested projects. But Kyhl Triolo has a knack for connecting and inspiring leaders to think differently, Fink said. “It’s not easy in this company where you’re up against a lot of engineers who have been doing their work [the same way] for a long time.”

Kyhl Triolo considers arbejdsglæde — a Dutch word meaning happiness at work — an overarching life goal.

“We used to be very hierarchical and bureaucratic,” Veneziano said of Airbus. “That’s gone. I don’t feel like I’m going to offend somebody or put my own career at risk by raising a unique way of working or by trying to move faster than people seem comfortable with. I think [Louise] has done such a good job of exposing this mindset to the people who run the company that it lets people like me operate freely. She has been very effective at pushing a culture change.”

Despite all this success, for Kyhl Triolo it’s just the beginning.

“Because of our capacity to bring people together and because of our outreach in the organization … we are instigators of innovation,” she said of her fellow learning professionals. “We can really, truly contribute to innovating — and the future of the company.”

Agatha Bordonaro is a writer based in New York. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.