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Reinventing GE culture: global new directions

October 13, 2016
GE is famous for its constant reinvention, which explains why it's often referred to as a 124-year-old startup. Yet right now the company is arguably going through the greatest, fastest, and most exciting period of transformation in its history: to become the digital industrial company that transforms the world.
GE has invested more than $1 billion in software manufacturing capability over the past five years. The company now employs more than 12,000 software engineers. And it has created an operating system—Predix—for the Industrial Internet, which enables companies to build software applications that collect and analyse data, to help them run their businesses more efficiently.

But the real challenge for GE as it becomes a software company lies in evolving its culture. How does the company’s worldwide workforce of more than 310,000 keep pace with the GE rate of change and how does GE attract and inspire the next generation of global talent?

“Cultural transformation is never ending,” says Geoff Culbert, President and CEO of GE Australia and New Zealand, “and must engage all levels of the organisation to be effective.”

GE ranks among the top 50 Best Places to work according employee reviews aggregated by Glassdoor, a job-search agency in the US, and published by Forbes Magazine. It also consistently scores 100% on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index, which rates US corporations on LGBT equality. Diverse, inclusive and supportive are words with a high-ranking SEO among managers of this digital-industrial giant.

A recent GE initiative began engaging particularly with talented millennials (also known as Gen Y): those born between 1980 and 2004, who as offspring of the baby boomers will form the largest proportion of the workforce in many countries by 2025.

Millennials will, in just nine years' time, make up 75% of Australian workers says workforce management solutions company Kronos. The US is on a similar trajectory. That means, whatever your business, millennials will not only form the bulk of your workforce, but also the bulk of your customers.

Jeff Immelt, global CEO of GE and his leadership team are united in their determination to engage millennials in evolving an agile, millennials’ version of GE. “It is essential that GE continue to be relevant to the next generation of leaders. I have assembled a group of young leaders, whom I meet with frequently, to help me see GE through their eyes. It is my dream that every young person should want to come to work at our great company,” said Immelt in his foreword to the 2015 company report.

The young leaders’ team was dubbed Global New Directions (GND), and the concept, initiated in 2014, has been so valuable it was recently extended into a team, focused on global growth, that collaborates with GE’s vice chairman, John Rice.

Members of the Global Growth Organisation Global New Directions team with John Rice, GE vice chairman.

The Rice GND group of 10 young leaders, drawn from throughout GE’s worldwide operations, includes Joanne Woo, director of communications for GE in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Woo was nominated for the group by Geoff Culbert who says, “Young employees have an unconstrained view of the future and the most to lose from the status quo. That’s a powerful dynamic. If you give them a voice they can be constructive agitators for change.”

Among the criteria for nominations to Rice’s advisory group were that candidates have credibility and influence in the company, and that they understand GE well, but are also bold enough to challenge established company norms.

Yun Chung, GE Korea defense vertical leader.

Yun Chung, another of the GND group which meets every three weeks via teleconference, is defence vertical leader for GE Korea. He recently shepherded to completion a US$1.2 billion deal for the supply of GE F414 aircraft engines to Korea’s indigenous fighter development project, known as KF-X. Chung brings extensive government-relations experience from a former position as chief of staff to the vice chairman of the National Defence Committee, Korean National Assembly. He is also involved in introducing GE’s advanced diesel locomotives to Korea because locomotives are considered to be a wartime asset.

Dialling into GND meetings from Calgary, Jeanette Patell is GE’s government affairs and policy leader (energy) in Canada. Previously she was a diplomat with the Government of Canada, focussed on international trade policy issues and posted to Canada’s embassies abroad. In this capacity and before joining GE, Patell led agriculture trade policy at the Embassy of Canada in Washington DC and natural resources trade policy for the Canadian Mission to the European Union.

These three millennials alone show the kind of intellectual strength and experience of the GND group.

GE Reports spoke to them about their strategies for accelerating GE’s cultural transformation:
Fast-forward positive change

“We want to operate in a simpler and faster way, with the customer always at the forefront,” says Woo, “and part of that is calling out and jettisoning redundant practices within the company. A lot of processes may have been put in place 10, 20, 30 years ago, and instead of just continuing them, we’re questioning whether they still make sense—and if not, eliminating them.” In a matter of months the GND change agents have set the wheels in motion to leverage in-company digital systems so that they are accessible and standardised across GE’s businesses; and to empower GE employees beyond the GND group to also speak up about procedures that don’t make sense.

