Building a Leadership Culture Across Borders at GE

General Electric (GE) has been known as a leadership brand for decades. However, as a US-based firm, how does GE replicate that success in a region as diverse as Asia? HQ Asia spoke with Vikram Cardozo, Senior HR Director, ASEAN, to distil 4 insights for building the leadership talent pipeline in Asia.

1.Develop a culture of learning and mentorship.

It is clear that mentoring is not just a behavior at GE, it is a culture. At every opportunity, leaders develop other leaders. It’s not just their job, but almost feels like their self-ingrained duty. This starts at the very top of the organization and trickles down to every level. “During the first quarter of the year, the chairman visits every global business headquarters worldwide and spends a day talking with the business unit head about (and meeting with) their leadership, pipeline and succession so that high potentials can be identified and invested in early”, says Cardozo. In addition, Asian leadership talent is often exported to other parts of the world to learn from, and teach, those at HQ. Similarly, talent from HQ regularly comes to Asia to learn about the operations there. Thus, GE employees are continuously learning from each other. This is potentially the “secret sauce” to GE leadership:  Developing leadership capabilities is not just something HR does via training interventions - it is a shared mindset that permeates all levels and business units of the organization, resulting in a culture of constant learning and mentorship.

2.Leaders in residence and leaders on the road.

According to Cardozo, one important path to effective leadership is to have leaders move around, interact, and ultimately teach each other. To that end, GE has instituted a “leaders in residence” program whereby the most senior leaders will leave their ‘day job’ for a week and go to the regional training centre or travel to a few different sites. The idea is that the leader will avail him or herself for coaching, training, fireside chats, and other interactions with emerging leaders. This provides an invaluable developmental resource for up-and-coming talent, while at the same time helps the leaders sharpen their own mentoring capabilities in a global context. Similarly, leaders are sent on the road to the Middle East, Asia or Africa to get them out of their comfort zone and help cultivate a more diverse set of leadership tools. Given the diversity of Asia, leaders from this region have the potential to be great leaders of a diverse people-set - a crucial skill for global roles- so why not help them hone that skillset?

3.Accept that not everyone wants a regional or global leadership role.

Cardozo cautioned that global roles are not for everyone. “For those Asian leaders who aspire to global roles, we give them the tools and experience to help them get there. For those who prefer to operate in more familiar settings, we help develop them locally to excel in regional or local leadership roles. The decision of selecting such high potential talent is based on three primary factors – the candidates’ capability, desire and potential. If any of those are missing then we have to alter the development plan.” The key is to understand that given strong familial responsibilities, some Asian leaders do not want to be global leaders no matter how capable they are. We should respect that and instead ensure they have equally challenging roles, be they regional or local- and at times even global, provided they can be done from Asia.

How do you identify high potential talent at GE? During the ongoing people review process, employees with a strong and consistent track record of performance, who demonstrate the company values in an exemplary manner are put on the high-potential list. Those that display a flair for multi-cultural dexterity are tagged in the ‘regional/global talent list’.

4.Encourage leaders to be culturally authentic yet adaptable.

It is important to remember that global leaders still have a cultural identity and it is important to respect and celebrate that. When asked about efforts to help Asian leaders feel more comfortable speaking their mind, Cardozo indicated that there needs to be a balance between retaining one’s authentic self while at the same time developing skills and the ability to flex one’s style for more effective global leadership. Cardozo cautions that encouraging talent to speak for the sake of speaking is also counterproductive. Thus, it is important to create an environment whereby Asian talent is not afraid to contribute to the discussion but also not compelled to take up air-time when it is not needed, something with which Asian talent is often not comfortable.  Cardozo explains, “We want to celebrate the local sense of identity. But, by giving leaders exposure to the larger organization, it helps them start to realize that they sometimes have to speak their minds a bit more often, with more assertiveness and act more decisively. Those who can strike the right balance between authenticity and flexibility on one side and humility and assertiveness on the other are the ones who differentiate themselves and go furthest.” 

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