Exec Employs Innovation in Staffing Firm

By Michelle Grainger

Lots of executives work in industries that have nothing to do with their college majors. But Rolf Kleiner of staffing agency Kelly Services—a CIMS member—has gone pretty far afield. He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in limnology, which is the study of inland waters. Although doctorate programs are the next step for most people with degrees in limnololgy, Rolf didn’t want to pursue that option because he was more interested in marine biology. The top two programs at the time were in California and Massachusetts, and because he studied at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich—he was born in Switzerland and maintains dual citizenship—the admissions process would have been too complicated. But without a Ph.D., his career options in academia would have been limited to “washing some other scientist’s lab glassware for $700 or $800 a month, which I wasn’t prepared to do,” recalls Rolf.

Rolf Kleiner

Rolf Kleiner

So Rolf spent almost 20 years in scientific equipment and related sales roles before top Kelly executives tapped him to build the company’s new Scientific Resources division in 1995. Currently the company’s Chief Innovation Officer, with a string of accomplishments to his credit, Rolf is leaving the company at the end of the year to create his own consulting firm.

CIMS recently named Rolf its newest Industrial Fellow, and has also asked him to present a case study of Kelly’s work with CIMS at our next meeting, which will be a unique winter meeting scheduled for January 8-9 in Raleigh.
Given this, we wanted to learn more about his career successes, his views on innovation, and his work with CIMS. Here are some highlights of our conversation:

What results did you achieve with the Scientific Division?

We opened our first branch in 1995. The business has since organically grown into a global enterprise, operating from 102 locations in 18 countries. We established innovative online training, outsourced intern management, and created other value-added programs to differentiate Kelly Scientific Resources from competitive services. Today this business is approaching $400 million in revenue and retains its market leadership position as the only global scientific staffing business in the world. And it serves as the template for all other Kelly professional/technical staffing businesses.
Why were you the obvious choice to be CIO, and what is your mandate?
As a rogue, I was the only choice, the logical choice. I’m always trying to do something different. My focus is three-fold: (1) Fostering disruptive innovation as a business model. Most people take new methodologies and apply them to the old ways of doing business. Rather, I’m going to take the old ways of doing things and re-engineer them to fit the new methods. (2 Improving how efficiently we bring innovation to the market, and (3) Driving a cultural shift within the organization using the CIMS System for Industrial Innovation. (Note: Rolf was one of the “beta testers” for the System, which codifies the work that CIMS has been doing with companies for decades. The System is now revealed in a forthcoming book by CIMS’ Paul Mugge and Steve Markham called, Traversing the Valley of Death: A Practical Guide for Corporate Innovation Managers.)

What benefits have you noticed as a result of your partnership with CIMS?

It takes about five years to shift a company’s culture to foster innovation. We’re about three years in. We’ve seen positive results on the IMMA and VIQ (the Innovation Management Maturity Assessment and the Value Innovation Quotient, both proprietary CIMS instruments that measure a company’s innovation maturity along a spectrum and its innovation culture, respectively). We’ve surveyed thousands of employees company-wide, and at the end of our most recent assessment, we had more than 550 people write in responses and suggestions, which I think is a really high number. We have also taken several potentially disruptive business-model projects through an idea-management process consisting of discovery, incubation (the pilot stage) and acceleration steps, with two projects now nearing entry into Kelly’s normal business operations.

You were born in Switzerland but grew up in Southern California. Has that been an advantage?

Of all the jobs I’ve had at Kelly, I enjoyed being senior vice president and general manager of the International division (from 2001 to 2008) most. I managed all Kelly operations outside the U.S., which included 40 countries. It allowed me to leverage both sets of experiences, both the U.S. and the European. I even learned to deliver three brief speeches in Russian!

What takeaway do you hope people get from your presentation at the CIMS Winter Meeting?

A lot of people talk about innovation, meet about it, go to conferences for it, but I don’t see how it turns into anything except incrementalism. The last three years has been a real education for me. To be serious about innovation, it’s important that change management is involved. Executives must be resolute, tough, and can’t succumb to budget pressures.

Want to ask Rolf a question or make a comment? We’d love to hear from you. If you want to learn more about Kelly’s innovation journey or hear about “Traversing the Valley of Death,” be sure to register for the Winter Meeting today!

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