I love hearing from women who are setting examples of what it means to lean in but not lean away from family. And after speaking of Leontyne Green Sykes, chief marketing officer of IKEA North America, I learned exactly what that looks like. Sykes is the perfect example of someone who has worked hard and moved up the corporate ladder yet values her family above all other things in her life. (She’s even balancing now — Sykes, already the mother to her son, who’s in high school, did this interview when she was eight months pregnant!) Here, I interview the career and family woman about how she got her start in big business, what she wanted to be when she grew up, and how she balances her demanding job with motherhood.
Tell me about your career path! How did you get started with IKEA?
Curiosity is what ultimately drove me to pursue my interest in marketing.
As a restaurant general manager, I became increasingly curious about the links between consumer behavior and purchase intent and my ability to drive my business. I subsequently received my MBA from Clark Atlanta University (CAU), as a means to transition into the marketing field. I started my marketing career at Johnson & Johnson’s McNeil Consumer Healthcare, where I spent over seven years in brand management before joining the IKEA U.S. organization in 2006.
In 2009, I was promoted to the position of chief marketing officer (CMO) for IKEA North America. In this role, I get to pursue my passion for marketing and focus on programs that deliver growth and awareness for the IKEA brand. I’ve been able to transform the way our communications teams work — to be more integrated, to be “anthropological marketers” (listening to customers and acting on what they say) — and ultimately, to drive better business performance. My journey has been exciting, challenging and rewarding. I encourage everyone to follow their passions to achieve their ultimate career goals.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an FBI agent. I remember watching the made-for-TV movie about Johnnie Mae Gibson, who was the one of the first African American female field agents with the FBI. I loved the idea of investigations and capturing bad guys. I believe that investigative spirit led to my curiosity about general behavior and more specifically consumer behaviors.
What did your parents do?
My father was a machinist, and my mother was a cost accountant clerk. They’re both retired now.
As a career woman, how do you let your kids know they’re a priority?
Being a mother is the most important role of my life, and I always want to be there for my children. In addition to making time to spend with my son daily, I have missed very few field trips, soccer games, and track meets throughout his life. I have never missed a back-to-school night or a teacher conference, and I always inquire about the things that matter most to him — sometimes to his dismay.
How have you found that work-life balance?
It requires a commitment and effort on my part, so I am transparent with my team and boss about the times my son will come first. Having the support of the organization to take care of my family is critical and is one of the reasons I love working at IKEA. Having that support and flexibility reinforces my passion for the IKEA business and culture. And the best part is knowing that I will continue to have this same level of support with my next baby, without the fear of being “mommy tracked” or of the conflicts that can come with being a working mother.
What advice would you give other women chasing a high-powered career like yours?
- Don’t Chase a Title: Your focus should be on the business, and delivering great business results — not on your title. I earned my position as CMO not because I wanted the title of CMO but because I was passionate about being a driving force to help the company meet its business objectives. People can get focused on the titles and forget to stay passionate about results. It’s passion that leads to the greatest successes.
- Ambition Gets Attention: Be a strong contributor and a positive, driving force within an organization. Show you are passionate about the business. Deliver results. Don’t just meet — surpass — your business goals. Being ambitious and showing that you care about how your business performs is an important asset for a leader to have.
- Speak Up: Don’t be afraid to speak up and own your voice — share your ideas and show you are passionate about the company. A good idea can come from anywhere why not you?
- Set an Example: Set clear business objectives, show your accountability and follow-through and build the trust needed for larger roles and more responsibility within an organization. By setting a great example and creating a strong team and support system, you are clearly setting yourself and your colleagues up for success.
- Keep the Fire Burning!: Find your passion, and be true to yourself. If you follow your passions, then being ambitious and enthusiastic comes easy. That’s applicable to all fields. You need to be true to the core of who you are and success will come if you work hard and stay true to yourself.
Do you agree with the concept of “leaning in”? Why or why not?
I do believe in the concept of “leaning in.” I haven’t always leaned in, but as I have matured in my professional career, I have experienced its benefits. “Leaning in” has afforded me opportunities to have a seat at the table, so I could not only speak up, but be heard, and to influence the business. All of which led me to my current role.
Image credit: IKEA U.S.