Values-Based Leadership and Empowering Women: Interview With CEO of IKEA Group

Today's modern business dialogue focuses a great deal on the "how-to" of empowering women in business leadership positions. But what does it really take to transition from talk to concrete and substantive action in recruiting, retaining and advancing women at work?

Promoting women to top-management, also if they are pregnant, giving the accompanying partner of a female manager who you've asked to move to a new city 6 month's salary to enable the family to get settled, and an ironclad commitment from the CEO that gender equality is good business are a few things that have worked wonders for IKEA, the Swedish "Do-It-Yourself" furniture company that has become a common fixture in many homes around the world.

"We are a diverse group of people working together to create an inclusive and humanistic culture. Our values, such as humbleness, simplicity, togetherness and enthusiasm are the foundation of our work and form the unique IKEA culture," said Peter Agnefjall, IKEA's newly-minted CEO.

Values-based leadership is increasingly becoming a cornerstone for building the innovative businesses of the future. IKEA has been particularly successful at bringing their values to fruition. Women's leadership is an important value to both the United States and Sweden, and an area where our two nations can collaborate and share lessons learned. Today in the IKEA Group, 47% of all managers are women and approximately 40% top managers ("top" signifies top 240 managers). Their short-term global goal is 50%.

"That our business is equally led by men and women is essential for our future growth and for being a great place to work. Diversity opens for new perspectives, creativity and innovation."

Values steeped in egalitarianism, sustainability, protection of the world's resources, gender equality, social diversity and a sense of giving back to the community-- values emphasized by many American companies as well-- can be harkened back to the small, rural Swedish town of Almhult, the home of IKEA's iconic founder Ingvar Kamprad.

I made the short one-hour flight from Stockholm to Vaxjo, in the province of Smaland, just earlier this year. I was transported to a serene, stony landscape dotted with leafless birch trees and known for its robust population of moose-- one of which even cheerfully greeted me in lifeless, stuffed form as I exited the airplane. Spending time in Almhult, one can viscerally understand where IKEA's priorities steeped in community and environment came from and why they are so important. The concept of local roots and global reach comes to life in Almhult; once a farm-based community now creating and exporting goods and values to all reaches of the globe.

In the interview below, Peter Agnefjall, IKEA's global chief executive, explained to me in deeper degree how IKEA's values translate in their business practices around the world, why it's important to empower women, IKEA's benchmark goals for greater sustainability and much more. This is the eighth interview in a series on women's leadership found here in The Huffington Post

IKEA is a global company, is it challenging exporting your values-based leadership model to stores and managers in other nations that may have different cultural values?

We need to work actively with our values and culture to keep them alive. Today, this is integrated in the way we recruit and work with people development. We actively seek people who share our values and recruit on values first and second on competence. For our leaders there is constant follow up regarding culture and values and we measure how well they communicate the values. Culture and values are also an integrated part of our development and performance talks for all managers and co-workers.

Why is it important to you as a CEO of a global company to have women in leadership positions?

We want to mirror society at large. That our business is equally led by men and women is essential for our future growth and for being a great place to work. Diversity opens for new perspectives, creativity and innovation.

Forty-seven percent of IKEA's managers are women, how were you able to accomplish that internally?

It's a natural part of our values and how we lead the business incorporated in our culture and in the way we act. We believe in people and recognize their talents, regardless of gender. 47% of our 17 000 managers are women. And we work systematically, with clear goals through our leaders to go from good to great. Through systematic competence development we develop all of our co-workers, and secure that diverse co-workers get the same opportunities for development. Having enough diverse and competent successors for the future will secure the future success of IKEA.

What are your goals for employee diversity as you look ahead 5, 10, 20 years in IKEA's future?

Our ambition is to mirror society at large and we have a clear strategy that builds on leadership commitment. Our leaders set goals for their parts of the organization and develop business plans and actions to enhance the diversity at all levels of the organization and hold themselves and others accountable. A global goal is for example 50% women in leadership positions on all levels.

In your experiences, what are the policies and practices that really work in promoting and retaining top female talent? What truly sparks change?

We are working with a set of tools that we feel work very well. One is the leadership commitment. We also strive to create an environment that encourages all competent co-workers who come from different backgrounds, for example can flexible work arrangements accommodate for individual life situations. Practices vary between countries for example in Japan we have a day care centre next to one of our stores and we have introduced paternity leave; both enabling more women to have a career. Several countries are trying out job sharing where two people share a manager position to facilitate for combining manager position with for example parenting during a period.

What future trends are you seeing in the corporate sustainability realm and how is IKEA embracing more sustainable practices?

In the near future many more people will have the means to create a better everyday life at home while billions will continue to struggle to provide for themselves and their families. At the same time the world's resources are becoming scarce.

We have identified three change drivers for the IKEA Group:

• Enable customers to live a more sustainable life at home through products and solutions that help customers save or generate energy, reduce or sort waste, use less or recycle water: at the lowest possible price.
• Strive for resource and energy independence, securing long-term access to sustainable raw materials and promoting recycling. We will produce more renewable energy than we consume and drive energy efficiency throughout our value chain.
• Take a lead in creating a better life for the people and communities impacted by our business. Extending our code of conduct throughout our value chain; be a good neighbour, act in the best interest of children and support human rights.

There is debate today that the definition of corporate leadership is changing from a traditional top-down, hierarchical and assertive style to one focused on decentralization, transparency and what some in the press call "feminine values" ingrained in empathy, communication and teamwork. How would you describe your leadership style and what works for you in empowering your employees, both male and female?

I am a believer in people and IKEA is a truly people and team oriented company. Our leaders appreciate working close together in a team with clear framework and clear goals, but we also leave room for freedom. I am enthusiastic so sometimes it is hard to let go but I try not to poke my nose into other people's areas of responsibility. Delegating and relying on others by giving them responsibilities is part of the IKEA culture. At IKEA we give straightforward, down to earth people a chance to grow, both as individuals and in their professional roles. It is essential for our growth to develop our business through our people.

What workplace trends or market changes are you seeing on a global scale, perhaps from the United States to China or India? Are your stores and corporate culture in the U.S. very different than the ones in Sweden or elsewhere?

We have been on the U.S. market since 1986 and in China from 2000. We do often find that our values are universal and that there are more similarities than differences between the different markets. When we enter a market, experienced IKEA co-workers work together with locally recruited co-workers there to support and ensure that the values and concept are clear. Now, when we will enter the Indian market we will follow the same approach.