As economic recovery continues to take shape, forward-thinking organizations are keeping the spotlight on their most valuable assets: people. Part of creating an environment in which employees can do their best work is to provide them with ample learning and development opportunities — and in a global corporation like GE Energy, the focus is no different.
Bill Meeker, chief learning officer for GE Energy, has set his sights on talent retention in recovery, viewing learning and development as key to this effort.
“We have a major focus on employee development right now as part of what we’re calling re-recruiting our talent,” he said.
Meeker, who has been in his role as CLO for half a decade, oversees GE Energy’s learning department, which comprises nearly two dozen direct and indirect reports in addition to about 35 contractors. The learning professionals at the company are spread across various global sites.
GE Energy — headquartered in Atlanta and part of the General Electric family — is an approximately $40 billion business with an employee base of about 85,000, all of whom are directly impacted by learning.
The company’s three major business segments include a power and water business; a services business; and an oil and gas business.
A Retention Lever
According to Meeker, learning is a small yet critical component of the overall talent development strategy at GE Energy.
“In light of current economic factors, we have [an] under 4 percent voluntary attrition rate in our Energy business, and with a lot of the change that has been going on, we’ve really focused on using learning and development as a retention lever,” Meeker said. “We’ve actually increased our investment in learning and development by over $1 million in 2009, and we’ve had about a 13 percent increase in instructor-led leadership and essential skills training.”
One of the most successful learning and development initiatives that GE Energy has undertaken to date is a program launched in 2007 called the Contemporary Leadership Series. This program is currently being implemented in more than 200 locations around the world.
“We solicited feedback from our managers in the business around where they wanted to learn and grow, and as a result the series was started,” Meeker said. “[The program] was focused on how to better know and connect and strengthen our inclusiveness on a global basis.”
Senior leaders identified the need for this program via what is known at GE as the Session C process.
“The GE Session C process is [a chance] for us to take a look at the entire employee group — their strengths, their development needs, their career aspirations and then where are logical career moves for folks,” he said. “That’s really at the heart of our talent development process, [and] training is one of the aspects of it.”
The program, implemented under the sponsorship of the CEO and vice president of HR, was targeted at approximately 7,000 managers worldwide. According to Meeker, some key topics the global managers are seeking more information about include engaging millennials; working in a matrix; and financial knowledge.
“What’s unique about it [is] it’s led by site or business executives via a two- to three-hour interactive session where they’re responsible for facilitating peer sharing, learning [and] networking,” Meeker said. “The objective is to help energize the team and strengthen their engagement across the business.”
Getting Sessions on the Grid
Based on input from managers and senior leadership, the learning team at GE Energy is responsible for developing the agenda at each of the sessions, a practice that involves providing train-the-trainer sessions for 200-plus site coordinators across the globe, who are typically HR professionals or training leaders.
Each session typically kicks off with the senior leader explaining the business need for the session and how it ties in to the organization’s overall business objectives.
Subsequently, attendees split into smaller groups to work on scenarios related to the topic. For instance, if the topic is effectively connecting with a virtual team, two managers may be asked to sit back to back and work through a given scenario. A third-party observer may be asked to share feedback, and the site leader also solicits feedback from the group.
In addition, managers who are considered to be role models from around the globe are videotaped while conducting similar role-modeling activities, through which best practices and helpful suggestions are shared. The point of the exercise is for attendees to take note and model similar behaviors once they return to their own workplaces.
While each of the face-to-face sessions runs only a few hours, there’s usually a networking component tacked on to the end of each session.
“We strongly suggest a social part afterward where there might be food and beverages and the managers can share best practices, but they can also have visits with some of the more senior leaders,” Meeker said. “We find that while we block out about 30 minutes for the social, it often can go for an hour [or] two hours because of the opportunity to interact with senior leadership.”
Checking the Power Meter
The Contemporary Leadership Series was spawned as a strategic business move for GE Energy’s learning organization, one that would ultimately yield bottom-line impact. It has proven to be effective. One of the ways GE Energy measures the impact of the program is to survey the 7,000 or so global managers who undergo the training. Ninety-eight percent of them said they wanted the sessions to continue. Of these, 51 percent hail from locations outside the United States.
“It impacts the business because it provides a new set of tools for our global dispersed management team,” Meeker said, adding that from the series, GE Energy has learned its workforce is primarily interested in the following topics:
1. Energizing the team: “In light of the global economy and the current general business challenges, our workforce continues to seek refreshment and revitalization, and this program being leader-led is a forum for that,” he said.
2. Retention of talent: “We would expect [managers] to be connecting or getting to know their employees on a [more personal] level,” Meeker said. “What are their interests? What are their professional career objectives? How do they connect to the business? And by building that kind of relationship, they’re more likely to retain their talent.”
3. Working in a matrix: “From a matrix perspective, we’ve got a functional and a regional structure, which requires constant communication and alignment, and we feel there’s a lot we can offer our managers in terms of skills development in this area,” he said.
According to Meeker, from a design standpoint, it’s not uncommon for the learning organization to seek counsel externally by tapping into experts in various fields.
“As an example, we ran a session in the fall around virtual leadership,” he said. “We found that more than 50 percent of our managers’ direct reports work in a different location than they do. So we sought input from Elliott Masie and Cisco Corp. to better understand practices for effectively connecting with a virtual team. We’ve done a lot more in terms of using WebEx and webcams to connect with our distributed workforce. We’re using telepresence a lot more often now to teach, and we’re using the technology more frequently for managers to connect with their teams when they sit in different location[s].”
In light of the fact that GE Energy has experienced significant growth in Asia and Africa, Meeker said that it’s important to strengthen regional employee development plans and develop appropriate learning strategies. He explained GE’s first priority here is regionalization.
“[This] means building local capabilities and [enhancing] decision making of our developing regions,” he said. “What we’ve done from a learning perspective is hire deep talent in places like Asia, Europe [and the] Middle East. Those learning professionals better understand the local needs and are best positioned to build out learning opportunities specific to the region.”
Regardless of such challenges, the organization has and will continue to maintain its commitment to the development of its people.
“[Employees] have a good understanding of the learning and development opportunities available to them,” Meeker said. “GE, as a company, invests over $1 billion in learning in a year, so we have a very strong reputation [and] history of investing in employee development.”