Rob Archer, regional director of Michael Page Retail, spoke to Carole about her career as acting MD of IKEA and the need for increased awareness of women in retail leadership. When Carole stepped into the role there were four female store managers within IKEA, now there are eight, making up 45%, but Carole’s target is to make that an even 50/50 gender balance.
1. What are the current and future priorities for the business?
Our main priority at the moment is simply meeting customer needs, our objectives are fulfilling the needs, dreams and aspirations of every IKEA customer in their own homes. We want to be very clear how IKEA can contribute by showing practical ideas and solutions whatever type of home you live in.
2. What are the current business challenges?
The ongoing challenge is making shopping a better experience for consumers. Whether someone is looking for low price and value for money or a complete solution that is assembled for them at home, bought in store or online – we want to be in the position to provide this, so we need to be understanding of customer needs and developing our offer to best meet those needs.
Another challenge is adapting to the speed of changing consumer demand and expectation; we want to make sure that what we produce is inspiring and innovative and this means keeping up to speed with the way customers like to shop; with the fantastic developments in the retail landscape this is a challenge.
3. What is the biggest lesson you have learnt in your career?
The most important lesson I’ve learnt is that it’s all about being me, being the person I am when I am at my best. Regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, always be authentic.
4. What advice would you give to someone moving into a leadership role?
Everyone has a talent, so I’d advise them to keep a very strong eye on their own strengths and make sure they use them. Go about your business with energy and harness support for the things you would like to develop. It’s also important to be clear on your personal contribution to the business; adding value and inspiring yourself as a leader will show through your work.
5. Who has been a role model to you?
I’ve been inspired by several different people in my life, I think my role model is someone who has created an environment that allows a constant source of inspiration and energy. Those that have been role models to me are those who create an encouraging environment for people based around individual behaviour rather than technical ability.
6. What is your biggest learning to date?
I’ve learnt that you can’t just be what other people want; you have to create a vision with goals and clear direction. Then it’s important you offer a personal contribution to that vision, while ensuring that others are with you and supporting you.
7. Tell me about the journey you have taken to get to where you are now in your career
A formative part of my early career was working for the East Midlands Electricity Board as a retail manager. I also spent time with The Body Shop as a franchise business development manager. I then joined IKEA as an operations manager and progressed across many functions to my current position as acting MD.
8. How do you spend your time outside of work?
I live in the countryside and home is very important to me, it’s a place where I can fill up my energy very quickly. We are renovating our home and garden, so I guess I get to put into practice what I hope IKEA can do for many people.
9. What attracted you to build your career within the retail sector?
Before I started my career I was torn between entering the retail industry or banking. What I did know was that I always wanted to be the best I could be; making my own way in life was very important to me. My father was instrumental in encouraging me to be successful and gave me good advice on my potential as a woman starting out in work. Also my first line manager was female; she was a good role model in developing yourself as a professional.
10. What has been the most defining moment in your career so far and why?
This probably revolves around my current role, IKEA’s values and culture resonate very strongly with me and having the opportunity to lead the organisation and connect our values and culture to many more of our people is a privilege.
Also, IKEA has evolved the way it works to address much more local needs; we are a global business and retailing and life at home is different for each local market. So we have been adapting the way we do business – for example, the speed and development of multi-channel retailing here in UK, offering choice to the customer of when and how to shop is more advanced than in other countries and we have to embrace and understand that. I’ve become very conscious of customer expectation in line with this and have utilised my strengths to speed up the development of this.
11. What are your thoughts on the challenges and opportunities for developing women as future leaders?
I think one of the biggest challenges is that there is a lack of female role models in the industry for women to aspire to. Other industries are more evolved and focused on networking initiatives and we could be more pioneering for women in retail. IKEA is promoting gender equality because it is a human right, which is consistent with our values and culture; at the same time, focus on gender equality is enhancing our business. We have created IWON, an open network for both women and men, who are interested in promoting the female agenda, focusing on topics that benefit women and the IKEA organisation as a whole.
A women’s network is a way to explore the female agenda through connecting, inspiring, enabling and empowering women leaders.
12. What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
In a way it’s women themselves. Some have a mindset that they can’t be in a leadership position because of life choices. I want women to be more confident in their own potential and behave in a way that shows everyone they can be leaders, creating the role models for others. The best way to get movement is to show the possibilities, and then others will aspire to do the same.
13. What are your views on regulation/quotas to help openness and being more inclusive?
As a leader you must have goals, but ‘quotas’ creates the wrong approach. At IKEA we believe women and men add equal value and at the same time each gender has a unique and necessary contribution. It’s not about a number; it’s about the business opportunities. It’s proven to improve the business. For me, the main thing is ensuring that women can see the potential and have the aspiration.
14. Why do you think women, in particular at middle management, may find it difficult to progress into senior roles within an organisation?
I think some women may find senior roles slightly less appealing because there is an expectation of more pressure when you’re higher up the ladder. Women want more control over their lives and careers and believe that you get less flexibility as you progress. I don’t share that view, I think it comes down to making good choices for yourself in the way you organise your family and business life.
Women thinking about moving into a more senior role can benefit from identifying their strengths and realities and taking ownership of their own development. Don’t wait for progression to happen on its own; work with your organisation to develop yourself and take equal responsibility for your career.
15. What do you see as the most effective ways to increase the number of women that progress into senior roles within organisations?
I think creating role models for women is vital and then actually providing the possibilities for progression is equally important. One of my key objectives is to increase the number of women in leading roles at IKEA, acting as an inspirational leader for this, encouraging the development of the great people we have. In the UK, there are 2.8m people working in retail and 60% of those are women, I believe CEOs and MDs can create the role models if they believe and prioritise and develop initiatives that support the gender balance. Women make up 52% of IKEA’s co-worker population, with 47% of women in management positions and 42% in extended management group. It is our goal to have 50% women in all leadership levels.
If you’re looking to progress in your role to a leadership position like Carole’s, take a look at our advice for growing your career.