Interview with Simona Scarpaleggia, CEO of IKEA Switzerland, Co-Chair United Nations High-Level Panel on Women's Economic Empowerment
It’s a June summer afternoon, as I make my way to the alt Stadt of Zurich for a coffee with one of the most successful and genuine women I have come across in my career, I reflect on how some people have the gift of glowing with kind passion, iron-will and gentle determination. It comes from within and has the power of truly inspiring those around them.
I met Simona for the first time about five years ago, during a leading newspaper’s well-attended forum on the topic of women and leadership (what else?). Once on stage, within 2 minutes she had my full attention, within 5 I was recording her speech on my phone, as she walked off stage I simply had to go and meet her.
Italian like me, living and working in Zurich, a few years my senior, a top executive with a strength, charisma, empathy and strong kindness rarely witnessed. Metaphorically speaking, she is of another dimension, the very same in which I wish to see my children and the next generation thrive in.
Over the past few years our paths have crossed a few times, short conversations at events, but more specifically, I have been watching and admiring how she made innovation and progress happen, in her company, in Switzerland, and within the UN.
I held different roles during my 17 years in the corporate world, while roles and responsibilities changed, or rather, increased, I never stopped devoting extra time to a theme very close to my heart, diversity (of gender AND thought), equality and cultural change.
I regularly exchanged notes with outstanding bright minds, senior executives of other organizations mostly. I remember three years ago joining forces with an incredibly inspiring mentor from a fellow leading financial services firm to bring forward the case for paternity leave and shared parental leave to our respective group HR heads and D&I councils. Nearly three years on, the discussion is still open for the vast majority of large firms. Except one, IKEA Switzerland. “Simona did it” I texted with delight my business friend while reading my daily news that day.
Last January during the World Economic Forum in Davos, I attended the very interesting Equality Lounge sessions. Next to me was sitting Simona, we briefly chatted about the latest, my new business ventures and projects, hers and her achievements. Her genuine interest in my experience, work and willingness to drive impact was tangible.
We agreed on this interview. Much is written daily about change-makers, about impactful women and men. But I have been there, still am and as a woman executive in her late thirties, as a mother, as a member of our society who deeply cares about changing flawed cultures and workplaces, after almost 20 years of corporate life, I know only too well how tough and difficult it can be. I also know how powerful and impactful we can be.
I wanted to know more. About the often kept-private reality behind-the-scenes of victories, about the titanic efforts to change the status quo. Only by raising awareness on the struggles of our hard work we will be able to genuinely empower others and leave a long-term legacy.
I am interested in impact, and in bringing under the spotlight best practices of genuine, caring leadership, competence driven by enlightened women and men.
Specifically, why does management have such a bad reputation in some corporations? How to really support and foster talent? Do we want to support women as a gender or should we support feminists? How to deal with bad managers? How to manage energy and avoid professional mistakes?
“We need to put policies in place that support feminists, not just women.”
– Simona Scarpaleggia, Chief Executive Officer, IKEA Switzerland
Manuela: Simona, much has been written about you over the years and in many interviews. Today I would like to reveal a few angles of your professional life and the impact you have had. Shall we start with who is Simona Scarpaleggia today?
Simona: I am a confident rebel with lots of challenges on my desk that I gladly embrace and tackle every day with my team.
M: Where do the synergies between your professional and personal goals lead you daily?
S: As a leader, I constantly try to help people realise their full potential by inspiring and guiding them. Being a parent and role model for children is an excellent precondition for being a manager and leader.
M: Why does management have such a bad reputation in some corporations?
S: My personal understanding of management puts people first. It is about working with human beings and all their facets of their personality. Whenever management is reduced to solely chasing key performance indicators and neglecting the human factor, the concept of management loses traction.
M: How can women pursue a different type of leadership, and avoid some of the pitfalls that bad managers – we’ve all had at least one! – make?
S: We must learn to both value and unleash the feminine qualities that have been suppressed in our society for so long. The male principles of conquest and control, which have dominated us for millennia, urgently need to be complemented by solidarity and caring – all qualities that are so strong in women. Many men and women still remember times when a caring attitude was seen as a sign of weakness. Well those times are over. In fact a caring attitude is essential for companies that want to have a better understanding of their employees as well as of their customers, thus gaining their commitment and loyalty. Sharing is a strong "feminine" characteristic. Regardless of whether it is information, food or clothing, sharing has allowed women and mothers to survive, thrive, protect life and secure its continuation since time immemorial. What could be more feminine than the gesture of embracing! On so many levels, this is precisely what we need to do both as individuals, and as organizations. To embrace the changes happening around us is not always easy. But we need to do it. We are a part of change and change is a part of life. It always has been, only now things are changing faster than ever. Embracing the new generates positive energy, it opens up new and different perspectives and offers new solutions. To embrace the many cultures and ideas that are around us, be they disruptive technologies or new business models will be the cornerstone of a truly innovative approach. It will ensure that diversity and inclusion are not just words, but part of a living culture that values human beings regardless of gender, age, race or religion. This in turn will enable them to be in charge of their own destiny.
M: What is the biggest professional mistake women are still making – what should we stop doing?
S: Women should dare to lean into challenges. While men are quick to raise their hands when it comes to taking the next step and are confident they will make it, women seem to have more doubt about their own capabilities. There is no reason for that and women should just go for it – and not wait for prince charming to show up out of nowhere and discover them. Women have to take their faith in their own hands.
M: Will the millennial generation be a very different kind of leader?
S: While the generations before them were rebuilding Europe after the war or enjoying the new material riches and peace, the millennials are more purpose driven, I believe. On the other hand I am afraid that millennials might be less resilient than generations before – because they had less existential threats and challenges to deal with.
M: What is the best and worst decision you've ever made?
S: Starting a family and moving to Switzerland to become CEO of IKEA were two decisions I feel especially good about. My worst decision was to prioritize some business meeting – I cannot even remember what it was about – over my best friend’s wedding early in my career. Luckily my friend is still my friend and she now even believes I was present at the wedding in hindsight – my decision is literally unbelievable to her.
M: Any success habits you would like to share?
S: Delegate and follow up. As leaders it is our obligation to empower and encourage people – but also to follow up. Both to make sure we reach the objectives but also to develop people by guiding them and being there for them until they cross the finish line, if needed. You can’t apply a fire and forget strategy with tasks and responsibilities you give to people.
M: How do you manage your energy?
S: On the one hand i listen to my body and take physical signals seriously. In order to be successful and functional in the long run, you can not ignore and deny your physical limits. On the other hand I constantly try to focus my energy on the important things – deciding what are the things that really need my attention or my decision making and what are the things I can delegate.
M: What drives you?
S: I am purpose driven. Success to me means to change things to the better, very much in line with the IKEA vision – to create a better everyday life for the many.
M: What does impact mean for you? How would you describe the impact you have had on people and on the world?
S: It always makes me happy when people that I work with develop in a positive way, grow, take the next step and learn – this surely stems from my Human Resources background and is at the core of my management style – putting people in focus.
And of course I am proud of what we have achieved in Switzerland for gender equality. IKEA Switzerland was the first and still is the only company worldwide to reach the highest level of EDGE, which certifies companies that have reached gender equality according to different indicators. I also co-founded the organization Advance in 2011, which now includes dozens of companies that have committed to promote gender equality.
Thank you Simona.
- Manuela Andaloro