Ford’s new CEO — a 62-year-old former office furniture executive now tasked with jump-starting the world’s oldest automaker amid 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’s been frequently described as a turnaround specialist, thanks to his record at Steelcase, which involved deep job cuts and a reimagining of the company’s business, as well as his recent tenure as athletic director at the University of Michigan.

But management and design experts say these are 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 constant focus on the future of consumer behavior.

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.

They say that $3 billion Steelcase was a natural proving ground for the road ahead of him at Ford. 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 family remains a dominant presence that CEOs must learn to navigate, said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management.

Hackett also realized that people would be working more collaboratively, and more centered around mobile technology and pushed for changes in layout, in office furniture on wheels that could be reconfigured and tables that integrated with laptops to display individual workers’ screens.

“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’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.”


McGregor writes for the Washington Post.