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IKEA Canada President Marsha Smith.

Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Marsha Smith, 44, was appointed president of IKEA Canada in February, 2017. She was previously Ireland's market manager and, prior to that, Dublin's store manager.

I stayed most of my life within a five-kilometre radius in England. When I left school at 16 to get my first job, it was hard. I was lucky to get in an apprenticeship in an automotive factory. I began as an administrative clerk, no experience. I worked really hard. I went to high school very close to IKEA Birmingham, my whole family lived close to the store; I started in 2004 as a customer service manager, leaving as store manager. It was a big step, to step into Ireland.

I got quite proficient with an Allen key and am happy to assemble things. The secret is to give myself plenty of time and step-by-step follow instructions.

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We had challenges bringing people into the workplace, connected to my own upbringing in an area that continues to have problems with youth and employment. I worked with a local charity to construct a program in 2006 for people between the ages of 16 and 24 who had nothing on their CV, stuck in that trap. We helped them experience what it was like to turn up for work every day, have responsibility.

One ability that's incredibly undervalued is the ability to listen. I invest time to talk to as many co-workers as possible to understand how customers feel and what they see as the biggest opportunities, what they need, how we can motivate them. When you create an open environment to be honest and straightforward, they give you the answers. The responsibility I have is to do something with it.

With 53 per cent of managers female and that balance, you invite different perspectives around the table; diversity is one of the biggest strengths we have. I feel fortunate to be part of an organization where it's in the DNA. We don't make decisions to fill [quotas], we genuinely believe it's the best way to lead. Now, after 14 years at IKEA, I've lost sight of the world where it's any different. There's still a responsibility for women to support other women – the fact it doesn't exist in organizations means we still have to talk about it. I hope the day comes when it's an ordinary way of existing and everybody sees the natural benefit of that balance.

When I'm hiring, I get a funny feeling when someone uses "I' more than "We." I look at myself as a co-worker, one of 6,500 – the beauty of IKEA is the equality in how we work. It can be hard, especially in an interview, when someone's trying to promote things they've done. When you ask enough questions, you get a good sense if they're a team player, because especially for leadership positions, the only way you can be successful is if you believe you're an equal part. At some point, no matter who the leader is, all of you will lead in some way.

We were excited to bring IKEA back to Halifax in September, the first LEED-certified IKEA in Canada. [The original Halifax store, Canada's first, opened in 1975, but closed in 1988.] The living wall is the selfie wall; we've seen so many photographs of it behind people. By the time we opened the doors there were more than 4,000 customers, some queuing through the night – it wasn't the warmest night. The atmosphere was completely electric. The way we design a store is to do home visits to understand how people actually live, then reflect that in store and solve problems. It's still my first year going through the seasons. It's quite incredible; this time of year is all about the hallway – semi-warm coats, really warm coats, then boots. We're starting home visits for Quebec City, opening in 2018.

Of the 9,000 items, I have many personal favourites. One I use every day, less than $5, is a little drink froth-maker called Produkt.

To co-workers using IKEA's internal communications, I always share a bit about settling in, interesting experiences like learning to skate, having never been on ice in my life. I'm quite open, share photos of how I'm coping with being in a different country. I've been discovering parts of Canada. My family absolutely loves going to the lake and walking. I recently rediscovered the gym and that's helped me cope with the travel, which is much more extensive than I'm used to. We genuinely feel welcome by everybody in IKEA and people we meet. It's great that people are always happy to talk about IKEA.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

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