A leader has to continuously evolve and respond to the market. When a leader begins to see things through the same lens, that’s when it is time for a change."

Susan Peters, senior vice-president, human resources, GE (global)

Susan Peters heads global human resources (HR) for General Electric Co. (GE), the $148.6 billion conglomerate with interests in power, water, oil and gas, aviation and healthcare. She is responsible for managing the HR needs of GE’s global workforce of 310,000 people. Capping a 35-year career with the Fairfield, Connecticut-based company, Peters champions GE’s corporate learning programmes executed at its facility in Crotonville, NY. She joined the HR management programme of GE Appliances in 1979 and has undertaken assignments including organization and staffing in Louisville, Kentucky, and employee relations in Columbia, Maryland. She was also manager of HR at GE Plastics’ European manufacturing sites. In 2007, she was named chief learning officer, and assumed responsibility for all training and development, including leadership. She graduated from St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, with a Bachelor’s in English literature and from the University of Virginia with a Master’s in Education.

Peters shared her perspectives on how GE manages its HR in an interview.

You have moved around within GE from labour relations to communications to general HR. Presumably, that was part of a strategy. Is that essential for a successful career development?

I did have the opportunity throughout my career to move across a variety of GE businesses. I would say that is typical, although not exclusive. I am a product of the system. It has enabled me to have many careers within one career. But it isn’t the only path. I think there are multiple paths to develop a career. Generally, how we think about leadership development is by continuously growing people, putting them in roles and positions that stretch them. Development happens when people are in situations that are different and even uncomfortable. When you go to a new business or a new geography, everything has a different spin.

Jack Welch was GE’s chief executive officer (CEO) for 20 years. Jeffrey Immelt has been CEO for 14 years now. Are such long tenures at the top essential for successful leadership of top corporations?

In a company that is as large and complex as GE, I don’t think a short tenure would work, but I don’t think it has to absolutely be 20 years either. A leader has to continuously evolve and respond to the market and as long as that continues, it is fine. When a leader begins to see things through the same lens, that’s when it is time for a change.

Who tells a leader when it is time to go, the board or the HR head? Would you tell Jeffrey tomorrow that, look, it is time for you to move on?

Well not tomorrow! One of the things that is unique about GE is the relationship the human relations function and the organization has with the leadership team, and it is that of friend, coach and confidante. And I think I have that relationship with Jeff having known him for a very long time, almost 30 years. It isn’t about saying it is time, but about making sure they are getting the feedback that the organization would want them to have. Being the truth-sayer to a leader is a very important aspect of this role. Obviously, the board has the primary responsibility for change.

GE has a new set of beliefs which are considered very critical. How did these evolve and what is the basis for these beliefs?

The GE beliefs came into being in the summer of 2014 and were operationalized throughout the fall and even as we speak. They came into play for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that we are very focused on evolving ourselves through a culture of simplification with outcomes for customers. Any organization has to take a pause at various points and reflect on what it wants to be more of, and we wanted to be more simple and faster, all to be better for our customers. As we reflected on what that would take, we realized that it was time to change some of our processes and the cultural backdrop to these processes. The cultural stuff is often the most important. So, we reflected on this and came up with these new beliefs which are meant to be aspirational; they reflect what we would like to be. We know we are not perfect as yet.

The prior set of what we called values had been in process for about a decade, but there is a point when you want to make a change to jar the organization forward. The world is a very different place from what it was in 2002-03 when we framed the original values.

How do you share these beliefs?

First off we recognize that we want everyone in the company to know them and understand them. We regard this as the backbone of the company. One thing that is different is that we are so much less prescriptive than in the past about how they get operational. We are, I think, less controlling perhaps, than what we were a decade or so ago.

We want people to feel they are part of GE and there is a commonality they share. But what it means and how it is interpreted at the local level is left to them. One of the GE beliefs is empower and inspire each other. So, in that sense, when the team in India takes these, it is up to them how they operationalize and connect them in the context of business we do here. And even in India, how it is done in healthcare is different somewhat from how it is done at the Pune facility.

We do believe there should be a level of commonality across all markets and across all GE businesses, and then we enable and empower differentiation in the approach within markets.

One of the things that is fascinating, when you take a market like India, is that it becomes very circular. The market demands in India, speed, innovation, different kinds of products than we might have in a developed market, really informs how the beliefs are thought about and how they are leveraged. That’s the uniqueness of being in this multi-product, multi-geography company. In our healthcare business in India for instance, one of our first GE beliefs—customers determine our success—has been turned on its head to say we are determined to make our customers successful. This shows that these beliefs are thematic, but they have to be lived by our people.

Is there a difference in the leadership style you need in emerging markets like India and what you need in a developed market like the US?

How about yes and no. Yes, because there are certain attributes of a leader that we think are fundamental. Some of them would be high degree of integrity, business acumen, a track record of success and performance, demonstrated leadership skills. The differentiators would be domain in that marketplace. So, what we might do in India is take somebody who has been in emerging markets, not necessarily in India or an Indian person.

In your experience, do leaders need more learning or is it fresh hires?

If development is expected, if learning is part of the culture, constant and ongoing, and it is never quite finished, then it is comparable at entry level or mid or senior levels. But if by accident or design you create a culture where learning is expected to happen when you are new in the company, in your career or new in a job, and then ceases, it gets harder. Learning is a part of GE’s DNA, a part of hiring and early career planning. We have a series of offerings that go on throughout your career, as also very focused senior leader training.

Senior leaders come to a session of training with more experience so you want to leverage that. So you would want to structure the pedagogy of the training differently. For example, one of the programmes we started some years ago was what we call Leadership Explorations, which is for our senior-most officer-level people in our company and takes them out of their day job for two-three days. It is intentionally about reflection. We take a group of leaders from across functions and have them go to, for instance, Silicon Valley where they do a deep dive into technology, we take them to the beaches of Normandy where they stand on the beaches and talk about leadership in the context of battle.

Why is diversity at the workplace so important? Why not just let the best man win?

As long as the best man is generic, in other words, it is the best person that should be the answer. Having said that, there is work to be done to enable a system to have the best person available to be considered for a job. You have to build a pipeline so that when you are staffing for a job, you have various choices.

We care about diversity because we think it makes for better outcomes, whether that’s gender diversity or global diversity or race diversity. People are excited by that because they get different perspectives and we have many proof points over the years of diverse teams having better outcomes.

One of the toughest tasks for an HR head must be handing out pink slips. What is the best way of handling the situation?

There are two different kinds of pink slips. One where the market gives you the feedback, your product isn’t selling any more and you have no choice but to decrease your operation, and a team or a group or a whole manufacturing site has to shrink. As difficult as it is, people understand that. There’s a second kind of pink slip and it is the more individual kind when a person is not delivering on either their performance or their leadership. The first thing we would do is give feedback and coaching because the first goal is not to push anyone out the door. It is to make that person better. If over time however, you are not able to rise to the occasion, we are a meritocracy and we want you to leave.