IKEA focuses on talent in weeklong event for employees

Looking to ‘empower’ people around development opportunities

Keen to showcase the many opportunities available at IKEA — and what it takes to attain them — the furnishing retailer recently launched a Talent Focus Week at locations worldwide.

It’s about leading the business and people together, said Stephen Bobko, country HR manager for IKEA Canada in Burglinton, Ont.

“We’re not just talking about leadership in its true form in terms of management — it’s really just empowering our co-workers to feel directly connected to the business and that they can also make decisions in everyday business,” he said. “It’s just that whole empowerment piece for our co-workers, that’s essentially our jumping off point for Talent Focus Week.”

The company spent a lot of time in defining what a future at IKEA can look like and clarifying that, he said.

“Careers here may not always be traditional… so it wasn’t necessarily about growing to that next level or that next opportunity up the ladder, it’s also about growing in their own roles, choosing to develop in other functions within our organization… so it’s not always about the linear progression.”

IKEA has plans to double its presence in Canada over the next decade, so it’s hoping to recruit more than 4,000 new co-workers. Talent Focus Week supported this ambition by encouraging employees to explore possibilities in new or different roles, said Bobko.

“From that perspective, it was really even more so critical for us to engage our co-workers in terms of what the possibilities can look like and really engage them around the possibilities to grow in different roles that will support our growth agenda,” he said.

“We’re a global company and I think sometimes in Canada we forget that. We have lots happening here in Canada… but then (it’s about) also reminding our co-workers that we are a global organization and there’s some really fantastic opportunities across the globe as well.”

All 155,000 employees, including more than 4,330 in Canada, were invited to participate in the weeklong event which included lunch-and-learn sessions with guest speakers and a new online tool, “IKEA Journeys,” featuring stories on how various employees have grown and developed in their current jobs or moved across units and functions.

“It really shares the personal story of their own development and their competence-building and what went into that whole process,” said Bobko.

In Canada, IKEA also “took it to the next level” by putting a lot of attention on individual units and their needs and interests, which can be very different across Canada, he said. 

“The opportunities that we may have today in the GTA may look a little different than Alberta or B.C.”

The focus on career development also acknowledged differences among employee types.

“We clarified that we’re both looking for the ‘shouting’ talent… and also the ‘whispering’ talent, so we had a little bit of fun around really clarifying and defining (that) and providing some great examples because I think those whispering talent can really be overlooked. And we put a lot of energy on really understanding our talent approach is super diverse,” said Bobko.

Focusing on development
In some ways, what IKEA is doing was the norm years ago, according to Sareena Hopkins, executive director at the Canadian Career Development Foundation in Ottawa.

“Companies tended to recognize the value of investing in people and people tended to recognize the value of that investment and felt a sense of loyalty and commitment to that company, and IKEA coming out with this… seems quite radical and innovative today.”

There’s been a real dismantling of that tacit agreement between employer and employee, she said.

“So many companies are relying on their supply chain for all but their core functions. There is increasingly a disconnect between companies and their people and, as a result, if you look at the reality for young entrants coming into the labour market, what they’re increasingly faced with are precarious jobs, part-time or contract work, high levels of underemployment in Canada and… certainly the way that IKEA promotes their company, they really seem to be trying to get into that ‘We are a company that invests in our people.’”

Any corporative initiative that focuses on the training and development of people is a smart investment, said Hopkins.

“It’s not rocket science to see (that) creating a workplace in which employees feels they matter as individuals and where they can see a pathway for their own professional growth and career development, that’s just sound business practice,” she said. “The evidence would suggest… even relatively small investments in employer-sponsored training or career development initiatives within corporations really pay off — and yet the takeoff seems to be relatively slow.”

Career development is important both for the individual and the organization, said Eileen Kirton, vice-president at People First HR Services in Winnipeg, “to make sure that they’ve got the right talent in place for today and, as importantly or more, that they have the right talent for the future, for taking the organization into the future.”

It’s about helping people envision other ways they can contribute to their organization in a way that uses their skills, talents, abilities and interests, she said.

“Quite often, what we see happen is that people come in, they do a job and it’s good and they’re learning and growing and so on and then, after a while, many hit a flat spot, particularly for the millennials because they’re very much about ‘OK, what’s next, how do I grow?’”

But one of the challenges is many leaders don’t know how to have career conversations with people, so they don’t, said Kirton.

“What happens is (employees) think they need to leave the company in order to get that growth and development,” she said.

“It’s the opportunity — if you don’t help them unleash, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Employees take the lead

IKEA was also trying to enhance the connection between performance and development, and ensure co-workers “take the lead” in their personal development, according to Bobko.

“We talked a little bit about, in this process, ‘You do a little, we do a little.’ We talked about that from a customer perspective but we also talked about that from our co-worker perspective. We absolutely want to commit to all of our co-workers around their own development and their own opportunities, but it’s equally important that they’re doing some of the work as well to really understand what it is that they’re requiring to further grow their career, or really where their interests or talents, per se, may lie,” he said.

“We want them to do some of the work in really defining their path and we’re happy to support along the way, and we’re looking for them to clarify for us what it is that they’re curious about or where they need that educational support.”

In the absence of a clear path within an organization or a clear commitment by an employer to invest in employees, there is this sense in today’s gig economy that it’s each person for himself, said Hopkins.

“And if I’m going to have to manage what gig I get next, whether it’s going to be in this company or the next, I’m going to go for what’s best for me as an individual as opposed to what’s best for me and my company,” she said. 

“Increasingly, employees are being given the message that really it’s up to them, and they need to manage their careers. As a young person, I’d be looking for corporations that do have an open-door policy and are investing in me as an employee and are prepared to take that risk because they’re confident that they really are the best employer, and they can back that up.”

It’s about being “organization-supported, leader-facilitated and employee-driven,” said Kirton.

The old days saw people sit back and look to the company to look after them and plan their career with steps and progression, when there was a lot of hierarchy, she said.

“In today’s world, that’s all gone away, and really it’s up to the individual to manage their own career,” she said.

“Your organization is growing and evolving, and if you’re not growing and learning, it’s not just that you’re standing still, you’re kind of going backwards because it’s going forward.”

In the end, if employees are growing and contributing, that’s got to drive business results better, said Kirton.

“When you see those teams energized, positive teams, a lot of it is because they are growing and contributing.”

And there’s a growing connection between wellness and the stress and anxiety found in the labour market, said Hopkins.

“If employees do feel like they matter to their company as individuals and that they’re supported in their advancement, there’s a clear impact on wellness as well.”

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