Maria Poonawala Spends Day as CEO of IKEA Canada

CEO x 1 Day finalist and Ryerson student recounts her day shadowing CEO Stefan Sjöstrand for the university's website.

March 7, 2016

By: Shane MacInnis

Maria Poonawala’s resume is incredibly impressive for a fourth year university student, but her most recent work experience might just be her most remarkable: CEO, IKEA Canada.

Maria, who studies Global Management at the Ted Rogers School of Business Management, was one of just 18 students from across Canada selected to spend a day leading some of Canada’s most influential companies through Odgers Berndson’s CEO x 1 Day program.

After a competitive application process that included a written essay and multiple interviews mimicking the process of executive hiring, Maria was selected to spend a day as CEO of IKEA Canada, working alongside CEO Stefan Sjöstrand in the company’s national headquarters in Burlington.

As a Global Management Studies student, Maria hopes to someday lead a multinational corporation and has a particular interest in technology consulting for retail, so IKEA was the perfect fit for her to further hone her TRSM education.

Maria’s experience began at 7:45 am with two hours of one-on-one time with Sjöstrand, an invaluable opportunity to gain a glimpse into the mind of a leading executive. She and Sjöstrand spent the morning analyzing daily business reports and she gained insights into how the CEO makes decisions based on real-time numbers. Poonawala and Sjöstrand also bonded over their personal histories. As a recent immigrant to Canada from Sweden, Sjöstrand is working and thriving in a business environment using his second language. Maria’s first language is Gujarati, having come to Canada from India at eight years old, so the current CEO and future business leader were able to find common ground and relate to each other’s experiences as immigrants to Canada.

The rest of the day included meetings with several of IKEA’s senior management teams and planning sessions for promotions and celebrations related to the company’s upcoming 40th anniversary in Canada. Maria was introduced to co-workers as “CEO for the day” by Sjöstrand and felt that her observations and recommendations were taken seriously by the CEO and senior leadership of IKEA – including advice on Sjostrand’s personal LinkedIn profile and strategies around IKEA’s business-to-business sales.

While there is no monetary reward for being selected for the CEO x 1 Day program, Maria says the experience was “priceless” because it allowed her to experience a real day in the life of a national leader: “I truly believe experiential learning is invaluable,” says Maria. “It’s one thing to learn about running a company in class, but gaining hands-on knowledge and experience by getting the opportunity to shadow one of Canada’s leading CEOs was incredible.”

Even before she was hired as CEO for the day, Maria found the application experience to be “an amazing glimpse into the executive search process” that included meaningful feedback on her own leadership style, practical career advice and opportunities to hone her interviewing skills.

What was Maria’s biggest takeaway from the day? She says it would be impossible to choose just one. Highlights included “interacting with the intelligent people who influence every part of the business, witnessing a leader who lives and breathes the vision of the company he leads and learning how he uses the big picture and creates strategies to implement that vision.”

As for how the experience will impact her future career plans, Maria says she hopes to carry Sjöstrand’s lessons with her and maintain the relationships she formed as CEO for the day.

“I look forward to keeping in touch with Stefan and will follow his most important advice, which is to follow your inner compass when making decisions in life, rather than chasing the most financially lucrative opportunities. I was inspired by his people-first approach and the fact that he leads by example when pursuing his goal of making IKEA Canada the best place to work. He’s collaborative and interactive, and an inspiring leader for all employees of IKEA Canada.”