Meet the of­fice fur­ni­ture CEO who landed the top job at Ford.

Jim Hack­ett is an un­der­the-radar dar­ling of the man­age­ment guru set

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - ON LEAD­ER­SHIP BY JENA MCGRE­GOR jena.mcgre­gor@wash­post.com

Ford’s new chief ex­ec­u­tive — a 62-year-old for­mer of­fice fur­ni­ture ex­ec­u­tive now tasked with jump-start­ing the world’s old­est au­tomaker amid frus­tra­tions over the stock price and grow­ing threats from Silicon Valley ri­vals — is not ex­actly a house­hold name. But in man­age­ment and de­sign cir­cles, as well as in Silicon Valley, Jim Hack­ett has long been some­thing of a star for his trans­for­ma­tion of Steel­case and his abil­ity to fore­see big changes in the way peo­ple work.

Since get­ting the top job at Ford, he has been de­scribed as a turn­around spe­cial­ist, thanks to his record at Steel­case, which in­volved deep job cuts and a reimag­in­ing of its busi­ness, as well as his re­cent ten­ure as ath­letic di­rec­tor at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, where he brought in NFL coach Jim Har­baugh to re­vive the foot­ball pro­gram’s for­tunes.

But man­age­ment and de­sign ex­perts say that gives short shrift to the traits that make Hack­ett an in­spired choice to take the helm at Ford: ex­pe­ri­ence run­ning a fam­ily-owned com­pany; an early adop­tion of the now pop­u­lar “de­sign think­ing” ap­proach to prod­uct de­vel­op­ment; a will­ing­ness to learn from out­siders and stay hands-off with in­vest­ments; and a fo­cus on the fu­ture of con­sumer be­hav­ior.

“He’s fo­cused on try­ing to un­cover the non-ob­vi­ous needs peo­ple have. What would make their life bet­ter? What would they ac­tu­ally value if you gave it to them?” said David Kel­ley, a long­time friend of Hack­ett’s and the founder of IDEO, the well-known de­sign firm in which Steel­case once held a ma­jor­ity stake. (Ford is work­ing with IDEO as a client, an IDEO spokes­woman said, and Steel­case re­tains a small stake in IDEO.)

Many man­age­ment ex­perts see par­al­lels in Hack­ett’s work reimag­in­ing the spa­ces where peo­ple work and the ones where they drive in an in­dus­try that is also un­der­go­ing wrench­ing change. “Ev­ery­thing from Uber to driver­less cars — there is a mas­sive trans­for­ma­tion in the auto in­dus­try,” said Noel Tichy, a Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan man­age­ment pro­fes­sor who has worked with Hack­ett. “He’s done it be­fore. The fun­da­men­tal skill sets are the same.”

Steel­case, a com­pany with $3 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enue, might seem an un­usual prov­ing ground to run­ning Ford, one of Amer­ica’s most iconic com­pa­nies with more than $141 bil­lion in sales. “What can be less sexy than Grand Rapids and of­fice fur­ni­ture?” said John Ba­con, an Ann Ar­bor, Mich.-based au­thor who wrote a book about the re­vival of the foot­ball pro­gram at Michi­gan un­der Hack­ett’s di­rec­tion.

But in many ways, man­age­ment ex­perts say, it’s a nat­u­ral fit.

For one, Hack­ett was the first non­fam­ily CEO to run Steel­case when he took over in 1994. While Ford has had plenty of out­side lead­ers, the Ford fam­ily is a dom­i­nant pres­ence that CEOs must learn to nav­i­gate, said Jef­frey Son­nen­feld, a Yale School of Man­age­ment pro­fes­sor. Although the fam­ily owns less than 2 per­cent of the to­tal out­stand­ing shares, it holds some 40 per­cent of vot­ing power, thanks to its dual-class share struc­ture. Bill Ford Jr. is ex­ec­u­tive chair­man.

Hack­ett “will know how to make that an as­set,” Son­nen­feld said. With his back­ground, Hack­ett, who is a per­sonal friend of Ford’s, could “take that kind of own­er­ship struc­ture and make it a com­pet­i­tive edge where they’re with you rather than against you.”

At Steel­case, Hack­ett was an early devo­tee of de­sign prin­ci­ples that helped him trans­form the com­pany, driv­ing the shift from a pri­vate, cu­bi­cle-cen­tered work­place to the more team-driven, “open of­fice” en­vi­ron­ment many busi­nesses use now. Re­al­iz­ing that peo­ple would work more col­lab­o­ra­tively, and more cen­tered around mo­bile tech­nol­ogy, he pushed for changes such as of­fice fur­ni­ture on wheels that could be re­con­fig­ured and ta­bles that in­te­grated with lap­tops.

“What he does re­ally well, which is al­ways go­ing to be a con­stant in work and lead­er­ship, is look­ing at the fu­ture of peo­ple’s be­hav­ior,” said Kathryn Se­govia, head of learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence de­sign at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity’s de­sign school, who worked with Hack­ett at Steel­case in 2012. “Ford has largely seen it­self as an au­to­mo­bile com­pany for so long. What Jim is re­ally great at do­ing is re­fram­ing a com­pany around a mis­sion, around a need that peo­ple have.”

Se­govia served as one of the out­side “re­verse men­tors” Hack­ett brought in each sum­mer.

IDEO’s Kel­ley, who is also the founder of Stan­ford’s de­sign school and who once had an al­ways-on video con­fer­ence line be­tween his of­fice and Hack­ett’s that they called the “worm­hole,” says Hack­ett of­ten sends him links to is­sues go­ing on in the de­sign field be­fore he knows about them.

As Ford grows its “mo­bil­ity ser­vices” busi­ness, tech start-ups it in­vests in could be en­cour­aged by how Hack­ett man­aged Steel­case’s in­vest­ment in IDEO. In 1996, Steel­case took a ma­jor­ity stake in the firm. Hack­ett let IDEO op­er­ate au­tonomously but used it to help in­fuse de­sign sen­si­bil­i­ties into the fur­ni­ture com­pany’s think­ing. “He didn’t suf­fo­cate it,” Son­nen­feld said. “He has a track record to prove he can pull in great tal­ent and give them room to breathe.”

Hack­ett also knew when it was time to let go, be­ing will­ing to sell back the ma­jor­ity own­er­ship when IDEO’s part­ners were ready. Ac­cord­ing to one strat­egy con­sul­tant who worked with Hack­ett, “most CEOs would have said, ‘Tough luck, we own you.’ Not Jim. He re­al­ized that set­ting IDEO free and hold­ing only a mi­nor­ity share would be the smartest thing.”

That IDEO part­ner­ship also deep­ened Hack­ett’s con­nec­tions in the tech world — Kel­ley says Hack­ett knows ev­ery­one at Stan­ford and is “an in­sider here; he’s not go­ing to miss what’s go­ing on in Silicon Valley.” It was one thing Bill Ford Jr. cited as hav­ing an im­pact on Hack­ett’s hiring.

In a visit last year, Ford said in a news con­fer­ence, he watched tech ex­ec­u­tives greet Hack­ett with hugs. “A num­ber said to me: ‘My gosh, he’s one of the real orig­i­nal thinkers that we know, and you guys are lucky to have him,’ ” Ford said. “To see Jim not only nav­i­gate that so well but to be held in such high re­gard, it made an im­pres­sion on me.”

PAUL SANCYA/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Jim Hack­ett was an ex­ec­u­tive at of­fice fur­ni­ture man­u­fac­turer Steel­case, as well as ath­letic di­rec­tor at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan.

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