AmCham Mentorship Program: Crisis Leadership and the New Role of Business

Emerging corporate talent and seasoned executives from 12 industries gathered on August 23rd to meet with President and CEO of Yara International, Svein Tore Holsether. Proving to be an uplifting and endless treasure trove of information, the discussion centered around a particularly timely topic – leadership before, during, and after a crisis.

Initially established in 1905 as Norsk Hydro, Yara was the world’s first producer of mineral nitrogen fertilizers –a disruptive technology at the time. Their intent was to increase food production to satiate the growing population and combat famine. A study in crisis response and innovation, the company grew to 13 000 employees in over 50 countries, decoupling from Hydro into Yara International in 2004.

Holsether joined as the CEO of Yara in 2015, allowing him to witness first-hand the Paris Agreement, discuss globally the important role of food production in combating climate change, and ultimately catalyze an internally driven redefinition of their mission statement: Responsibly Feed the World and Protect the Planet.

“I am ready to challenge any company out there in the world on our employees' ability to say what the mission is."

Respect and Trust

The ability to explain every accident experienced by the company in the last year (80% lower than the average comparable organization, Holsether comments proudly), from memory, is a respect Holsether asserts he owes to all employees. This respect and sense of responsibility seem to radiate through the organization, being echoed by the strong culture of safety, and employee’s recognition of the gravity of their products in the global marketplace.


Svein Tore Holsether

From the first reports of the Covid virus in Wuhan, where Yara operates, to the vast shutdowns in Italy, program participants were guided through the sense of urgency and uncertainty that permeated the Yara offices. “We fully understood the potential magnitude of this, and how essential our products are to farmers. If our products do not get to the farmer, yields drop. In the case of wheat, by 50%,” Holsether commented, “our organization felt the pressures of surviving a health pandemic and responsibility of preventing a hunger pandemic.”

Knowing immediately the importance of maintaining operational control and protecting the health of employees, the Yara management team pulled together a panel of their most experienced operators. Leaning away from the traditional reaction of setting in place massive reporting structures and strict demands, Holsether asserts that his team knew they could rely on their colleagues globally because of three primary characteristics: a strong sense of mission, an unflappable safety program, and solid company culture.

Holsether noted that when he approached the board to tell them of their decision to give full regional control, they received full support. He empowered the organization to make decisions regionally, and prescribed three priorities:

  1. Look after the health and safety of Yara’s employees and contractors
  2. Support local governments in limiting the spread of the virus
  3. Get the product produced and out to the customers

Loyalty and Lasting Change

When the production numbers started rolling in, the company knew they had made the right decision. Regionally, teams were fighting for their rights to produce, meeting their goals, and ensuring that farmers globally were receiving their products. With this feedback, and knowing that the pandemic would be lasting, Holsether and his team set to work on how to reduce fear in their organization, and thereby allow for deeper focus. Yara put into place income security for all employees and contractors globally, in the case they should need to shut down. They initiated sick pay in areas with no formal regulation, and later, global parental paid leave.

“These past 18 months have been life changing for many of us and it has definitely, for me as a CEO, changed the way I lead the company and my productivity.”

The past 18 months, the urgency, the reduction in travel, the need for regional understanding, has all impacted Holsether as a leader and brought him closer to Yara as a whole. Taking this time to connect with employees, he has made himself available by email and through town halls, answering every email he receives. His respect for, and dedication to, the mission of the company, the role of the employee, and the importance of global responsibility shone through in every aspect of his presentation.

Svein Tore recently accepted a new for as the president of NHO, a role that requires much dedication, which has left a lot of people wondering how on earth he has the time to allocate. His response to that is “how do I not have time?”. He suggested that participants reflect on how much time they spend on internal communication versus external communication. “It is about collaboration and SDG goal # 17: Cooperation and Partnership. That is where NHO comes in. “

Achieving goals with farmers is only possible if their retailers help set the agenda on how the food is grown – ensuring farmer livelihood and a healthy climate.

“Business will not prosper in a society that does not prosper."

Leaving mentees with lasting and thought-provoking advice, Holsether highlighted how participants can choose work sustainably. “Do something that gives energy rather than extracts energy – it’s the only way for work to be sustainable.”

About the AmCham Mentorship Program

With its unique cross-industry orientation and global approach, the AmCham Mentorship Program offers a dynamic, internationally minded arena for leadership development.

The program pairs emerging corporate talent with seasoned executives from AmCham Patron-level member companies. The result: a collaborative arena that fosters improvement and reflection, prepares young leaders for the challenges of the international marketplace, and forges bonds between AmCham member companies.

If you are interested in participating in the mentorship program, please contact Madeleine Brekke at for more information.

Past Mentorship Program Events