Re-Imagining Leadership at GE:  How You Were Meant to Be


GE’s Culture Change of Connect and Inspire, ReDefines What Leadership Means

Leadership at GE

There’s a lot of talk these days about leadership. Consultants and experts weighing in on what it should be. How it should develop. The need to revamp and upgrade talent management and on-boarding and succession planning and performance management and diversity programs … on and on.

All to ensure sustainable growth in both profits and talent in an era of rapid change.

At the center of this whirlwind dialogue, the definition of a leader itself is changing. Leadership of yesterday, is very different than leadership of tomorrow…

Show me vs. Tell me

Create vs. Control

Connect vs. Demand

Inspire vs. Dampen

EmPower vs. Hold Power

Last week, I was privileged to be on a trainer team delivering a unique (some would say radical) experiential leadership course at GE, called “Personal Leadership Strategies.” The course is a week-long immersion program designed to support GE’s culture to move from Command and Control to one of Inspire and Connect – a cultural change from within (versus top-down.)

This cultural shift is GE’s conscious attempt to meet the demands of rapid innovation and customer intensity. To build a resilient and unshakable foundation within leaders, for navigating high uncertainty and faster change. To reinvent how it re-imagines one of its flagship products: Leadership. (in the recent past, GE’s leadership development process spawned the most CEO’s on the planet.)


Raghu Krishnamoorthy, GE’s Chief Learning Officer and VP of Executive Development, describes the needed cultural change in a Harvard Business Review article from January 2015, “GE’s Culture Challenge after Welch and Immelt”:

Now that the Great Recession is behind us, the business world is undergoing yet another shift. There are three drivers behind it.

An increasingly inter-connected world in which any one issue can trigger a “tsunami.”The plunge in oil prices is an example. Not even the best pundits predicted that the fall would be so rapid and so dramatic. This is good news for some industries and bad for others. Or take Ebola. What’s happening in West Africa is not confined to that part of the world alone.

The rise of the millennial generation in the workplace. At GE, we specifically commissioned a group of millennials, called the Global New Directions group, to help us understand what kind of an organizational culture they would like to see. They told us they were ready for a more horizontal, agile, “connect and inspire” model as compared to the “command and control” model the boomers are used to.

Employee engagement.Here, we use our employee surveys as a tool for culture change. Our employees clearly told us that our organization had to shift its culture — that we had to become more decentralized and simpler to do business with, and had to delegate power to where the action is.

To facilitate this new operating model, we have had to create a new cultural template that demands new ways of behaving. We even called our new cultural orientation “the GE Beliefs” to ensure that people changed their frame of thinking to the new way. The GE Beliefs are: Customers determine our success, stay lean to go fast, learn and adapt to win, empower and inspire each other, and deliver results in an uncertain world. They reflect a renewed emphasis on acceleration, agility, and customer focus. Interestingly, the GE Beliefs were crowdsourced from our employees for the first time — an attempt to drive a culture that the employees wanted to see.

Krishnamoorthy, Raghu (2015). GE’s Culture Challenge After Welch and Immelt. Harvard Business Review, January 26, 2015.

When Leadership at GE is Re-Imagined

The premise of the Personal Leadership Strategies course is simple: An elegantly designed journey for reclaiming SELF. (minus typical corporate training simulations or hi-tech tricks). It is based on the understanding that if you master the art of running your own brain (and thus, your life), you will unleash a wave of permission and impact for others to do the same. That people who are in touch with their human-ness, become the spark for Connect and Inspire inside GE’s culture.

Building skills of self-awareness, vulnerability, centering (a few course themes) is not easy. It requires courage and a willingness to put aside “stories” of the past. To fully understand the unique and diverse parts of how you are wired, how you are showing up to others, is the pathway to embracing the diverse roles you play as a leader: Visionary. Warrior. Confidant. Psychologist. Teacher.  These are the skills today’s leaders need, but they are still missing from most business education and training courses.

GE Leaders, You Go First

I asked the sponsor of the program “What was your vision for this program?” Her answer touched me deeply and personally: “I was at a stage of my career where I felt lost. I worked all the time, and still didn’t feel I was contributing. I wanted to create something at GE that would help others who felt this way also, to re-discover themselves, their purpose, their own connection to why they were working this hard.”  I felt like bowing to her. Truly. A willingness to lead change ONESELF, first, in action.

