Meet the people shaping talent assessment to support organisational needs

We talk to Marie Olson Brown, IKEA’s Global Talent Leader, to find out which talent project she’s most proud of, and why.

IKEA is a global home furnishing business that supplies stylish, great quality and low-priced products to its customers around the world. They aim to improve the everyday experiences of people within their homes, empowered by a culture that’s built on ‘enthusiasm, togetherness and a “get-it-done-attitude”’. These traits are vital within their workforces to deliver the best customer experience possible, but changing times mean that their talent initiatives now require this and more.


What talent project are you most proud of?

One of many things we are proud of is our Retail Leader Development Centres. These have pushed normal boundaries to support our leaders in the new era of retail. Customer centricity and an agile approach are essential to us, and this project helped our leaders to develop and adapt. We believe we have the best and most passionate leaders in the world. However, we needed to properly equip them to be ready for new challenges, not least a disrupted retail landscape where customer needs and behaviours change constantly.


Customers are at the centre of our leadership development strategy

Previously, our retail leaders were the kings and queens of their IKEA stores. They were experts in their people, sustainability, operations, customers and their product range. But in our new world, that isn’t enough. Leaders now need to adapt to changing customer needs that move faster than ever before, be prepared for information overload, and adapt to new channels such as click-and-collect and digital.

We created development strategies that are different to many other firms. Before working at IKEA, I would have gone back to the HR drawing board, taken out a leadership competency library and map out the skills needed through a talent development plan.

Here we chose a completely different approach. We put customer needs at the centre of our leadership capabilities – we are proud of where we come from and will always have our values and leadership approach at heart. However, for this, it was vital to identify the new behaviours of our customers. From this, we then mapped the abilities and competences needed from our retail leaders to respond in the best way.

We need entrepreneurial behaviours to create customer value

To match our customers’ requirements, we need leaders with great learning ability and resilience, as well as being strong and bold in decision-making. In line with customer centricity and the omni-channel journeys needed, entrepreneurial spirit remains essential to create customer value.

Now there are too many complexities for one king or queen to know everything about their retail kingdoms. Instead, they need to be able to lead, trust and empower their teams and experts.

To equip our leaders, we worked with Aon’s Assessment Solutions to create our Development Centres to assess our leaders against the core abilities we had identified.

We used the Centres to understand what strengths and development opportunities our leaders had against the new retail reality. The collective result helped us to create a relevant learning offering. The individual results identified needs for each leader, so they are supported with a tailormade development plan.

Halfway through the Development Centres, COVID-19 hit. At first, we thought it would mean a couple of weeks delay, but soon realised the pandemic was much bigger than expected. We worked quickly and very closely with Aon to trial a virtual programme.


Measuring success: the key achievements

We knew the virtual route would be COVID-safe, but we didn’t know if it would create an equally good experience for the participants – or the same quality of results. Therefore, we decided to pause and reflect after each centre – if we had any doubts, we would take the decision to stop. We wanted our process to be an objective, professional and personal experience, so when we found it was working, we were excited to continue.

In our virtual centres, as in the face-to-face ones, our leaders were given exercises to measure against the desired leadership capabilities. The exercises included personality assessments, cognitive tests, interviews, role play and individual business cases. In each centre we also had other IKEA leaders take part as observers for their insight.

Within two weeks, participants were given a report where the six core IKEA competencies were presented, alongside their strengths and development opportunities. They were also given a one-hour coaching session with an industrial organisational psychologist to identify goals to start planning their development journey.


We’ve completed 400 coaching hours, 400 role plays in 32 countries, half virtually.

Overall, the Development Centres were a great success. We completed 400 coaching hours and 400 role plays, equating to 1200 hours of group exercises across 32 countries in just six months. We were able to identify 4800 strengths and development areas within our leaders. We also found that the quality of assessment was no different between face-to-face and virtual, so we were very impressed with the whole experience. Going virtual also helps us significantly reduce carbon emissions and business costs by cutting travel.


What did we learn?

One key learning was how important it is to have the whole IKEA family fully involved. This should not be a global or HR project. This was for the countries from the business, supported with HR expertise.

The engagement from our individual countries was high – each took full ownership of their own development. As part of the success strategy, our business was the voice and face of the project. We did this to ensure leadership development was part of the business agenda, and not purely an HR exercise. As HR, we offered our expertise; contributing and collaborating throughout, but the journey needed to be for – and led by – our business leaders.

Beyond this, we learned that it is possible to do the process virtually – and more than that, have fun doing so. A virtual process can, in some ways, be more tiring as it requires extra effort to create a safe and welcoming environment for participants in a virtual room, but it’s been worth it when we see the fantastic results.

We are so proud of our leaders’ and organisations’ openness and curiosity to a virtual solution which made all this possible. I’m also so proud of the great result and movement we’ve created.


This is the eighth in a series of profiles on talent innovators. Read the others – SercoOcadoSiemens EnergySchrodersVodafone, Screwfix and Marks & Spencer – and watch for more.