Article: IKEA’s Weng Manalaysay: Equality and her endearing nickname of ‘mother’


IKEA’s Weng Manalaysay: Equality and her endearing nickname of ‘mother’

Weng Manalaysay is an HR leader who radiates her light once she enters the room.
IKEA’s Weng Manalaysay: Equality and her endearing nickname of ‘mother’

A certified coach classically trained in communication, Weng Manalaysay is an HR leader who radiates her light once she enters the room.

To say that Weng wears her heart on her sleeve is an understatement. She exudes kindness in her demeanour and words, punctuating them with lively laughter.

Coach, mentor and 'mother'

“People call me mother, by the way,” Weng candidly says of her team at IKEA Philippines, where she is HR country lead.

In the LGBTQ+ community, “mother” is a term of endearment for an icon in professional circles, one who influences others with equal measures of nurturance, discipline and respect for their profession.

It’s a complete departure from the hierarchical nature of the Manila business scene, where “ma’am” is used to indicate deference to figures of authority.

Weng is exactly that – a mother figure – to people whose talent she helped cultivate over the years. “I have coached and mentored people who are now VPs and managers,” she beams with pride during her exclusive interview with People Matters.

Having built her career as a people leader in the retail industry, Weng counts as her biggest achievement not so much the number of HR programmes she has led but the number of people under her leadership who became successful in their journey. “I spend time and invest my efforts in them,” she said.

Being an HR leader, however, isn’t always an easy path.

Whenever an employee would be struggling at work, Weng would be the first to hold space for them to open up and take a breather. It’s a level of connection and understanding that is reshaping HR.

One principle Weng lives by is empathy, and so guiding people through some of their darkest hours is almost second nature to her.

This dynamic of openness and camaraderie makes her leadership style distinct.

What are some of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your work?

HR plays a very important part in all aspects of the employee experience. Everything about it is super fulfilling. There is a high you get each time you're able to give a job to someone. That's always very satisfying.

You're also in charge of compensation and benefits. As HR, you know that you're able to change and uplift the quality of life of people.

It's the kind of job where you really need to establish relationships with people. But, at the same time, you should be able to maintain that level of objectivity.

This is where I come to the next part of your question, the challenging part. If something goes wrong with a person, it's also my job to make sure that that person is disciplined. The most difficult part is terminating people. It’s really, really hard not to show any emotion.

What are some leadership principles that guide you?

I've always believed in empathetic leadership; when I put myself in another person’s situation. Sometimes, I see it as a blessing and, sometimes, it could also be a curse – to be able to feel what other people feel.

Empathetic leadership is when you see yourself in the eyes of the other person. In conflict situations, we know as HR, not everyone in the workplace is easy to deal with or easy to work with. I try to put myself in the shoes of the other person.

Relationships have an imprint on the way people work. How are HR leaders helping businesses invest in a good workplace culture?

That's a difficult question! One for Miss Universe! [laughter]

I think it's not just HR that has the responsibility of building the organisational culture. Yes, maybe it comes as part of our job description. But I always believe that leadership dictates culture.

There are eight values in IKEA. None of that would make sense – or no coworker in the store would believe that – unless they see the folks who are up there, the leadership, really behave according to those values. There would be a cognitive dissonance.

Leaders are the values ambassadors of the organisation, and HR is simply the one putting a structure into how leaders become ambassadors. To make sure that the culture is built in accordance with how IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad believed coworkers should be.

What makes the culture at IKEA different?

As soon as you reach the level of manager, everyone's a manager and you won't really see what band a person belongs to. Equality is really seen in the way we deal with one another.

The other day, someone told me they weren’t sure whether to call me “Ms”. People call me “mother,” by the way. It started with members of the LGBTQ+ community. They have made me feel loved. But one time, someone reacted, “Call her by her first name: Weng.”

Filipinos, by nature, don’t really call each other by their first names. I said, “It’s OK! Just call me whatever you are comfortable with.”

I’ve worked in other places where the titles and reputations of people are very important. But humble folks don’t mind.

At IKEA, we’re very values-based. It’s also why our attrition is quite low. We only hire people who align with our values, especially if they are fair and inclusive.

What are some trends the HR community should tune into?

If I speak from the retail industry’s point of view, IKEA is already at the forefront of what people expect retail companies to do in the future. We're already doing an omni-channel experience.

If you're looking to hire people, the focus is not so much on what school you came from but what you can do. As we focus on the omni-channel experience, there's going to be a lot of focus on technology. People should be able to learn things and do things fast, and evolve to whatever new things are happening. So, you have to be very technologically savvy.

It will also be a very exciting time when all the generations are in the corporate world, from Boomers to Gen Z. There's no one-size-fits-all to many people. We have to be ready for the next three to five years. There are a lot of very smart kids right now. So, focus on skills and, at the same time, be ready to manage coworkers from different generations.

What is the legacy you’re building as an HR leader?

Recently, I got featured as one of the top HR leaders in the Philippines. I felt honoured. As people were congratulating me, it made me think about what made me deserving, and I got the answer I was looking for: it’s really about being a role model for people; in what I do.

Of course, we know that being in HR, helping the organisation achieve its targets is already a given. But it's more about your personal impact on people's lives as you work with them.

But if you ask me what I'm comfortable with? It’s that people call me “mother”. •

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Topics: Leadership, Diversity, Culture, #InternationalWomensDay, #BigInterview

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