IKEA’s CEO says he only climbed from assistant to the C-suite by not pursuing a ‘shimmering’ title

Jesper Brodin
Jesper Brodin's, CEO of INGKA Holding
Courtesy of Ikea

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Any worthwhile endeavor, whether that’s making it to the C-suite or assembling an end table, requires hard work, ambition, and endurance. Just ask Jesper Brodin, the CEO of INGKA Holding, the company behind IKEA. His path was paved with grunt work: Over 20 years ago, he was the boss’ assistant.

While carrying bags and taking notes, one of his many mentors gave him some formative guidance. “You’re here to learn, and have an opportunity to educate yourself and participate in interesting rotations and meetings,” the mentor said, adding another nugget of wisdom: Base what you do on your own integrity. Or as the mentor put it, “don’t follow the shimmering objectives of a title.”

It’s sound guidance. As it pertains to the actual work, job titles “get in the way,” career coach Lara Hogan told Fortune last year. It’s best to stop thinking about them, and instead focus on the work you do and don’t care about doing. That’s what Brodin did, and it ultimately led to that shimmering title anyway.

After receiving his mentor’s advice, Brodin made a conscious decision to reframe his focus not on the accolades, but on what he’s good at and what would expand his mind. “I even had an opportunity to make some more left-brain decisions in my career that I’d [originally] resisted,” he recalled to Fortune’s Peter Vanham during an executive session on Fortune Connect. “And at the end of the day, it led me to this position.” 

Brodin’s story with IKEA began in 1995, when he took a purchase manager role in IKEA’s nascent Pakistani bureau after seeing a newspaper ad for the job. He thought it might be his best opportunity for visibility and to “get lucky,” he said. It was: Soon after he arrived, Brodin was promoted to Regional Purchase Manager for all of Southeast Asia. 

In 1999, Brodin became assistant both to IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, and to Anders Dahlvig, its then-CEO, before working his way up to managing director at IKEA of Sweden/Range & Supply, which developed the product range and supply chain of the IKEA Brand. It was his last stop before becoming CEO in 2017.

Next step: CEO

Ascending to CEO called for a mindset shift. “I [needed to see] myself as somebody capable of taking on the next business challenge, [while] I was taking notes and carrying bags,” Brodin said. 

The assistant-to-CEO pipeline is far from common, but Brodin is in good, if small, company. Ursula Burns, the first Black woman to helm a Fortune 500 company, worked as an executive assistant for a senior manager at Xerox in the early 1990s. She quickly rose the ranks and was named Xerox CEO in 2009.   

And Dahlvig, IKEA’s then-CEO and one of Brodin’s mentors in his early days, had also been an assistant once upon the time. The two quickly bonded over their shared difficult experiences, which Brodin said he found especially useful. “At least when it comes to me, mentorship has to be based on a mutual click somehow, between two people and an interest, a curiosity, and a respect,” he said. 

Even in a remote or hybrid setting—and at a time when job-hopping has never been more common—putting down roots at a job by finding a mentor remains an imperative. According to Deloitte’s chief growth officer Stacy Janiak, mentorship is many companies’ best bet of encouraging job satisfaction and loyalty. 

“When an organization can engage employees, whether as mentors or mentees, they also develop a stronger sense of company culture, feel more valued, and have confidence in their ability to drive their own career path within the organization,” Janiak wrote for Fortune. “Most workers want to be empowered where it matters most: In the work they do and how it leads to greater job satisfaction while advancing their careers.”

Ultimately the most crucial aspect of a mentor is the influence they provide—especially in the form of tried and true wisdom. After all, it helped Brodin climb to the C-suite.

To hopeful CEOs who, like Brodin, may be facing down the prospect of decades at a company before getting the coveted spot, he has some advice. “Find the intersection of what you’re good at and something that really makes you happy,” he said. “Then you’re on the right track. And if you’re not at both of those places at the same time, keep looking for it.”

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