Living your values ​​as the key to resilient leadership – A conversation with Mike Ward (CEO – IKEA Canada)

Like most businesses, IKEA has faced major challenges adapting to a pandemic-ridden world. While the experience put a strain on everyone’s abilities, Mike Ward, CEO of IKEA Canada, notes that some powerful lessons emerged. We talked about what he learned and the impact it had on him, both as a person and as a general manager.

According to Ward, the foundation of resilient leadership is 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 good times is replaced by a completely different set of values ​​when times are tough.” He notes that a major event, like the global pandemic, is a real pressure test of a company’s value structure and communication channels.

One of the main challenges IKEA faced was adapting its business model, while securing a huge global workforce (7,300 in Canada alone). Ward and his team recognized that consistent and varied lines of communication were essential, so people knew to understand what was being done, why they were doing it, and how it would affect them. This resulted in “the formation of many different communities…. where we spent a lot of time dealing with how people were feeling and addressing those concerns.

These communities have not only had an impact on the local region. Another important benefit was that these circles of communication expanded from population centers as the pandemic progressed, “with the sharing of information and strategies between regions of the world.” Soon there was a clear consensus and an established set of principles to follow.

Ward noted that throughout its history, “IKEA has always focused on unity and community as a defining value.” This lent itself to greater transparency and communication around pandemic measures as they were implemented, with a particular focus on how these changes would (potentially) impact staff. This strategy helped allay staff concerns and mobilize everyone around a way forward. This inspired confidence in the direction and purpose of the company going forward.

Another important decision made by Ward and his team was to prioritize the health and safety of employees, which goes far beyond the physical. They recognized that the enormous uncertainty surrounding the pandemic had a significant and negative impact on the mental health of employees.

He noted that the leadership team encouraged their colleagues to be honest and vulnerable about their current situation. “This allowed us to take concrete steps to address any concerns and make any necessary adjustments as quickly as possible.”

Ward admitted that may be easier said than done. Despite their focus on protecting mental health, Ward shared that he sometimes struggled to admit he was exhausted. “Almost every Thursday afternoon I hit this amazing dive. We even started making jokes about it. My ability to understand that and have a few people to help me out during those times is key.

This lived experience translated for him and his team highlighting these challenges with leaders across the organization so they could pass on these lessons to their team members. “To create a safe space where people can share openly, you need to be constantly curious and lead with empathy and compassion. I think that’s one of the best ways to build community.

As an example of his focus on curiosity and empathy, Ward held online check-ins twice a week where he could solicit feedback from employees on how the company was doing and how his values ​​are maintained. These issues went beyond the immediate needs of the pandemic. Part of IKEA’s role, Ward believes, is to be “a bit of a beacon, leading the way in terms of inculcating measures to improve diversity, inclusion and equal rights.”

Despite the challenges, some surprising insights have accumulated due to the experience of the pandemic. Ward says we “discovered our ability to move mountains quickly.” We did things in two weeks that could have taken two years before COVID. We are now looking at how we can highlight some of this information about how we manage challenges and opportunities in the future. »

Beyond business resiliency, the pandemic has provided more opportunities to connect with family and adjust work-life balance. Ward spoke fondly of spending more time with his adult daughters and building a home gym with his son, who is “pushing me like crazy.” He said “I won’t give it up afterwards.”

As COVID has created a tangle of work and family life, Ward is adamant that setting and maintaining boundaries is essential to performing at our best and supporting the people we care about most. As he notes, “that means putting on your own oxygen mask first” and creating space to recharge.

Final Thoughts

As we continue to turn the corner of this pandemic, the lessons above will be just as important, if not more so. Creating safe spaces to openly share our concerns and fears will be key to charting a successful path forward. Focusing on mental health will be extremely important, as the prolonged and intense uncertainty has taken its toll.

Last but not least, it is essential to remember the power of living and leading with our core values. This is our True North. An invaluable light to guide us successfully towards the next stage of our individual and collective journey.


Written by Craig Dowden.
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