10 things I learnt from Ingvar Kamprad

Photo by Thomas Wågström, Swedish nationalmuseum

Photo by Thomas Wågström, Swedish nationalmuseum

At 10 am on Sunday 28th January my wife ushered me outside the busy café we were in for breakfast. Whilst I was up at the counter she’d been reading the news headlines on her phone. She had news to break to me and didn’t want to do it in public. Because she knew I’d want to have a little cry.

“Ingvar Kamprad has died”, she said. And she was right… I did have a little cry. Not because he was my family, not even a distant friend. Simply because he has been a constant influence on my life for 18 years. Even though I only met him once, in the garden of his home in Sweden in 2012.

I’ve spent the last few days thinking a lot about his influence and what will now be his legacy. I’m sure you’ll see a lot in the media in the next few weeks about his global legacy with IKEA and the other, lesser known group of companies he founded, Ikano. More than anyone I’ve ever experienced Ingvar Kamprad led by example. So as my own small tribute I wanted to share my personal view of what I’ve learnt in the last 2 decades from working in the unique environment that Ingvar cultivated.

1. Have a big bold humble vision

Ingvar turned his personal mission into the global vision of IKEA: To create a better everyday life for the many people. It’s a typical mixture of both hugely ambitious and humble. The challenge of this means the journey’s never over.

2. Be a real human being

Ingvar showed in his day-to-day actions that he couldn’t help but be real. Showing vulnerability, making mistakes, showing emotion publicly, never being completely happy with what you’ve done. All of this is part of the human condition. So why wouldn’t you bring that to your work?

3. Build real relationships

I’ve seen so many photos in people’s tributes to Ingvar of him hugging them, or standing cheek-to-cheek with them. He is legendary for his hugging. I think it’s about making a real human connection. One which builds a strong relationship. It’s no coincidence that each Kamprad organisation feels like a family.

4. Don’t take yourself too seriously

If you’ve ever seen an IKEA advert (remember “chuck out that chintz” in the UK?) you’ll recognise the twinkle in the eye that is part of the company culture. If we’re going to spend all this time together and not with our families, let's have fun doing what we're doing.

It’s also ok to make mistakes — in fact, it’s encouraged. Ingvar famously said, “only a sleeping person makes no mistakes”.  This has guided me to be braver than I ever might have been.

5. Don’t worry about status and convention

You’ll rarely see someone from the IKEA family driving a fancy car or wearing an expensive suit. Even if you did, it wouldn’t impress. Far more important to have integrity and get on with doing a great job.

Breaking away from convention also means that company hierarchy is not representative of power, but rather of function and responsibility. Everyone's a co-worker, everyone at every level has the privilege of taking responsibility. You get a feeling that everyone and anyone can truly make a difference.

6. Focus on abilities, not qualifications

Before I joined Ikano I, like everyone, had to take a personality test. It was uncannily accurate. Over the years that personality test often told me more about a person’s potential to perform well in the company than their experience and qualifications did. in focusing on attitude, aptitude and personal traits over qualifications or experience, you’re more likely to have better performing people around you.

7. Look after the pennies/cents/centavos…

Ingvar’s frugal nature is mythical (it’s certainly what the British press has focussed on). But it’s genuine. And it’s powerful. If ever I wanted to fly a 13-hour flight in something better than economy I would be pointed directly to Ingvar himself. He travelled economy and so do his sons.

There’s also something about thrift that makes you more inventive. When you can’t just throw money at a problem, you have to look at it differently. And that’s often when you come up with a much better, longer-lasting solution. Ingvar called it getting “good results with small means.”

8. Strive for the impossible

From founding his now global company IKEA at just 17, there are many examples throughout his life where Ingvar strived for what others would have said impossible. Even the fundamental concept of IKEA seems riddled with impossibilities: how can we make quality, well-designed, nice-looking products at a cost that means it’s a low price for you to buy anywhere in the world? So many contradictions!

9. Never think you’ve made it

It’s great to celebrate when you do a job well or deliver something together. It’s great to please a client or customer. But a key Kamprad trait was to celebrate this briefly and then get back to work in the morning. Ingvar famously said, “what can be done better tomorrow?” 

Never being satisfied keeps you energised and impatient. It forces re-invention, fresh thinking, constantly asking why and being curious.

10. Real entrepreneurs create something self-sustaining

The story of how Ingvar founded IKEA is the one of the most inspirational entrepreneur stories of the 20th century. But this isn’t the story of a boy who learnt to make money and then continued to strive to make more money. Ingvar knew that what he had created was not only bigger than him, but could be something to be left for generations to come to benefit the many people, now across the world. He even put IKEA into a foundation so that neither he nor his family could mess with it.

Perhaps being a true entrepreneur is more about striving to create something that exists outside of you and will outlive you than about making lots of money?

If I could change one thing…

about my habits from the work culture that Ingvar founded? It would honestly be the travelling in economy thing: Somewhere there has to be a balance between money saving and personal health and safety. It does sometimes go really wrong, like when I didn’t take a taxi in Mexico City and ended up wading in a monsoon for 30 minutes before arriving at a meeting with a client looking like Mr Darcy emerging from the lake. Only afterwards did I think, “I could have died out there in that!”. But I didn’t. And now I have a funny story to tell. Which I imagine Ingvar would have liked.