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Bright sparks: Leadership innovation at General Electric

Globalisation and changing worker demographics have had a big impact on leadership development strategy at GE.

From the incandescent light bulb to the electric washing machine, General Electric has been responsible for some life changing inventions. But according to VP of executive development and chief learning officer Raghu Krishnamoorthy (pictured), the greatest innovation the company has achieved is its leaders.

“We believe the system creates leaders; not the other way around,” says Krishnamoorthy. This system view of leadership means GE has the ability to “continuously generate leadership as a core competency,” he adds.

Leadership is considered in two contexts: performance and values. The perfect GE leader is both “a performance athlete and culture courier”.

GE currently has more than 300,000 staff and a presence in more than 171 countries. It is against this global backdrop that GE’s leadership development strategy has had to evolve.

As well as globalisation, the demographic shift in generations and “continuous discontinuity” are cited as major drivers by Krishnamoorthy. “The magnitude and unpredictability of change is something you can never be prepared for, continuous discontinuity is the new normal,” he says. “And generational differences mean we are dealing with not just a demographic but a psychographic shift. Different generations have different expectations.”

Today’s business world needs a new type of leader, one who can deal with globalisation, the velocity of change and the wants and needs of different generations. “The old paradigm used to be that competition builds successful teams; the new paradigm is collaboration,” Krishnamoorthy explains. “The old paradigm was command and control; the new is connect and inspire. The old paradigm was be a boss and govern; the new is coach and empower.”

Will the expectations of the millennial generation lead to a revolution in organisational design? Krishnamoorthy isn’t too sure. “As we go forward, we might not have a horizontal organisation, which is what the millennials are looking for, or a vertical organisation, which is what the older generation are looking for,” he muses. “Maybe we’ll have a T-shaped organisation, which is a little of both.”

HR plays an “activist role” in developing the right kind of leader for the future, but Krishnamoorthy says the most important tools are the leaders themselves. “We want them to go out and multiply,” he explains.

Recent learning initiatives include training the top 5,000 leaders in the company’s new ‘Fastworks’ system. It’s critical GE remains agile, so Fastworks borrows principles from the start-up world.

“In the past, when we were thinking of launching a new product, we’d invest $300 million and say: ‘See you in a couple of years’,” he explains. “Now we invest $30 million to build a prototype and test it with customers. If they like it, we pursue it. If not, we pivot. That calls for a new way of thinking – more iterative.”

In addition to agility, developing leaders’ EQ via experiential learning has become more pronounced. Reflective and immersive experiences, such as taking the top leaders to Normandy on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, can help. “We get an emotional response,” says Krishnamoorthy.

Authenticity is key, he adds, as he needs his leaders to also be effective learners. “The most important thing for me as a leader is to be a learner first,” he says. “It starts with authenticity, trust and adaptability – if you don’t have that, you are removed from reality.” And can you teach that? “You have to unlock it rather than instill it, so who you hire becomes critical.”

Leadership is GE’s “secret to success”, but to keep driving this success its development strategy must keep evolving.

“Times have changed. We live in a shape-shifting world. All organisations are learning, us included,” Krishnamoorthy says.

Further reading

Four alternative leadership models

New model leaders: How leadership is changing