Architecture & Design, Human Resources, and Manufacturing

Speaker's talk spotlights 'leading with confidence'

Steelcase CEO, President Jim Keane outlines three keys to effectiveness and success at Inforum event.

March 22, 2019
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In a recent talk hosted by the women’s leadership development group Inforum Michigan, Jim Keane distilled insights from his five years as CEO and 13 years as president of Steelcase.

As leader of the second-largest office furniture manufacturer by number of employees in West Michigan, Keane said the company’s mission to unlock human potential for its employees and customers can only happen if leaders at all levels stay engaged and provide a supportive environment.

Keane said there is an informal union of CEOs people join when they rise to the company’s top job, and the club is a space of generosity and reciprocity. When new CEOs call other CEOs, they will answer their phones and share honest insights.

Recently, a woman was about to become CEO of her company and called Keane for advice. Her question, “How is Year 1 different from Year 5 as chief executive?” stuck with him because most incoming CEOs aren’t thinking so far ahead.

Keane said the learning curve has not flattened out for him; he’s just facing different challenges today than he was five years ago.

Knowing that, Keane drew from his reading and experiences to share insights on growth, confidence, success and happiness for Inforum on March 12 at Watermark Country Club in Grand Rapids.

One of Keane’s favorite books, “Man’s Search for Meaning” is by the late Viktor Frankl, a German psychologist and Nazi concentration camp survivor.

“While he was there as a prisoner in this camp, he was also observing the other prisoners and watching how differences in how they handled the concentration camp experience shaped whether they survived or not and what happened next,” Keane said.

“One of his key insights is that people, even in a concentration camp, can be happy. You would think that would just be impossible. His conclusion was that things like happiness and success — and I’ll add confidence to the list — you don’t get them if you pursue them directly. You get them if you are thinking about something else. … Happiness, success (and) confidence is more emergent, rather than something you could make yourself be.”

Keane said he puts little stock in advice for men and women that says to “have it all,” they should take or not take certain approaches, they should lean in or lean out, and so on.

“Those are facades that aren’t authentic, and are we really going to get there in that way versus a more indirect way?” he said.

The “indirect way” to gain happiness, success and confidence starts with being engaged in life — doing whatever you do wholeheartedly, he said. Within that, he listed three key steps: finding purpose, connection and progress.

Purpose

Purpose is about “the idea that our work is about something more important than just what we do today,” Keane said. He advises college students to learn whether the company they are joining after graduation is doing something good in the world.

Steelcase isn’t the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he acknowledged. But it does have a mission.

“You can think of it as office furniture, or you can think of it the way we think of it, which is that people spend a large part of their day working, and they can work in good environments or they can work in environments that aren’t so good,” Keane said.

“We can help the people who make choices about those environments make better choices. We can help them see how you can create environments where people can work more effectively, where every person can reach their full potential — where the introverts feel like they have places to find privacy and the extroverts feel like they have places where they can connect with other people. Where people can feel like they can be more productive than they can be anywhere else. There’s a whole host of things that can change people’s lives if we’re able to change their work experience because work is such a big part of our lives.”

The second part of purpose he emphasized is leaders need to give employees a vision of how their work is affecting the mission of the organization.

“When you start a project next time, think about this. How hard did you work?” Keane said. “Help the people on that project team understand why the company chose to do this project instead of some other project. Why did this project win? And then, why did we pick you? Why are you on this project team? What is it about your unique skills or experiences that made you be the perfect person to be on this team?”

Keane said when people hit milestones — such as becoming a CEO, an empty nester, a retiree — they often experience a loss of purpose and become unhappy over time. To prevent that, he said it’s important to keep thinking about “that next piece” so they will “feel something begin to hum along inside.”

Connection

Connection relates to purpose, Keane said, because the best purposes make a difference in the lives of others. But he said connection also can be an end unto itself — and for some it is.

He cited a recent Gallup poll that asked people why they stayed at their jobs.

“What they found is that the people who left left for reasons like, ‘My spouse changed jobs and we relocated,’ ‘I decided I wanted to go into a different industry,’ ‘I wanted to throttle back,’ ‘I wanted to throttle up’ — a whole host of reasons,” Keane said.

“The people who stayed had all the same reasons, and they stayed. … The No. 1 reason was their best friend worked at the company, and the second one was the relationship with their immediate supervisor. For people who felt that they had a close relationship with their immediate supervisor, and they had friends who worked at the company, that’s what improved retention, more than benefits, more than all the other things that you think about.”

He said Steelcase pays attention to research like this in designing workplaces “where people are actually more likely to build friendships with each other.”

Keane also noted networking — a constant of business life — is often done wrong. To make a genuine connection, people think they need to trade facts about themselves, then offer to help their new contact in some way.

An author friend of Keane’s who writes about connection said the better answer is to ask for help.

“It’s the act of asking for help that shows vulnerability, transparency and openness, and you’re sharing a flaw,” Keane said. “You’re sharing something you’re working on, and if you ask for help, everyone else at the table will lean forward and think, ‘How can I help you?’”

Progress

Keane said the third and final key to happiness, success and confidence — progress — can feel very business-oriented, but it’s more personal than it seems.

Companies set annual goals, but if all they aim for is hitting the goal, when they miss the mark, what is gained?

“It’s not about the goal; it’s about progress, and progress is about winning, but it’s also about losing,” Keane said.

“It’s about failing sometimes. How do we handle failure? How do you handle it personally? How do you think about failure? Sometimes, people who lack confidence are afraid of success, and sometimes they’re afraid of failure, but if you reframe failure to be about learning, then there’s nothing really to be afraid about because if you’re learning, you’re growing, and if you’re growing, that maybe, again, gives a sense of inner confidence.”

Keane said leaders often think about failure in terms of holding people accountable by doling out blame. He said this isn’t the best way. The best approach is to ask the “A” question: What can we do differently?

Steelcase recently threw a “failure party” for itself after losing a bid. Instead of summarizing what they learned in a report or some other “formulaic way,” the event gave the company a chance to invite anyone who wanted to be there to come and deconstruct the experience. About 15 to 20 people came and spent two hours talking.

“We walked through this detailed timeline of all the places where we failed along the way, and people were charged up because we could see that if we could address those things, we could become a better company,” Keane said.

If leaders take purpose, connection and progress seriously and practice them every day, Keane said he believes they will “engage more fully in life,” and happiness, success and confidence will follow.

“Think about how to practice this every day and even think about how you do it as you meet others,” he said. “How do you give others that opportunity to see purpose, to build connections and to feel progress, even if it’s through failure and learning?”

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