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How to lead a company through a customer-driven purpose

This episode is a fascinating one, even for someone that’s not in the Medtech industry. Gitte Aabo is the President & CEO of GN Hearing, a company which specializes in innovative hearing health solutions that are used globally. Gitte oversees the hearing aid division of GN Group and it is eye-opening to learn and recognize how our hearing plays a big role in our lives and the kind of impact hearing loss can have on individuals and their families. 

Being people-centred; both customer and employee-oriented has made it possible for GN Hearing to survive the covid pandemic, maintain their talented and driven staff and even launch innovative programs that have made it easier to access hearing aids, especially for the elderly.

Gitte loves her job so much that her favorite day is Monday. Her passion for her work is mesmerizing and she shares her takeaways for leading an organization through a pandemic, her philosophy for building companies and how the thank you letters from GN’s customer’s changed her approach to her job.

Starting From the Bottom

Gitte Aabo began her career at Leo Pharma as a trainee just out of business school. Leo Pharma A/S is a multinational pharmaceutical Danish company with a revenue of close to two billion US dollars. Over a span of 26 years, she steadily worked her way to the top from accountant to finance manager, PA to the CEO, Vice President of Finances and IT, Deputy Group Managing Director and finally President and CEO. 

In 2018, she joined GN’s Store Nord’s Board and a year later, was hired as the CEO which is how she transitioned from pharma to Medtech.

About GN Hearing

GN Hearing makes medical devices in GN Group’s hearing aid division and is a world leader in hearing aids, GN Group, also has a second division known as GN Audio that creates innovative headset solutions and video cameras for office workers and consumers.  

GN Group is a global company that has roots in Denmark which is where it has its local headquarters. The company has stood the test of time for 150 years by being innovative and able to adjust to different market conditions.

GN Hearing Values

“Our mission in life is to make life sound better so this is really what we strive for. You can say on the one hand, we obsess about technology and being on the forefront of bringing the newest technology into the market and at the same time, we want to also obsess about our customers and our end users – to really understand their needs and ensure that our hearing aids are catered for those needs.”

Why is The Adoption Rate of Hearing Aids so Low?

On average, one in four or one in five people that have hearing loss are using hearing aids – which is very low. This is despite the significant innovation that has taken place across the hearing industry over the last 10 years. 

There are several reasons why the adoption rate is low. One of them is that people may not even be aware that they are experiencing hearing loss. The second one is the stigma associated with wearing hearing aids and Gitte is hoping that perception will change with the new trend of wireless earbuds. 

“The adoption rate of hearing aids needs to increase because hearing loss has a big impact on people. People with hearing loss tend to withdraw from social interactions and also, if you have a severe hearing loss and leave it untreated, you have a fivefold increased risk of developing dementia. “

Pivoting and Innovating During Covid to Serve Customers Stuck at Home

GN Hearing’s customer group is mainly above the age of 65 which really impacted the company when the pandemic hit since this group age is the most vulnerable to covid. This led the company to experience a huge drop in their sales. 

Instead of decreasing their investment in R&D, the company continued at the same level and even accelerated some of their innovations, bringing one of their ideas to life: ReSound Assist Live.

ReSound Assist Live allows customers to conduct remote in-ear testing and fitting done in the comfort of their own home. This service has made it convenient and safe for their customers to get tested and fitted.

GN Hearing also developed a program for hearing aids called the ‘Face Mask Program’. Along with hearing, people tend to read lip to understand what the person talking to them is saying. Face masks inhibit this and also muffle the sound which makes it even more difficult for the hearing impaired to understand when someone speaks. GN Hearing provided adjustment opportunities for hearings aids in that regard.

Another initiative GN Hearing started during the coronavirus crisis was their donation of hearing aids for the value of one million dollars to people most in need of hearing aids. Local audiologists helped GN Hearing identify people in need of hearing aids that could not afford it.

Finding Ways to Help Employees Cope During the Pandemic

The pandemic has been tough on the organization and employees. GN Hearing employees voluntarily took pay cuts for several months in order to help keep the company afloat. 

