The Leap Into Business in Poland

03/27/2015 10:50 am ET | Updated May 27, 2015

After the fall of Communism, East-Central Europe made the leap into the market. For that to happen, however, millions of people had to make the individual decision to leave their old jobs and take positions in this new market economy. In many cases, they didn't have much of a choice since the economic reforms threw many people out of their jobs. Perhaps they had run a small grey market business during the Communist years -- selling cigarettes or cleaning apartments -- and they simply turned these operations into legal entrepreneurial initiatives.

But the new economy also needed a brand new managerial elite that didn't for the most part exist in the region. "At that time, you opened a newspaper and you saw: financial director for Proctor and Gamble, marketing director for Colgate Palmolive," remembers Bogdan Lapinski. "I went to interview at major companies, like Arthur Anderson and Hewlett Packard. All those companies were looking for top positions at that time. These were incredible opportunities."

I met Lapinski when we were both working at the Institute of Psychology at the Polish Academy of Science in 1989. When I left Poland that year, I imagined he would continue in academe. I was surprised to discover when I returned to Poland that he had made the jump into the business world.

"I found the business work enjoyable," he told me when we met up again in Warsaw in August 2013. "It was a surprise for me, because business among so-called intellectuals -- the intelligentsia -- didn't have a very good reputation. There was no such thing in the Communist period. But even capitalist business had a bad reputation for other reasons. It was not viewed very positively by some of my friends who stayed at the university or by psychologists. It felt like I betrayed our ideals and sold myself to business. When I went to the business world, I saw that they didn't know what they were talking about. It was an interesting discovery for me. It was a very good match with my preferences and temperament, with my personality."

It was an exciting time in part because of the chance to rise rapidly in the new companies. "I immediately jumped to the top of the company," Lapinski explained. "It was in the 1990s quite common in Poland, and probably in other countries in this region -- but it's very unusual in established economies. Through an ad in the newspaper, coming from nowhere, I jumped onto the board of directors of IKEA. It took only one week."

His earlier work in psychology provided him with valuable inter-cultural and conflict resolution skills. Often he acted as an intermediary between expat managers and Polish workers. "In Polish culture, people don't like to get orders or what they interpret as orders," Lapinski told me. "When a manager asks you for something, a very typical answer is: I will try. It made expats mad. 'What do you mean, you will try? Go and do it!' This was a misunderstanding on both sides. Employees interpreted it as a rude order rather than asking or advising. And managers interpreted it as rude that the employee interpreted it as 'no.' They thought, 'I asked for something, and you will only try?' It was a common linguistic and cultural misunderstanding, but it had implications. It was an example of seeing people here as unwilling to cooperate -- and Polish people seeing those guys just as arrogant. You can't build a relationship on this."

We talked about what it was like to get the first IKEA stores up and running in Poland, the tension between resistance and rapprochement in Polish culture, and why the changes of 1989 came along at just the right time in his life.

The Interview

When you went to interview at IKEA, had it opened a store yet in Poland?

They had a very small, so-called start shop in Ursynów. This was the way companies started at that time -- in small offices or adapted spaces -- like IKEA. They didn't have a store. So I opened the first store in the center of Warsaw. Then I opened the real store outside Warsaw: 22,000 square meters.

What did the ad say they were looking for?

A human resource director or manager. There were no executive search companies, which do this job now. You don't see any ads in the newspaper these days for that kind of position. But at that time, you opened a newspaper and you saw: financial director for Proctor and Gamble, marketing director for Colgate Palmolive. I went to interview at major companies, like Arthur Anderson and Hewlett Packard. All those companies were looking for top positions at that time. These were incredible opportunities. I didn't even know what Proctor and Gamble was at that time. They were not established here, and there was no Internet to get information. I'd never heard of the company so I decided not to interview there.

But you had heard of IKEA.

Yes, IKEA was here in Poland for many years. They manufactured furniture in Poland or at least purchased wood from here, since the 1960s. It was only retail that came later. But people knew about IKEA. They traveled abroad, brought home IKEA catalogs. They looked at these and dreamed of what their kitchen could look like. Beautiful furniture and apartments: these things were uncommon here at that time. IKEA was viewed as a symbol of a better life.

You answered the ad, and you were interviewed. What was your experience of the interview?

It wasn't my first interview, of course. I went to several. There was nothing that I didn't expect. There was some short test that I did, which was bit surprising, a test of my management style. My performance was good enough, so I got the job.

Did you have any idea when you applied for the job how much authority it would have?

I had little idea what human resources was at all! Nothing like that existed in Poland. Frankly the idea of pursuing a human resource career came from an Austrian consultant that I met here. They advertised and I went to apply for a job at their company, thinking that maybe it was something for me. I was trying different things. When he looked at my CV, he said, "You have a psychology degree, some psychology experience, plus you worked a couple months in a bank, so you know a bit about business. This combination of psychology and business means human resources."

I had no idea what human resources was. I borrowed some books from the university library to read about it. It was very theoretical, but it looked okay. This was my only knowledge about this job. I knew very little what this job was about. There was a list of duties but it was very generally stated: I would be responsible for managing people in the firm and for training and staffing. It was very abstract for me: what kind of staffing, what of training? I was a bit surprised when I started the job that it was down-to-earth. I had these academic books on HR on my shelf and the next day, I was asked to buy clothes for cashiers and for warehouse workers! This was also new. It was intriguing, but also surprising. I saw my job more as a strategist and not someone who was involved in these day-to-day activities. But I got used to this quite quickly.

They asked met to work on the shop floor for a few days after they opened the first store, the small one in Warsaw. They asked me to work as a shop assistant. This is the culture of IKEA, but it's not only at this firm. I was a bit embarrassed, to be hired as a director and board member and then be required to stand in the store and sell lamps. It was very instructive. I still appreciate this experience. Going directly to the top position, I didn't have the experience of how people work on the shop floor. Normally today, as a student I would have this kind of job. But at the time, it was not very common for students to study and work at the same time.

It must have required a huge amount of learning to set up such a large store.

The typical thing companies did at that time -- and I experienced it at three companies -- IKEA, Amoco, and Pepsi -- was to send top managers to their headquarters and other divisions in other countries: to talk to and learn from people there. There were some written materials that were part of the learning. There were still expats working with us. I was working for three months with a former HR manager, who was Swedish, and I was shadowing him. We worked together for a couple months. We had some kind of Central European academy where managers from IKEA in Central Europe met with a Swedish trainer whose role was to educate us, to pass on to us knowledge of human resources.

There were no MBA courses in Poland at that time. There was no time for an MBA when you had to recruit and train hundreds of people. It was a positive job. HR is about hiring and firing. But at that time it was just hiring. Because of high inflation, there were constant pay increases. You were the person delivering good news. Plus, companies were investing. There was lavish investment for training people. There was no cost-cutting at that time. It was different from normal. These were start-ups.

Did you encounter things that were peculiarly Polish that people from other parts of the IKEA network didn't experience?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.