Pernille Spiers-Lopez – President, IKEA North America

Pernille Spiers-Lopez

IKEA’s Key Woman: Recent PINK conference panelist Pernille Spiers-Lopez, president of IKEA North America, talks about the brand’s expansion to American markets, new projects aimed at Hispanic women and her own Life/Work balance.

By Claire Basarich and Chris Moedjio

Norwegian-born Pernille Spiers-Lopez, president of IKEA North America since 2001, is no stranger to the global market. She began working for IKEA 18 years ago and has expanded her role in the Swedish company from marketplace manager in L.A. to store manager in Pittsburgh, to HR manager for North America, and finally to her current role in Philadelphia. Spiers-Lopez, one of PINK’s 2007 Top Women in Business, has spearheaded environmental awareness and support for women-owned small businesses at the $3 billion company with 12,000 U.S. employees.

After addressing 750 friends of PINK at the Atlanta conference luncheon last month, she discusses her success secrets, her efforts to bring diversity to IKEA and how she lives without (gasp!) a BlackBerry.

PINK: When you told PINK conference attendees that neither you nor your staff own BlackBerrys or answer e-mails on the weekend, the room burst into applause. How have you maintained this policy?
Pernille Spiers-Lopez: It comes from setting boundaries. What matters is what you’re doing with people. If we get too tangled up in busywork, we won’t be focused on where we need to be. The staff really loves it as well. If a tool helps you, that’s great. If not, why do it? I’ve seen too many people missing out on what’s around them because they’re constantly on their cell phone or BlackBerry.

PINK: What is the most difficult decision you’ve ever made, both privately and professionally?
P.S.L.: When somebody [I’ve hired] doesn’t work out and I have to fire someone or tell them it’s not the right thing. It’s hard because I’m very dedicated to my team, but at some point I have to say, “OK.” I once hired the wrong person. I felt under time pressure and wasn’t 100 percent myself. I compromised, and hopefully I won’t do that again. I have to listen to my gut feeling.

PINK: How do you achieve Life/Work balance?
P.S.L.: There is no such thing. I believe in being empowered enough to make the right choices at the right time. Sometimes I’m needed more at work, sometimes more at home. Sometimes I need to say no to a business dinner because it just isn’t that important. I also don’t work on the weekends, don’t read e-mail at home or talk on the cell phone 24/7. It’s so important to our culture that our new campaign is, “Home is the most important place in the world.”

PINK: How do you respond to negativity aimed at the IKEA brand, such as complaints about low quality or defective products?
P.S.L.: There are always things that don’t work, but we try to keep improving and we offer spare parts. We’ve come a long way. There are still so many good things about the do-it-yourself method that people love. We can also set it up for you, but for a higher cost.

PINK: What’s the best advice you’ve received?
P.S.L.: I always get the best insights from my own experiences and great authors. The books A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles (HarperCollins, 1996) by Marianne Williamson and The Alchemist (HarperCollins, 2006) by Paulo Coelho guide me every day. A Return to Love talks about how being a victim doesn’t help the world. In each of us, it’s our brightness that scares us more than the darkness. You can set a good example for others. The Alchemist is about finding your personal legend. What is our purpose? Once we find it, the world will conspire with us. The best advice I’ve given myself is, “Be honest with yourself all the time.” Once a family friend said to me, “Don’t ever compare yourself to others. You’ll get lost.” You can always learn from others, but what works for one person won’t always work for you.

PINK: How did you make it to the top?
P.S.L.: I focus on performance and passion. As store manager, I became interested in HR, so I reached out and said, “I’m excited about this.” I realized that there was much more IKEA could be doing for women and diversity. We talked about people being our most important resource but we didn’t even have an HR manager. Human resources is about peer leadership. My boss said to me, “If you want to see these changes, why don’t you do it?” He saw my excitement and that energy was contagious. When you have passion, other people see it in you and that’s how you get promotions.  I met the president of global IKEA while I was working on a worldwide HR strategy. He saw I was stepping up and saw what I could do, which led to placing me in my current role. When you focus on doing something you really love, it shows. Stretch yourself; go out and take on leadership roles that may not be natural. I didn’t do it to be seen; I had a passion for people and I wanted to make changes.

PINK: What’s the most innovative thing you’ve ever done to drive business?
P.S.L.: Bringing diversity to IKEA. Coming to the U.S., I realized that diversity means something different in every country, and it can reach across backgrounds and cultures. I saw business potential in understanding diversity as a global initiative. We also focus on women-owned small businesses. I attended a women in leadership conference in Long Beach, Calif., and saw such potential in the 800 female entrepreneurs. We are a resource for people to create a small business. We’ve also focused on social responsibility, the environment and being a good employer. We are also working on IKEA Latina, with a focus on speaking to women and learning from Hispanic women.

PINK: What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
P.S.L.: Recruiting the right staff and pulling the team together. Great people are always in demand. We are working with a coach to help each of us find our personal energy and talent and individual contribution – and also to help each other. Another challenge: We don’t have enough awareness of IKEA in the U.S. Some people don’t know the company because we’re new to them. Others know how we were 20 years ago. How do you find the right communication to reach customers? I’ve been at this for five years.

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