Following the death of Ingvar Kamprad (1926 to 2018 RIP) I was struck by how his early life and the landscape he grew up in shaped his identity and the culture of IKEA.
I expect biographical and psychological analysis will identify strengths and weaknesses in Kamprad the man, but his legacy in creating the ethos and contribution of IKEA will endure. A precise plan was set for the 100 years following his death, which dictates who is to do what. It is the largest independently owned (not publically floated) company of its kind – testament to Kamprad’s will and vision for IKEA to be different. It was so different in its concept- its contribution to making lives easier and affordable through its disruption of the retail industry. In the month that he died, I thought it fitting to look again at how the seeds of his rich cultural legacy began early in his life.
Link to his roots
Kamprad’s affinity to place and locality was evident since IKEA’s inception -the store’s acronym was made up of the initials of his name, plus the E from Elmtaryd the family farm and the A from the ‘townland’ of Agunnaryd where he lived. It was “in the nature of Småland”, the locality where he grew up, to be diligent and thrifty and Kamprad brought this to IKEA.
As a boy Ingvar Kamprad formed his early identity on a small farm. The landscape was poor. Ingvar’s growing up revolved around hard work, frugality and shared poverty. He was an entrepreneur from the start and started out selling matches which he could buy in bulk and make a profit and economies of scale has been a big driver in IKEA story. The local ethos and values that he internalised in his youth underpin the IKEA ethos of persistence, hard work and keeping costs down and his vision for IKEA was that it would be a company that would make life easier for its customers.
Symbolic of the simplicity of the land and IKEA culture, Kamprad held that “The stone wall [of Småland] is the most important symbol of the IKEA culture”. I believe that for him and many, this archetypal symbol evokes our primal instincts and roots. On a tour of the IKEA museum last year I was moved by this resonance with IKEA’s roots and the land. I believe that this is the visceral, earthy richness that in some way permeates IKEA culture among co-workers all over the world today – their enthusiasm underpinned by hard work, persistence, diligence and cost-consciousness.
In 1976 Kamprad wrote, “wasting resources is a personal sin” which reveals anew some of his personal beliefs. I rarely meet company leaders who are as revealing and authentic about their background or beliefs. In our corporate culture assessments, we usually find that employees experience the senior leaders as remote, unavailable or even invisible, yet at IKEA co-workers seem to experience their founder as inspiring, as close, intimate and connected with them. I am convinced that this is one of the gifts of Kamprad as an outstanding leader.
Walking his talk
The way he communicated and more critically, the way he modeled and lived what he expected from co-workers at IKEA, makes him standout as a leader with profound insight about the relationship between personal behaviour, mindset and the messages interpreted by the whole organisation. Symbolically, he once asked to be downgraded from the pent-house suit in an IKEA owned hotel, sending IKEA execs a powerful message, which lives on, that luxury and excess is strongly discouraged. And storytelling has always been at the heart of IKEA.
Self-awareness and being congruent with his personal experience appears to be a pillar of his leadership legacy – he seems to have naturally drawn on his own experiences of life to lead. Kamprad would get up at 5.30am to ask delivery men their view on the company. Sometimes, I feel if senior leaders spent genuine time with people on the ground, they could gain valuable business insight and understanding.
He overcame his shyness to approach customers with the phrase “Hello, I work here. What did you think about us?” He was a nervous person who always arrived early for flights and felt ashamed if he was late for a meeting.
IKEA searches out opportunities – the flat pack didn’t come from a meeting, it came out of seeing a table having the legs removed to fit into a car boot – again, it’s about making life easier for the “many people”.
Where you begin is fateful
In my consulting work, I see with great regularity, that the originating conditions, (the intention and energy) surrounding the formation of an entity, tends to prevail in the life of the entity. The owner founder, Kamprad’s early curiosity, ways of seeing the world and drive, is embedded in the IKEA culture and ways of working. Investing a small gift from his father to start the company, together with his desire to make life easier for customers sets the scene for IKEA.
Looking at his legacy today, it is ironic that Kamprad was often described as bone idle by his father . This ‘laziness’ may well have been masking a busy mind taking in the world and looking to disrupt it and to build one of the most enduring cultures of all time. I believe that, whatever form it takes, the essence of the noble purpose and values of Ingvar Kamprad will continue to drive this success as he lives on in the culture of IKEA.
Obituary – the Independent.co.uk
Marc Rattray and Richard Milne, Financial times Jan, 28, 2018