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Being bold at IKEA: Steve Howard on six years leading from the front

By Super Admin

By Adam Woodhall — The man who last year brought us the concept of “peak stuff”, and is a self-proclaimed ‘professional optimist’,  Steve Howard of IKEA, joined The Crowd for a TED talk-style presentation to give us a lesson in leading from the front. 

Howard’s other TED talk has been viewed by over one million people. This time he did it in front of a couple hundred, and your correspondent was lucky enough to have a front row seat. In this parting public presentation before his exit from his role as Chief Sustainability Officer, he treated us to a talk which was at turns provocative, challenging and frustrated, at others inspiring, involving and full of hope.

His speech started on the front foot, by challenging the notion that 20% less bad might be good enough, stating “If you want incremental, I'm not your man. If you want transformative, I'm all in”. It didn’t appear that Howard was looking for a revolution though, but he certainly appears to believe that we need a very rapid evolution of our society and economy, saying “we need to repurpose capitalism”.

Howard believes we should go all in. He was instrumental in IKEA setting aspirational targets for areas such as sourcing renewable energy and certified wood, promoting “the power of 100% driving true transformational change... and brings a company with you” as reported on Twitter by @MrJonKhoo of Interface, another company that believes in such goals. 

Thinking about how you present yourself in your organisation was something Howard mused, on stating “I’d rather be fired for doing too much than disappointed at myself for doing too little”.  One of the intriguing lessons that he chose to share was how to approach your first 100 days in an organisation, maybe thinking of his own next move. He shared the truism that we all have two ears and one mouth and to use them in that order to “understand what drives the business and makes it tick”.  This was something he suggested a certain Mr. Trump could learn from.

You don’t get to be one of the planet’s most influential corporate sustainability execs by being timid. Before joining IKEA, Howard insisted on being on the executive board, stating that “you're either at the table, or you’re part of the menu”. On joining he knew change was required, and as he dryly observed, “The only person that likes change is a wet baby”, which means that “you have difficult conversations and to be present in those is difficult for most of us”.  He feels sustainability professionals are obligated to; “drive changes, to take a stand”, and wisely observed, “you need to do it with charm and persuasion and in a language that business understands, but if you don’t take a stand with the role you have, you give everybody else permission to opt out.”

However, Howard doesn’t think it is only the sustainability team’s responsibility—in fact, just the opposite, declaring a year into his role that “I introduced myself as co-responsible for sustainability with everybody else” and went on to state that “change is a team sport”.

Something the viewers on TED.com didn’t get was being treated to another hour with Howard, facilitated by the ever-urbane Axel Threlfall.  Our host promised to probe his guest, and this wasn’t a cuddly fire-side chat. Threlfall’s questions, and the ones fielded from the audience, however, did produce an even deeper understanding of the journey Howard has been on.  Sample highlights were that he was both “mighty pissed off by the state of the world” and that he also believed we “soon will have ubiquitous affordable energy and water”.

As well as saying goodbye to Howard in his role at IKEA, we also said hello to the new ‘Chief Catalyst’ at The Crowd, Daniel McMurray, who was given advice by Howard to be his own man. Howard was coy over his next move, but he indicated it would be with a smaller business.  This isn’t necessarily surprising, as he said he was “encouraged by the innovation pipeline, but we need more big companies to get serious”, indicating a frustration with the slow pace of many large corporates.

As his parting message, Howard urged us all to be “be bold” in our future adventures in sustainability. This final excerpt from his talk gave a rallying call to the gathered crowd to do just that: “It really, really, really is the one hour past midnight in the day of sustainability. We’ve got all our working lives to throw at this. The younger you are, the more you’ve got to throw at this. The opportunities will be rich, but go for it, bring your best selves to it, and I think we’ll be remarkable in what we achieve together.”