The Modern CLO: 5 Principles That Foster Learning And Innovation At Steelcase

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A walk through a Steelcase showroom forces any manager to rethink how the surroundings in a workplace impact productivity and creativity. Picture rows of futuristic chairs and sleek treadmill desks, followed by a neat layout of of open offices. Even its ottomans manage to blend workplace function with style. 

Steelcase’s designers don’t just rely on intuition and past experiences to come up with game changing office furniture. According to Rebecca Chandler, global director of the Learning Group at Steelcase, the organization is, by design, extremely research-driven. She says this makes Steelcase more than just a furniture company.

Before Chandler joined the Michigan-based retailer three years ago, she built her career in a wide range of human resources and organizational development roles for behemoth firms like Pfizer and The Kellogg Company.

 But joining a healthcare nonprofit ultimately led to the most enlightening (and rewarding) phase of her career. At Spectrum Health, Chandler learned that a chief learning officer’s power to implement company-wide change didn’t come from the size of the learning and development budget, but rather from her capacity for creative thinking.

 “I was given the go ahead to build something spectacular,” says Chandler, who worked at Spectrum between 2011 and 2014. “I recognized what I did there and brought those lessons with me when I went to Steelcase to reimagine learning.”

 In the following Q&A, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, Chandler shares design-thinking principles that bolster innovative-thinking at the Steelcase Learning Group.

Five years ago you moved from the for-profit world to a non-profit hospital. Why make the move? And what was it like building a corporate university there?

A previous director from Pfizer recruited me for a role to start a corporate university at Spectrum Healthcare System in Grand Rapids. Spectrum includes a children's hospital and once I walked through it, I knew it was meaningful to take a pay cut and go into nonprofit. It was the best experience of my career to start this university from scratch. We were given free rein on what we wanted Spectrum Health University to be. 

What made it so powerful is in our first year we launched the only leadership development program that focused on bringing physicians and administrative leaders together, so it broke the seal between the two critical functions.

Steelcase is a unique company in that it has a very specific product: innovative office furniture. How did you continue to foster that innovation through the company’s learning programs?

What I noticed is that Steelcase isn't just pretty furniture; it's a company that's very rich in research. How do you drive purpose when you make furniture? Well, we remind ourselves we don't make furniture, we help organizations solve problems and help people do their best work.

What was your first order of business at Steelcase? 

My first charge was to modernize our learning functions. The CEO and HR empowered me to really look at the management team and determine what we needed to embed learning into the organization.

Then I had to systemize the new process to support that structure—bringing leaders from across regions and functions (and breaking the silo between them) has been key to fostering that culture. 

We have a mantra: “We all learn, we all teach.” What's really powerful about that message is the power comes from being a leader. It’s up to our function to leverage our people. We need to make it easier for them to learn. We give them the time and access to learning and teaching.

No matter the topic or expert, my group has to build the infrastructure to empower the expert to share that knowledge in a timely manner. So we invest in the technology and infrastructure to democratize learning. My group curates content for the masses as well as formalized learning; think of it as a train-the-trainer program. 

We leveraged the design process—including the certification process—to teach the content they know. But certifying leaders as faculty is nothing new. What we do, though, is we set them up for success.

It’s about making time for learners to learn and giving them time to educate others. It’s about co-facilitating the learning content so that they become a powerful storyteller and letting them be authentic as well.  

Can you give me an example of how you foster a culture of learning at Steelcase?

Senior leaders once sat in separate offices on high floors. Just eight months ago, they moved from the high floor to an open community closer to the ground floor and showrooms. We call these rooms the river banks because the managers now get the flow of employee-activity on a regular basis. 

Intentionally thinking about where the leaders position themselves has allowed them unplanned interactions with customers and employees. They learn firsthand what challenges [customers are] facing. Those serendipitous moments with customers is showing that we support a learning culture.

How do you ensure that workers are up to date on the latest software and platforms?

When I got here, we had outdated learning systems. To quote something I saw on LinkedIn, “We have software that's old enough to vote.” Some apps, for instance, haven't kept up with times because they were not mobile.

We are still transitioning out of these programs and we are on our way—but it’s a process because we still have to be able to do traditional day-to-day activities.

We had to piece together a niche solution to rebuild our tech platform and learning systems. We enlisted instructional design experts and performance consulting teams and what we moved to is the following design-thinking principles:

1. Follow the users. Spend time with people who use your service or product to build empathy. 
2. Speak up. Take action to foster an environment where anyone feels safe to share ideas or question some existing ideas.
3. Choose inclusion. This is not just about meeting diversity but how to proactively create it. 
4. Start small and act quickly. Don't fear risk but minimize risk by starting small and iterate.
5. See the big picture and take a step back to see if it fits overall vision.

So this goes back to pulling together niche solutions, instead of relying on one partnership. Instead of buying one big tech platform that promised to do many things, we took the reverse approach. We built our process, then sought niche products to fulfill that process. 

How do you ensure you have the right management training programs in place with little resources?

We are in the same position as many other HR functions in that we were asked to reimagine learning while remaining headcount neutral and with no increase to our budget.

It just means you have to think creatively. It’s about achieving what you want by putting together multiple proposals. I go in asking for what I need and then presenting a backup plan and compromises.

Work with the HR partner to achieve what you need, because they're schooled in organizational design. It's a complicated process but it goes back to three questions: What works? What skills do we have? And how do we organize those skills?

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