How GE Builds Global Leaders: A Conversation with Chief Learning Officer Susan Peters

Powerhouse companies like GE invest in tomorrow’s leaders by running extensive internal training programs to groom employees to become corporate superstars. An area of enormous strength for GE is the way the company identifies and builds leaders, as the large number of CEOs who once worked for GE testifies. Knowledge@Wharton talked with Susan Peters, GE’s chief learning officer, about GE and leadership. Read More

by Lew Goettner

GE’s successful corporate learning programs are executed through a learning facility in Crotonville, N.Y., the oldest corporate university in the United States. As business becomes more global, how is leadership development at GE changing? How does GE use technology to teach leadership? What impact will the influx of the Facebook generation have on the way leadership is taught? Susan Peters — GE’s chief learning officer and vice president for executive development, and a speaker at the Wharton Leadership Conference in June 2010 — discussed these questions and more with Knowledge@Wharton.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below:

Knowledge@Wharton: Could you give us an overview of corporate learning at GE?

Susan Peters: At GE, we have been involved in learning and development for more than 60 years. We have the oldest corporate university in America at Crotonville, N.Y. We have an umbrella approach that we call GE Global Learning. We break it up into three buckets. The first is leadership. The second is skills, which is driven by function — finance skills, marketing skills, etc. The third bucket is business. What we are trying to teach there is the knowledge that is specific and needed for a business or industry. As you know, GE is in a wide range of industries from aviation to health care to financial services so we have to teach specifics within each of those industries. If you look at those three buckets and aggregate them all, including all the training and programs, we spend about $1 billion a year in training at GE.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you define your objective in teaching leadership?

Peters: The mission of our leadership effort is to inspire, connect and develop the leaders of today and tomorrow. That is our objective. We seek to do this through the Crotonville experience. If we do a good job with the people who come through the Crotonville classes, there is a huge multiplier effect. They go back and hopefully do the same thing — inspire, connect and develop the people who work for them, and who might not be able to physically attend a course in New York.

Knowledge@Wharton: Who is your primary audience? At what level of the organization do you develop leadership? Is training offered throughout the company or do you target a certain segment?

Peters: Our leadership development programs run all through the organization. We take a stair-step approach to leadership learning at GE. First, we have a suite of on-demand courses that are available 24/7 through your computer. We have an enterprise-wide license with several vendors to provide material. We ensure that this content covers a wide range of topics from management skills to project skills — we use a lot of video, material with downloading capability, etc. We have encouraged people to use those avenues for one-off or on-demand or lunch and learn programs. But I wouldn’t say this is the essential part of our leadership learning. It’s foundational and it is available.

The next group up consists of essential skills. We have 13 offerings involving leadership skills that everybody should have, including presentation skills, project management skills, understanding finance in a generic way, and so on. These courses are managed through the Crotonville staff but are delivered at GE businesses around the world. This is done through a TTT — Train the Trainer — concept. The integrity of the course is maintained because the Crotonville staff ensures that the person teaching it has been trained and certified.

One step above that, we have what we call cornerstone courses. These are programs where individuals physically come to a GE facility and spend time there. These courses are one week long and are offered around the world. There are four key courses. We have a Foundations of Leadership course that would happen early in somebody’s career, let’s say, during the first one to three years. Then there is a Leadership Development Course, a New Manager Development Course, and an Advanced Manager Course. Those courses span the first 10 years of your career, so you would be going to them maybe every other year or every third year.

Then we get to the executive level courses. These courses are all three weeks long and they are offered only at Crotonville — there is a Manager Development Course, Business Management Course, and the Executive Development Course. Those titles of MDC, BMC, and EDC have been in GE since the 1960s, so they have quite a historical aspect to them and quite an internal brand.

The final course we offer is for teams. So we offer leadership courses to everyone and at all levels.

Knowledge@Wharton: A new generation — whether you call it Gen Y or whatever — of people who have grown up on the Internet and with social media is entering the workforce. As these younger people join companies like GE, are you changing your approach to learning in any way?

Peters: I do think the Millennials are bringing with them a different perspective on learning. We mentioned earlier that we have continued to evolve in the use of technology and tools such as podcasts, enabling people to put content on their MP3 players or whatever tool they want to use, even though they might physically be coming to a site in Crotonville or Shanghai or wherever. One of the ways we are doing it is to ask them a lot about what they want.

For example, we redesigned our Foundations of Leadership class a year ago and it was done with the input of Millennials. Those are the 20-somethings that attend that course. We did a heavy voice to the customer on both content and delivery mechanisms and approach. And as we redesigned the course it was really with their input and effort. We are constantly asking people what do they want more of and less of … every speaker in every class is rated and evaluated so we understand what’s current and contemporary from that class’s view. As those classes skew over time toward people of that age bracket, we are learning and taking feedback from them. This is an ongoing investment that is pretty significant, but it reflects the expectations of the Millennial group.

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