Customer Leadership Mint #1: Staying Relevant

This is the 1st of a 10-part series on Customer Leadership.

In this LEADERSHIP MINTS series, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Steelcase Inc. (founded March 16, 1912) and salute Customer Leaders (a.k.a employees) who have consistently driven Steelcase Inc  as the worldwide, office-furniture industry leader for most of its 100 years serving/leading customers.  Today let’s examine Customer Leadership from an historical perspective at Steelcase Inc., the $2.4 billion company, headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

By Peter Jeff
The Leadership Mints Guy

            Here’s an example of meeting a customer’s specific need.

           How do you lead your industry let alone stay in business for 100 years? Stay relevant. Especially in customer-izing your products or services to serve a specific customer need –from Charles Lindbergh’s historic trans-Atlantic flight to collaborating with famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to playing a supporting role when General Douglas MacArthur acceped the Japanese surrender ceremony ending World War II.

Steelcase outfitted Charles Lindbergh's touring plane with a customized desk he used to sign autographs.

         That’s the customer leadership performance that we begin examining today with a series of 10 Leadership Mints over the next 10 business days. These Leadership Mints, short stories on customer leadership, are designed to freshen our bottom-line thinking on business success that Steelcase Inc. has earned en route to celebrating its 100th anniversary in March.

     “If ever a company marched to its own drummer, this one does– and in perfect step.”

         More than 25 years ago, Forbes Magazine cited Steelcase Inc. –the world’s leading office furniture maker – for its unique leadership style in a 5-page story titled “The Steel Behind Steelcase” in the October 7, 1985 issue. “If ever a company marched to its own drummer, this one does—and in perfect step,” opined editor James Michaels. “All very sui generis.”

           Consider these historical highlights:

         The year: 1927. The place: Paris. The event: Charles Lindbergh soars the Atlantic. Lucky Lindy pilots his Spirit of St. Louis 33.5 hours over 3,610 miles of ocean from New York– the first solo pilot across the Atlantic. And after his triumphant flight, he celebrated with a promotional tour across the United States. When Charles Lindbergh came to Grand Rapids, Steelcase Inc. was there, outfitting his touring plane with a customized desk.

                     Ten years later, Steelcase also shared in the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright, helping him create what LIFE Magazine called the most inspirational office building of the 20th century. There was a great room filled with huge columns — with rounded shapes at the top…. like enormous lily pads that seemed to be floating in a sea of glass tubing.

        Wright wanted office furniture that would reflect those rounded shapes. Steelcase, then known as The Metal Office Furniture Company, made oval-shaped desks complete with drawers shaped in half circles.

                                 Steelcase Plays a Role in World History

       Then on September 2, 1945….Steelcase played a role in ending World War II. General Douglas MacArthur officiated at the surrender ceremony aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright asked Steelcase to produce the oval-shaped desk that complemented his oval-shaped columns at the Johnson's wax corporate headquarters in Wisconsin.

           Japanese generals signed the surrender documents, ending World War II in Japan. And this historic surrender signing was all happening on a table — a table made by Steelcase– then known as The Metal Office Furniture Company.

          It is interesting to note that the table was actually a cloth-covered mess hall table that proved to be more functional than the ornate wood desk from another manufacturer originally planned for the ceremony.

          The surrender documents were too large for the wood desk. Steelcase adapted its Metal Office Furniture Company’s manufacturing focus to producing furniture for ships during the war when steel supplies were restricted. The US Navy proved to be a viable customer that Steelcase served in doing what it has done for 100 years so far, providing workable work spaces. Even on a ship.

          And now in the 21st century, Steelcase continues to express its Customer Leadership with products like Media:scape — a furniture/technology integration that augments the collaborative work experience. That product does what leaders do: turn the I into We.  That product turns individual-led presentations into a collaborate sharing sessions.

        I’d like to think that  Media:scape product captures the essence of what Customer Leadership means to me: engaging all stakeholders from employees to vendors to stock holders to dealers– working WITH each other not FOR each other. And in the process gaining and regaining the confidence of the customer in the company. For 100 years! I look forward to your thoughts on exemplary Customer Leadership in general and Steelcase’s brand of Customer Leadership in particular. Use the Comments section below.

 Next: Customer Leadership Mint #2: Brushing Up

Today’s ImproveMINT
Adapt products to serve specific customer needs to keep your leadership thinking in mint condition.

You might also like these previous Leadership Mints on Teamwork :

Beware of Spraying Praise Like Perfume

Gap Analysis of Another Kind

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1 thought on “Customer Leadership Mint #1: Staying Relevant

  1. Pingback: Taking Your Work Personally –On and Off the Job « LEADERSHIP MINTS

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