Howes: We’re all working for tech companies now

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — In a big company state defined by century-old names, Jim Keane is something of a revolutionary.

Or is he? The CEO of Steelcase Inc. isn’t leading a dour office furniture maker these days. The company’s in business to understand how the stresses of relentless competition, generational change and workforces liberated by mobile technology are changing the way the world works, the spaces they need and how CEOs lead. Literally.

The upshot, as Keane and Deloitte LLP CEO Cathy Engelbert will discuss at Monday’s Detroit Economic Club: just about every company, no matter its scale, is becoming a tech company. Not necessarily because of the products they make or the services they provide, but because of how they use technology to work and to engage employees to maintain a competitive edge.

“You hear companies talking about disruption as the biggest threat,” Keane said in an interview in the company’s headquarters here. “It’s not whether the other guy is going to get 6-percent productivity improvement and I’m going to get three. It’s whether some company I’ve never heard of is going to come in here and create a replacement product that eliminates our company.”

The gulf separating the tech companies of the coasts from industrial manufacturers of the heartland is shrinking rapidly, if it exists at all. That has real implications for leaders and the people they lead, especially for established large companies accustomed to traditional, hierarchical corporate structures built for an era that mostly does not exist anymore.

Emphasis, please, on the “does not exist anymore” part. Even as business leaders and their people cope with the quickening rate of change, and the pressure of global competition fueled by mobile capital, resistance to the speed and uncertainty of it all is mounting. Case in point:

This year’s presidential campaign, where Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left are proffering retrograde economic visions more evocative of the golden 1960s of Pax Americana than the realities of global markets servicing global customers in the mid-2010s.

They’ll discipline Wall Street, whatever the collateral damage; stop expansion of American industrial capacity to foreign markets; levy tariffs to punish those who would leave and then export foreign-made goods back to the States — a jarring juxtaposition to the realities of global business today.

Steelcase, a global supplier of office furniture and work design with deep roots in Grand Rapids, occupies a unique vantage point for witnessing the change. CEOs and C-suites are relinquishing central control, from the size and location of executive offices to required hours and implied expectations that no one leaves until the boss leaves.

They’re looking to Silicon Valley and Israel’s hot tech sector for clues to nurture (and manage) innovation. They’re increasingly understanding that leadership is less about decision-making and more about shaping a culture that prizes (and rewards) agility, that engages employees instead of issuing top-down dictates familiar to big company towns like Detroit.

“That is under attack,” Keane says, “interestingly by the C-suites themselves. That’s really where the revolution is happening, more than any place else. It’s not just trying to make their company nice. They’re trying to be more competitive.”

He adds: “The focus on agility is causing CEOs to realize that they’re not going to make all the decisions anymore. The decisions are going to be made throughout the company and the role of the leader is really to create a culture.”

Enabling that leveling of the global playing field are technology, the internet, mobility and a realization among corporate leaders, almost irrespective of industry, that traditional top-down hierarchies where the CEO is king (or queen) are giving way to cultures and work spaces that encourage innovation and engagement across the workforce.

That’s why Ford Motor Co. is launching a 10-year reinvention of its two “campuses” in Dearborn; why General Motors Co. is renovating parts of its aging Tech Center in Warren; why the zany, open workspaces of Dan Gilbert's Quicken Loans Inc. and related companies are the norm for the new way to work — not an aberration.

“The pace of change is a lot faster than ever,” Keane says. “A lot more businesses are becoming much more knowledge-based. The key to that is people.”

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.