The social aspect of work was also affected so the company found ways to keep employees motivated by having virtual events like celebrating birthdays or other family events and having a Friday bar where people have a drink together online.

“It’s really been a demanding year and I’m just extremely proud of how people have stood up to that challenge and keep reaching out to each other.”

When they did their global engagement survey in late August, Gitte was extremely pleased to see that the engagement score in GN Hearing overall was very high and actually better than their peers. 

“So obviously that made me again really proud of the team. And I think that kind of engagement and motivation is what probably allowed us to bring, for instance, ReSound Assist Live into the market so quickly.”

Gitte’s Philosophy for Building Companies

At the core, it is about constantly making the company stronger so that GN Hearing can do even more for the people they serve.

Secondly, having a strong focus on the end-user and their interaction with the product. “That is what gets me up in the morning on a dark and cold December morning. That’s what gets me out of bed when we get these amazing comments from people just telling how much they appreciate the difference that we make with the product we bring to the market.”

To complete her philosophy, she places a lot of emphasis on teamwork. “In a company like GN Hearing, it’s about collaborating together to make a difference together.” 

Major Learnings for 2020

During the pandemic, GN Hearing was able to initiate programs that had been on the backburner and even accelerate others like ReSound Assist Live. Gitte’s takeaway is that if they continue working this way, then they can accomplish even more during normal circumstances. 

Being focused on what matters and what is actually within your control is another lesson she has gleaned from this difficult time. “In 2020 it’s been really easy to be distracted by a lot of other things and so really having that focus on what you can influence is key.”

How Did You Develop Your customer-centred Outlook?

“It was actually in my former job at Leo Pharma. I was the CFO and I had this background in accounting and I must admit for a long time, I probably thought the company was all about the money and the financial KPIs. 

I remember distinctly when we launched a new product in one of our markets; a treatment for psoriasis. I went there to review the financial results of that and then I saw that in the windshields, there were love letters and I asked, ‘What are these love letters about?’ and I started reading some of them. It was actually patients writing to the company to say, ‘Thank you for the product you’ve brought to the market,’ because it profoundly changed their lives. 

It really humbled me and made me realize what a difference we make. It happened in Leo Pharma and it happens here at GN. People write to us just to say thank you for the difference we’re making in their lives. Back then, I realized that this is what it’s really all about. Since then it has been an engine for me, a motivation beyond any financial number.”

The Future for GN Hearing

Following the launch of ReSound ONE, Gitte wants to see how it will be received by the market. This hearing device is a groundbreaking technology that was 10 years in the making. 

50% of people using a hearing aid are unable to tell whether the sound they hear is in front of them or behind them and 90% of people with a hearing aid struggle to hear in a noisy environment because they miss all the cues that you get using your outer ear. 

Ordinarily, the receiver and microphone sit on the hearing aid, behind the ear. With ReSound One, the hearing aid has three microphones, with one placed with the receiver and a second one that sits in the ear canal. This third microphone helps you capture sound organically. 

“This device improves how a user determines direction, distance and depth of sound. It is really unique and important because of the way we hear and the way we perceive sounds. The way I perceive sound is different from how you perceive sound. It is individual, like our fingerprints, and a big part of that is the outer ear.”

In terms of technology, 2021 is going to be an exciting year based on what GN has planned and also based on partnerships they have with Apple, Google, startups and academia.

What is the Legacy that You Want to Leave on the world?

“For us to be able to make hearing aids that people fall in love with. A little bit like your phone. Nobody is leaving their home without their phone. I would love for us to make hearing aids that have that same affinity for people.

Then I would love to leave the company behind even stronger than what I inherited. I think that’s an important part of my job, here in GN Hearing, and keeping in mind the strong history, I want us equally to have a very strong future. 

Finally, I hope we, at GN hearing, can demonstrate that we do not only obsess about technology, we truly obsess about our customers and making life sound better.”

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