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5 Insights From the Helm of a Century-Old Company

A business can teach you a lot in 100 years.

Century-old companies are a rare breed in America. Even harder to find are old companies obsessed with new ideas. Steelcase, a leading manufacturer of office furniture, turns 100 today, and the company is marking the occasion with the debut of a short film by Oscar winner Daniel Junge.


No one is more responsible for Steelcase’s success—tradition animated by constant reinvention—than Jim Hackett, its CEO. Hackett is as enamored with hot startups as the rest of us, but he takes the long view. Just as workplace trends have transformed the way his company does business, he’s watched the way ideas like design thinking have spread across corporate America.

Here are five big insights from a wide-ranging conversation with Hackett:

Celebrate the future.

Companies that are momentarily in existence—a year, two, or three years old—are culturally phenomenal. There’s a kind of wanderlust about being part of startups, and I know that from experience. But as CEO of a company that has lasted 100 years, I hope the world authentically believes this kind of watermark is a key indicator of something even more important, for it to last this long.

Rather than look back, we decided to use this moment of our 100th birthday to stare out in the future. We think children have this glorious gift of being optimistic about their future, so much of our celebration has been about the next generation. The result is a short film called “One Day,” that newly-minted Oscar winner Daniel Junge produced for us.

Innovate in operations.

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One of my predecessors, Bob Pew, was CEO of Steelcase during the 1960s, when we expanded so significantly that it left our company peerless. It was the perfect intersection of three forces: the rise of corporations, a corresponding explosion of white-collar jobs, and the big technology boom that quickly followed. Bob had no fear about investing in the future in his day; because of him, we were able to set our watch for the arrival of trucks for huge jobs like the Sears Tower. With everything made to order, our factories had to be perfectly choreographed, even back then.

More recently, we’ve had to reconfigure our footprint with the way the world expanded. Markets were bigger and growing in developing countries, so we shifted some of our factories to help to advantage some of those markets, but we remain heavily invested in Michigan, where we’re based.

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Unlock human promise.

The reason people work is the pursuit of significance, not making money. It’s the higher interest in all of us. While we’re focused on making good products, our greater goal is to have no peer in terms of understanding the insights of how work is evolving. For that reason, one of our longtime partners has been IDEO.

I’ve known IDEO’s principal founder, David Kelley, for about 20 years, so well that I have him on the “wormhole,” or open video link, between our two offices. David was at the forefront of bringing design thinking into businesses. At first, IDEO was hired to do that, but now many businesses do it themselves, so IDEO has broadened what they do, which is to build business models and experiences.

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Embrace design thinking.

I have heard it so many times, and I believe so deeply in design thinking that I can deliver David Kelley’s pitch. It has transformed our company and so many others. I’m one of 10 high-level CEOs that meet every year at one of our facilities, and we talk about using design thinking to transform our businesses and the economy; it’s really a David Kelley script that is now amplified.

Steelcase has always had an incredibly strong narrative about its social purpose, which extends to our foundation. IDEO has the same, focused as much on philanthropy as on social innovation, evidenced in IDEO.org. They also have this amazing platform, OpenIDEO, which employs crowdsourcing to solve social problems. One of its most trafficked and successful challenges involved Steelcase and centered on Detroit, so we’re now working on the prototypes that came from the crowd.

Thinking and doing go hand in hand.

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I would advertise myself as probably as curious as you can get. I’ve attended all 24 TED conferences; I’ve never missed one. The reason is, I’m absorbing everything that everyone else is and bouncing those ideas against everything I’m doing as a CEO. I can’t imagine doing my job without an event like this. I feel the same way about my involvement with the D.School at Stanford, the MIT Media Lab, and the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago. These are incredibly important, thought-provoking relationships, so I invest a lot of time in them.

I never wanted to be known as a CEO, but instead for an idea that I was related to. Probably my greatest goal is to balance the relationship between thinking and doing. As I became CEO, there was an obsession around doing and not much thinking. Day in and day out, I try to demonstrate that thinking is not at the expense of doing; they make one another better.

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