We live in a very noisy world, inundated with thousands of bits of information and demands daily. This world invites us to skate the surface of life, hopping from one task and decision to the next, barely taking a breath in between. What will our organizations become if we continue to run workplaces in ways that treat people as a resource that never wears out or is expendable when the budget needs cutting?

GE’s Culture is not alone: Many companies are seeking to Inspire and Connect the next generation of leaders. I pose the question: Will we get there by running faster on the existing path of force-feeding “workplace growth hormones” via new engagement programs and incentives that taste yummy … to get employees producing better customer solutions that taste yummy … and yet, the entire cycle creates disease, stress, burnout, disengagement?

The modern corporation has long carried the premise that capitalism and making money is a mission, and leaders are soldiers in the march for market share and ROI. All of this premise fundamentally ignores the unique gift of being human:  Purpose and connection. Companies like Google, Southwest Airlines, Zappos, and many others – are weaving this into their mission and culture, and as a result are creating not only profitable growth but happier, healthier employees. (It is heartening to see legacy companies such as GE starting the journey to transform the meaning of work, as well.)

What would it mean to accept that an inspired human-centered agenda would better ourselves and our world and make more money? That seems infinitely more sustainable and saleable than any new software app or medical device.  Human motivations are simple and innate. To align the workplace culture with them feels not only right as a moral agenda, but busts the limits (and insanity) of our current models of leadership.

What if we all believed that by changing workplace systems and processes and goals to align with innate human values of tribal alliance, loyalty, compassion, mastery – we will end up with plenty? (profit, growth, ROI).

Personal Leadership Strategies teaches this requires the ultimate act of courage:

BE yourself, first.

From there, you invite others to do the same.

When a massive, highly successful, engineering-centered organization like GE recognizes the need to “change before we have to” (while still running fast and hard on the old treadmill) – it resets the bar for every legacy company that is sincere about reinventing itself. A company (that is not Google) with 380,000 employees that has been in business 130 years, paying leaders handsomely to sit in daily meditation and explore their personal way of operating in the world…. Sitting next to a classroom learning the latest in technology for critical thinking…

This is Leadership, Re-Defined.

The future is not about title, stature, or decision power. It is about connection, collaboration, and leadership from whomever is willing to exert positive influence in the moment.

The GE course PLS, teaches that to exert positive influence, requires being tuned in to yourself. To your personal truth, and to others’ needs and emotional states, in every moment. Being centered and quiet enough to listen to your wisdom within. When a person owns the right and the responsibility to lead with passion – regardless of title or position – it expands creativity, clarity, and energy – and ultimately, growth and profit.

If you are still reading this, I hope I can inspire you to pause for a moment… to ponder your deepest values: Where are you honoring them, where you need to reclaim them in your life and leadership. Because high performance – on a team or within a person – is a journey that begins within.

Today, I invite you to begin:

Instead of answering how does the “organization” need to change so you can deliver more profit or performance, take time to sit still and ask yourself:

  • Who am I meant to be, as a leader?
  • What is my core passion? The driving force that has been the golden thread throughout my whole life?
  • Am I living and breathing it every day, in a manner that is true to myself? Or have I lost touch with it, such that I can’t even answer the question? Dig deep…
  • Why (and how) is this passion of mine, needed in this organization, today?
  • What changes will support me in reclaiming my true Leadership Self, and inspiring others to do the same?

Millennial Leadership: The Coming Wave

The Millennial generation will be running our companies within 15 years. (And what they are inheriting will demand creative solutions to difficult and serious world problems.)

Their values ARE real and relevant:

  • Demand work has some connection to meaning.
  • Desire to be part of something that does good.
  • Commitment to true work-life balance.
  • Not forcing oneself to run faster, longer, harder chasing the quarterly profit rainbow.

The irony is, the organizations who commit to leading with humanity will have the bigger profits. Southwest Airlines. Google. Netflix. Zappos – all “early adopter” organizations who are winning in the marketplace by reinventing the way work is done.

Kudos to General Electric for joining in the cultural change wave towards greater meaning, profit and connection.

Whatever generation you are part of, NOW is the time to reclaim yourself. Define your leadership – and success by:

How you were truly meant to be.

How that inspires others to do the same.

Will you be riding the wave or will the wave ride you?


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