The first time one of us heard ‘if you can tell it, you can sell it’ at IKEA, was during a food tasting session before it opened its first Order and Collection Point (OCP) in Scotland. What is so unique about it, you might wonder? It was a unique way of introducing a new, diverse, and international workforce to food and the stories behind the food that would be sold at an IKEA store.
While most of us still grapple with pronouncing names of IKEA products, there is absolutely no reason to not tell a story about a product and its place in Swedish lifestyle and culture. So the words, ‘Sylt Lingon’, might still sound foreign, but if you ask us about Lingonberry jam, we will tell you that it tastes absolutely delicious if you were to put it on top of a ginger biscuit and have it with a cup of tea in the evening. Side note being that, no – that is not how the jam is typically consumed. However, that is what a bunch of us discovered during that food-tasting session. To us, it was a day about food and conversations over food.
It was being introduced to a culture of a country and that of an organization and making it our own, without being trained about it, or sitting through workshops and group tasks as part of an employee onboarding experience.
A lot has been written about how Ingvar received a small amount of money from his father for doing well at school and ended up creating‘ Ingvar Kamprad from Elmtaryd (the family farm), Agunnaryd (the local parish)’or IKEA. In early days, when many businesses ran a mail-order business model, IKEA’s competitors started a price war, almost forcing a fledging IKEA into bankruptcy. However, this challenge opened doors to a new business model for IKEA and it used a showroom that allowed customers to see and experience the quality of the products before ordering them. When transporting furniture via mail, high cost and damage rates became a profit-eating culprit. The solution? Self-assembly products. While this fixed the transportation struggle, the popularity of a newly started store turned into a disaster because of fewer check-outs and long queues. The store opened a self-service area, which turned out to be a roaring success. Most products could be picked up in the self-service area, driven home and assembled by the customers.
Based on a straight forward business idea, IKEA’s emergence is integrated in an inspiring vision, shared values, and a culture based on the spirit of togetherness. IKEA’s focus continues to be aligned to a common purpose, ‘to create a better everyday life for the many people.’
While purpose and vision remain a paper-exercise in many organizations, to one of us back then, it was a better day, in our everyday lives.
This experience in short is the strength of IKEA’s organizational culture – that its values, its purpose, its vision, is something that is a part of its everyday work rhythm.
The success of any organization is driven by the leaders but nevertheless it is sustained by a vibrant, empowering culture that can outlast them, even after they leave. If, culture can be defined as a combination of something an organization is (traits and behaviors) and something an organization has (perceptions and attitudes), then there are 5 things that organizations and leaders can learn from IKEA:
1. See leadership as an action and lead by example. When it comes to leading by example and taking responsibility, Kamprad has based his leadership style on setting an example by encouraging hard work mixed with strict business ethics. He has publicly stated, ‘if there is such a thing as good leadership, it is to give a good example, I have to do so for all the IKEA employees.’
2. Look for people who dare to make to mistakes, take consequences, and continue to move forward.
3. Stay close to reality and let every business challenge inspire you to find solutions that minimize the challenge.
4. There is no such thing as an ideal leader. Do not idolize just one leader otherwise the culture of the organization will be permeated not just by the strengths but also the weaknesses of a singular entity.
5. Align beliefs, words, and actions at every level of the organization. This adds congruency and authenticity to the cultural fabric of an organization.
Can you think of any incident based on your experience where it felt that you were living and breathing an organizational culture? Was it a positive experience or a negative one? What was its impact on you? Do share your experience. We would love to engage in a conversation!