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The Switch Master: Change Is The Way Forward For This GE Nomad

Jeff Johnson has learned a lot about change in his six-year career. The Pennsylvania native grew up working in his family’s construction business. He was groomed to run it himself one day. But after finishing college, he realized his future wasn’t in construction. After some tough talks with his parents, he went back to school, earned an MBA from Gannon University and landed a job at GE Transportation in Erie, Pennsylvania, sourcing parts for locomotives.

It’s the kind of job Johnson could have stayed in for many years. His wife, Lora, and two young sons, J.J. and Parker, were perfectly content to stay in the state.

But last year Johnson felt it was time for another change. So, he applied and was accepted to GE’s Accelerated Leadership Program. Part of the program requires members to take roles outside of their regular function in order to stretch themselves. For Johnson, this meant not only changing jobs but also moving to a new town. He and his family picked up stakes and moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where, at his new job in sales, he’s learning what life is like on the other side of the negotiating table. “I thought, we have a product, there’s demand in the marketplace, it should be pretty easy to go sell,” says Johnson, who previously had worked only on the buying side. “But that’s not always the case.”

Top: Earlier in his life, Jeff Johnson was expected to join the family business. Instead, he got an MBA, went to work at GE Transportation and eventually joined the company’s Accelerated Leadership Program. Image credit: GE Reports. Above: Johnson moved his young family to Fort Worth, Texas, where he switched his focus from sourcing to sales. The next stop in the program for him: additive manufacturing. Image credit: Jeff Johnson.

Prior to starting the program, Johnson’s mentor told him he had too many empty spaces on his metaphorical tool belt. “He said I was great with a hammer in sourcing, but I needed to add additional tools to grow as a leader,” Johnson says with a laugh. So far, he’s added patience, flexibility and adaptability. “Without them, putting points on the board in sales is extremely difficult.”

Moving into sales has forced Johnson to move completely outside of his comfort zone. In sourcing, he had clear-cut goals: Ensure low costs, high quality and on-time delivery. “In sales,” he says, “it’s much more dynamic. As the market changes, your opportunities change, and your customers’ problems change.”

Creative thinking and active listening are other skills Johnson has honed over the last 10 months. “To be successful, you must listen to what the customer is saying, so you can come back with a tailored solution that delivers valuable outcomes that meet their needs,” Johnson says. “Not everyone needs an off-the-shelf solution.”

Much to his surprise, Johnson has discovered that he very much enjoys the new game. He likes noodling around to craft unique solutions that address individual issues. In fact, working with customers has turned out to be Johnson’s favorite part of the job. “We’re on the front end, helping define what the business is going to work on,” he says. “I’ve learned more about our product portfolio in 10 months than I did in the five previous years.”

Overall, Johnson says he’s very satisfied with the turn his career has taken. The physical relocation to Texas has been a breeze. Johnson says friendly locals — and great Tex-Mex and barbecue — have eased the transition for him and his family. “The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is huge, but Fort Worth itself is a little slower, a little friendlier, so we’ve assimilated very well,” he says. They haven’t heard the first “y’all” come drawling out of their 8-year-old’s mouth … yet. “I’m ready for it,” Johnson says.

He’s also ready for another change. In July, he started his third year in the program, this time working on a new project focused on 3D printing and engineering. It’s yet another opportunity for Johnson to accelerate his learning and add tools to his belt. The only constant for Johnson these days is change.

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