Recognizing Leaders: Ola Lindell, IKEA

Ola Lindell is the Commercial Director for Inter IKEA Centre Group A/S. He is responsible for the IKEA shopping centre concept, the IKEA brand, digital channels, and the offer to the consumer. Until 2013, Ola was Senior Manager, Marketing at Inter IKEA Systems BV, the worldwide franchisor of the IKEA Concept, responsible for marketing, the IKEA brand, IKEA catalogue and digital channel.
GlobeScan Chairman Doug Miller recently interviewed Ola to gain insight on the value IKEA puts on stakeholder intelligence to help build recognized leadership in an uncertain world.

The world in which business operates is becoming more complex and ambiguous, with higher expectations from society. What are the driving forces behind this shift? What does business need to do to be successful today?

I agree that the world is getting more uncertain and challenging and, with ever-greater competition, it is getting more challenging for business to successfully navigate. But perhaps also it is getting easier and easier – if you’re willing to do things quite differently.
Political leadership is failing, even here in Scandinavia, to put forth a compelling vision of society and a future that most people can support. But it is probably also true that business as a whole is complicit in this. So, it is perhaps fair that business is now expected to play a key role in solving some of society’s challenges well beyond its traditional role of providing employment and tax revenues and obeying all laws.
Having said that, I really believe that some of IKEA’s best contribution as a company has been taking our values and doing our manufacturing in emerging economies where our workers can’t initially afford our products. Our providing jobs in these emerging economies, our employment of women and support for the role of women in society, and our contribution to help put in place social supports like better health care and education, etc. – together with other global companies – is really changing things for the better.
But to answer your question, in today’s world, business needs to dare to do something different and have the courage to take a stand.

What does successful leadership look like today, and how is it defined in IKEA?

Humble, human, and low key; that’s successful leadership today. Humility works in every culture.
In IKEA, leadership is based on our corporate values that shape almost everything in the company, from the beginning. They are very Scandinavian values including being actively participatory and consensual in both our internal decision-making and in our external relations. This is how we behave in the communities in which we operate, with our customers, and with our other stakeholders.

To what extent does having a strong corporate purpose contribute to leadership and success?

The biggest challenge for most companies today is the ability to re-frame what we’re doing to connect better with society. This is what Bruce Nussbaum is talking about in his book Creative Intelligence.
People the world over crave more meaning in their lives. If we as businesses can’t make our business meaningful to human beings in their own lives, we’ll miss the opportunity to be truly leading brands in the marketplace of today and tomorrow. How do we do this? Dove soap’s Real Beauty Sketches is a prime example of this, helping women recognizes the low self-image they apply to themselves. They’re not selling soap anymore, they’re helping all of us recognize real beauty and they’re improving lives! Through this and other initiatives, Unilever (Dove’s owner) is daring to create real meaningfulness for human life. And they are being rewarded for it in the marketplace.
So much of mainstream marketing focuses on identifying and filling needs people as consumers have. In my view, that’s not where to focus anymore. The real business opportunities of the 21st Century lie in identifying what average human beings dream about or aspire to; finding something that is missing or they want more of in their lives. That’s how you make your brand an integral part of their life. As Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

How do you foresee reputation management evolving over the next 5-10 years for sustaining or enhancing leadership with stakeholders?

Corporate reputation management is hugely important and will clearly grow more central over time in this age of transparency and low trust. But in tracking reputation, we need to go well beyond asking only the educated and informed stakeholders and include the many people (not just in their role as consumers). In other words, we need many more dots before attempting to connect the dots. This will lead to smarter, more whole-system reputation-enhancement strategies that will actually help move products off our shelves in future years.
Today there are close to zero truly unique products in the world. If you want people to decide to buy their products through your stores, you need to be meaningful and likeable to them. You need to be in their minds and a meaningful part of their lives.
Obviously reputation is part of this picture, but not the only part. Stakeholders are part of this, but not the only part. Store layout, front-line staff and product choices are some of the other dimensions to likeability.
Ultimately, there are 7 Billion versions of your brand – its different for every human. At IKEA, what we try to identify is what three things we want consumers to say about us, and go about solidifying these in their minds.