Like most companies, IKEA had major challenges adapting to a pandemic-rife world. While this experience stretched the capability of everyone, Mike Ward, CEO of IKEA Canada, notes some powerful lessons shone through. We spoke about what he has learned and how it has impacted him, both as a person and as a Chief Executive.
According to Ward, the bedrock of resilient leadership is the company values, as they provide an invaluable navigational compass, especially when times are tough. He is highly critical of a corporate culture where “the set of values that exist during the good times are replaced by a completely different set of values when times are tough.” He notes that a major event, such as the global pandemic, is a real pressure test of a company’s value structure and lines of communication.
One of the major challenges facing IKEA was adapting their business model, while offering reassurance to a huge global workforce (7300 in Canada alone). Ward and his team recognized that constant and varied lines of communication were essential, so people know would understand what was being done, why they were doing it, and how it would affect them. This resulted in “a lot of different communities being formed…. where we spent a lot of time just dealing with how people were feeling and responding to those concerns.”
These communities did not just impact the local region. Another powerful benefit was that these circles of communication spread out from population centers as the pandemic progressed, “with sharing of information and strategies between the regions around the world.” Soon there was a clear consensus and a set of established principles to follow.
Ward noted that throughout its history, “IKEA has always focused on togetherness and community as a defining value.” This lent itself to greater transparency and communication around the pandemic measures as they were implemented, with a special emphasis placed on how these changes would (potentially) impact staff. This strategy helped alleviate staff concern and mobilized everyone around a path forward. This inspired trust in the direction and purpose of the company moving forward.
Another important decision that Ward and his team made was to prioritize employee health and safety, which extended far beyond the physical. They recognized that the tremendous uncertainty surrounding the pandemic was significantly and negatively impacting employee mental health.
He noted that the senior leadership team encouraged fellow staff to be honest and vulnerable about their current situations. “This allowed us to take concrete steps to address any concerns and make the necessary adjustments as quickly as possible.”
Ward admitted this can be easier said than done. Despite their focus on safeguarding mental health, Ward shared that he sometimes struggled to admit when he was exhausted. “Almost every Thursday afternoon, I hit this amazing dip. We started to even make jokes about it. My ability to understand that and rely on a few people to help me out during those times is critical.”
This lived experience translated to him and his team highlighting these challenges with leaders throughout the organization so they could take those lessons to their team members. “To build a safe space for people to openly share, you must exhibit continual curiosity and lead with empathy and compassion. I think that’s one of the most the best ways to create community.”
As an example of his focus on curiosity and empathy, Ward held twice-weekly online check-ins in which he could solicit employee feedback on how the company was doing, and how its values are maintained. These issues stretched beyond the immediate needs of the pandemic. Part of IKEA’s role, Ward believes, is to be “a bit of lighthouse, leading the way in terms of inculcating measures to improve diversity, inclusion, and equal rights.”
Despite the challenges, a few surprising insights have accrued because of the pandemic experience. Ward says we “discovered our ability to move mountains quickly.” We did things in two weeks that might have taken two years pre-COVID. We are now looking at how we can bring forward some of that insight into how we manage challenges and opportunities in the future.”
Beyond corporate resilience, the pandemic provided more opportunity to connect with his family and adjust his work-life balance. Ward spoke fondly of spending more time with his grown-up daughters and building a home gym with his son, who “pushes me like crazy.” He declared “I’m not giving that up afterward.”
While COVID created an enmeshing of work and home life, Ward adamantly argues that establishing and maintaining boundaries is essential to be at our best and to support the people we care about most. As he notes, “that means putting your own oxygen mask first” and creating a space to recharge.
As we continue to turn the corner on this pandemic, the above lessons will be equally if not more important. Creating safe spaces to openly share our concerns and our fears will be vital to plotting a successful course for the future. Focusing on mental health will be exceptionally important, as the prolonged and intense uncertainty has taken a toll.
Last, but not least, it is critical to remind ourselves of the power of living and leading with our core values. This is our True North. An invaluable guiding light to successfully lead us with purpose to the next station of our individual and collective journey.
Written by Craig Dowden.
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