Psychologist uses research to cultivate job satisfaction at Plantorama

After graduating with a degree in psychology from Aarhus University, Maj Schøler Fausing went straight for a career in the private sector. To improve her competitiveness, she did a PhD. Today, she’s creating results as head of strategy at Plantorama.

As head of strategy at Plantorama, psychologist and PhD from Aarhus University Maj Schøler Fausing works to create alignment and improve motivation across different groups of employees. Photo: Camilla Rønde/Plantorama

It is not every day that Plantorama hires a psychologist with a PhD. In fact, Maj Schøler Fausing is the first one in the company’s 35-year history. She joined the rapidly expanding garden centre chain because the head office realised it needed someone to develop and execute a business strategy in all thirteen of the chains locations across Denmark.

“I was hired to create alignment in the organisation. It has many parallels to writing a PhD, where you have to keep a lot of balls in the air without dropping any of them,” explains 38-year-old Fausing, who as head of strategy also manages a team of seven centre managers. 

The concept of "shared leadership" was the subject of her PhD project in psychology at Aarhus University, and today she uses her research background to give the individual managers or teams ownership of clearly defined leadership tasks. The aim is to improve motivation and create better commercial results.

“I spend my time spotting strengths and motivational factors among managers and identifying areas with untapped potential for collaboration, team optimisation or new areas of responsibility,” Fausing says. 

Research competencies for the private sector

According to Fausing, you need a helicopter perspective to do a PhD. This has given her an ability to understand complex material quickly and extract the main point without getting lost in the details that she draws on in her job.

“If I’m to help a division get to grips with the strategy, I need to be able to understand the dynamics and processes in the team. Otherwise you can easily impose a strategy on to something that can’t actually be realised in practice,” she explains.

In a company that employs both unskilled workers and university graduates, Fausing must ensure that everyone understands the strategy. Good communication skills are decisive in this regard. According to Fausing, this is another skill she honed as a PhD student: there’s a lot of teaching involved in a doctoral programme. And when she advises managers on how to tackle difficult dialogues with their employees, she also draws on her ability to explain complex material in a simple way that everyone can understand and use in practice.

According to Fausing, communication is the key to a successful business: you can’t create growth if your employees don’t experience a clear link between the strategy and the purpose of their work. 

“It’s fantastic to get people with such different competencies to pursue the same goal,” Fausing says.

Reach out to businesses

Fausing decided early in her PhD project that she wanted to apply her research in the private sector. She also wanted to apply her theoretical knowledge from the university in practice. For her, doing a PhD was a way to stand out from the crowd as a psychologist.

But as it turned out, the biggest challenge in launching a career outside academia was explaining to companies what value an employee with a PhD can contribute.
Although schmoozing over finger food doesn’t come naturally to Fausing, she forced herself to participate in a variety of leadership conferences while she was still a PhD student. Today, she realises that this had a huge impact on creating contacts in business and industry:  

“It gave me a platform where I could communicate my knowledge about leadership directly to the companies.”

Plantorama CEO Peter Vang Christensen was one of the top executives who joined Fausing’s network. Today, the company benefits enormously from the expertise she gained at the university, he believes.

“Maj contributes analyses that give the company a different approach to developing strategy, so we ensure that all employees are pulling in the same direction. She spots the weaknesses in the organisation and takes steps to to correct them. This helps drive development and moves the company forward,” he says.