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Taking Assessment to Another Level

At Steelcase, assessment—in many forms—drives better decisions.
Taking Assessment to Another Level

Steelcase does assessment with a capital “A.” For nearly five decades, this Michigan-based innovator—which began in 1912 as a local, office furniture manufacturer—has relied on assessment to make better hiring and promotion decisions and manage its workforce.

“I remember speaking about assessment at a conference several years ago,” says David MacDonald, senior consultant, global workforce strategy. “And you could hear the collective thud of jaws hitting the table after I described all of the assessment tools that we use and we how we use them.”

David MacDonaldDavid MacDonaldWhen MacDonald arrived 35 years ago, Steelcase was already using two assessment centers. Designed internally and employing existing managers as assessors, the one-day simulations evaluated candidates for operations supervisor and sales manager positions. Both were used in conjunction with an interviewing system and a problem-solving test.

“Back in the day, assessment was primarily used for selection decisions,” says MacDonald. “Now we use it for development purposes, as well, and we have a much, much wider range of tools—a “cocktail” of assessments that gives us a high-resolution image of our talent.”

It’s largely because of this mastery of mixology that Steelcase has become the world’s largest manufacturer in its space, and successfully re-branded itself as a global work effectiveness company.

From Wastebaskets to World Leader

Steelcase received its first patent in 1914 for the manufacturing process that produced a durable, yet low-cost fireproof wastebasket. Metal desks and a century’s worth of product and service innovations followed.

Over time, Steelcase expanded, adding manufacturing and sales offices around the world. Today, the company has more than 750 dealers and close to 12,000 employees. In 2016, revenue exceeded $3 billion.

Accompanying Steelcase’s physical transformation was a fundamental shift in focus. MacDonald credits former CEO Jim Hackett (1994 to 2014, and now the CEO of Ford Motor Company) with an “uncanny ability to see around corners.” Hackett understood that advances in consumer technology would change not only how people worked, but also where they worked.

“Jim detected that what was possible, including PDAs, wireless laptops, and so forth, and what would soon be expected. He recognized that we’d better be thinking about supporting our workers when they no longer need to be at the office. And while the foundation of our business continues to be the production of office furniture, these days we are really all about helping people have a better work experience, wherever they are. This now includes things like research, consulting, and high-tech and architectural products. Being a work effectiveness company is what really differentiates us from our competitors.”

This transformation, from local to global, from manufacturer to solution provider, necessitated talent with new skill sets.

Steven WolfeSteven Wolfe“We were trying to instill behaviors that we didn’t have before,” says Steven Wolfe, HR director. “Empowerment is an example. We wanted people who could make decisions on their own, and not just follow directions. We needed people who were more curious, creative, and innovative, and more able to work collaboratively. For us to create effective work environments for clients, we engineered a living lab, a test space where we could try out and pilot new ideas.”

Another talent gap to be filled was digital leadership. For the first time, Steelcase’s leaders had to manage meetings and teams remotely. In addition to learning some basic technical skills and becoming comfortable with addressing screens versus people, leaders had to navigate cultural differences when managing communications and expectations.

To acquire and develop the skills needed to fuel its transformational change, Steelcase amplified assessment’s already considerable role in making talent decisions.

The Art of Selection

Because each region had its own way of assessing talent, Steelcase’s top priority was to standardize its hiring and promotion process. “When we thought about how we were going to move talent between regions and countries, we knew we needed a common leadership language to guide and sustain our transformation,” says Wolfe. “Now, with all our assessment tools, we’re looking at candidates through the same lens, while accounting for cultural differences.”

In the organization’s current selection model, candidates are observed and evaluated from five different perspectives. The first is job fit, which is assessed in preliminary interviews. The second and third are personality-related. Tests assess for behavioral tendencies and traits (both positive and negative), and motivational fit. Problem-solving ability is the fourth, and is evaluated (along with several leader competencies) via a one-day assessment.

"The last area of inquiry is competencies, and that's also where DDI’s assessments and interviews come into play," says MacDonald. "We use one-day assessment centers for both operational and strategic-level candidates, and the Sales Insight Inventory for the selection of professional sales people. For our operational supervisors or "zone leaders," we use the Leader Career Battery." All are used in conjunction with DDI’s Targeted Selection® behavioral interviewing system.