During a webcast to employees, Joanne Woo, director of communications and corporate affairs for GE in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, John Rice and members of the GGO Global New Directions team share networking tips that produce results.

“That John Rice has already taken our suggestions in these areas on board and is actioning them with his executive team is empowering to us—as a group, as individuals, as millennials. Our ideas are valued and we are encouraged to be a force for change. It’s exciting to know that we are having a positive influence on how the company evolves,” says Woo.
Play like a team

“Big things happen when people collaborate,” says Woo, referring to the company-wide policy of accessing the deep and wide-ranging GE Store of expertise to achieve business goals. “At GND meetings, we discuss how we can help build a culture where silos become an old-world concept.”

“Practically speaking,” adds Patell, “collaboration in this company is simply non-negotiable if we want to be effective. It’s too big to go it alone. But the vast resources and expertise within GE are also an enormous opportunity that young people can harness to build something bigger. Collaboration drives creativity, brings new ideas to the table, and the result can be so much more impactful than what I started with—and that makes me excited to go to work every day.”
“Our next generation of leaders is highly collaborative, connected and welcomes the opportunity to share information. To enable this change, we are focusing on creating a more collaborative environment where “getting things done” becomes easier every day.” Jeff Immelt

Nurture deeper connections: the new networking

“It’s too simplistic to think of networking as a conscious and discrete action,” says Patell. “Sure, we can all go to conferences or meetings and exchange business cards or have countless LinkedIn contacts, but if that’s where it ends I don’t think it will be a very useful network. Instead, I look at networking as building relationships that provide mutual value, and I believe that my everyday actions are an important part of how I deliver value and build trust and credibility within my network. If I can make my connections’ work easier, faster or more impactful, I will be a valuable partner who merits support when I need to draw on them.”
Democratise data

“We need to have a single customer view across our businesses,” says Woo, and data that details customer needs and previous acquisitions is, she believes, central to that. Woo quotes Clayton Walker, managing director of the Pilbara supply chain for Rio Tinto, and a long-time GE collaborator, who says, “Don’t fall in love with the solution, fall in love with the problem.” The idea is that GE business leaders be able to assess customer needs holistically, not just sell in a one-off solution. Democratising sales force data—making it available across GE businesses, and using the same software throughout GE—was one of the first simplification measures raised by the GND team, and among the standardisation procedures that Rice has already made a business priority.
“Tomorrow’s leaders want more than a career, they want a calling. They want to do things that matter and they’re passionate about making a difference.” Susan Peters, senior VP, human resources

Work on things that matter

“If there’s one thing that glues employees of GE together, it’s that we’re working on things that matter,” says Woo. “There is a strong sense of pride among employees in the work that we do. The fact that we are trying to electrify the third of the world that doesn’t have access to power; the fact that when you get on a plane you look out the window and see that it’s powered by a GE jet engine; or that when a pregnant mother gets scanned, there’s a 70% chance it’ll be a GE ultrasound… There’s that feeling that you’re doing something that’s really important, that impacts the world and impacts the people who live in it.”
Find the shared objective

Both inside the company and most importantly in working towards the best outcomes for customers, GE is becoming known for bringing diverse stakeholders together. It’s an attitude the GND is working to develop in its regions of influence. “I try to set aside assumptions about the positions and motivations of people and organisations,” says Patell, “so that we can have an open dialogue. If we can build a shared understanding of objectives, concerns and interests in the issue at hand, we set ourselves up for success.”

Case in point: Like the Ararat Wind Farm project in Victoria—in which GE helped work through community concerns, government stalemate on the renewable energy target, financing barriers and technological challenges—an initiative by a Canadian provincial government to implement major reform of its electricity sector, required understanding and true attentiveness to all parties.

Says Patell: “The provincial government was trying to balance social, economic and environmental objectives. GE was a trusted technology advisor and as such was able to build partnerships with NGOs and customers to advance a policy that resulted in a new market for renewables, maintained the market—and our customers’ interests—in natural gas power, and was effective in meeting the government’s economic, social and environmental priorities. It wasn’t always a smooth process, but we worked collaboratively, and together we built a solution that we could all support.”
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