To keep track of the "cocktail" of assessments used across the organization's leadership pipeline, MacDonald created a matrix that identifies the assessments that are either required or optional for each type of role and candidate (internal or external).

“The matrix shows the time required to complete each of the screenings and report the results,” he says. “This helps our HR partners better support their hiring managers, by identifying the combination of assessments they need to request to hire or promote the right candidate.”

There’s also an online catalog which describes the “whats,” “whos,” and “whys” of each assessment tool. It provides a sample report and a request form, which MacDonald ultimately receives. "I review all forms that come in globally and, if needed, I provide consulting around any issues. Once approved, my colleague in Mexico manages the sending of the links, the communication to candidates, the forwarding of reports, etc. We have a well-run system for recommending assessments and managing the process."

From Data to Development

“HR has really evolved at Steelcase. Initially the primary focus was employee relations, conflict resolution, and policy administration,” says Wolfe. “Today it’s more of a partnership with the business, and it’s about working with supervisors, managers, directors, and VPs to support strategic initiatives. As a result, much of my work is developing future leaders who will be ready to meet future challenges, and ensure they have the tools and knowledge they’ll need to support their teams. I’d say that at any point in time, there's probably 60 leaders in some type of formalized training.”

The wealth of assessment data optimizes development. “To help potential leaders determine what skills they’ll need for the next level, and to help new leaders craft targeted development plans, our most popular tool is DDI’s online frontline assessment,” says MacDonald, referring to Manager Ready®. “Manager Ready really helps us get a reading on employees with shorter tenures and less experience,” adds Wolfe. “We can find out if they’re on track and if there are some big gaps that can be developed.” To guide development, Steelcase also administers 360-degree feedback surveys.

MacDonald’s Global Workforce Strategy group also oversees the LEADER (Leveraging, Experience, Accelerating Development, Expanding Responsibility) program. Through a nomination process, senior executives identify 15 to 20 potential candidates to participate in its Mosaic assessment. This evaluative process incorporates a variety of tools that assess each candidate’s fit and competence from all five selection perspectives. Based on the results, participants are recommended for the two-year LEADER program, and receive customized development plans. They also attend workshops that address shared development needs. Since LEADER launched in 2000, workshops have been held around the world.

All in for Assessment

MacDonald says he doesn’t need to promote the value of assessment to hiring managers. And, for this he feels fortunate. "I know a lot of organizations that still struggle with this, despite the 80 years of research that show the good the tools do for organizations."

He attributes the organization-wide buy-in to two things. The first is the math. "In the beginning, I'd go to the hiring manager and say, so you don't want to spend X number of dollars on a particular assessment, but let’s look at what you risk if you don't. Here is the actual cost of selecting somebody, here's the onboarding investment, here may be the opportunity cost of not having somebody in the role or having the wrong person, here’s the potential cost of a legal defense, should that be necessary, etc. When you add it all up you get a pretty large number and then they come to see the assessment as something of an insurance policy to make sure they get the right person. Way back, I learned to talk to decision makers in the universal language of business—money.”

The second is results. Once leaders see the value of assessment, they are more likely to continue to use the tools for future selection decisions.  “Especially when they see candidates—who wouldn’t have even been considered without assessment—perform so spectacularly in their new roles,” says MacDonald.

“Several years ago, one of our executives knew that he'd be retiring and he engaged our team to create a Success Profile for his successor, and help him identify a short list of candidates. We were enlisted to help in the selection process, and to help support the development of the candidate down the road. Not only did we land on an unlikely candidate, because of his role at the time, we also found someone qualified to lead our company forward—in new, technology-integrated direction. And because of how masterfully we'd matched him with his new role, he engaged us to find a replacement for his European counterpart.

“So, we've had some really great success stories using assessments and getting buy-in, and it just becomes a virtuous cycle. The more people that use assessments and see the benefits, the more likely they are to continue to use them in the future.”

Talk to an Expert: Taking Assessment to Another Level

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