As companies evolve, so do their leadership philosophies. And General Electric’s John F. Welch Leadership Center at Crotonville has had more time to evolve than any other corporate university, as this year marks
its 50th anniversary. In that half century, the center, in Ossining,
N.Y., 30 miles outside of Manhattan, has turned out internal and external leaders ready to take on global-scale business challenges—and there’s no sign of a slowdown.
"Crotonville is embedded in the GE culture and the GE values," GE Chief Learning Officer Bob Corcoran says. "All of our major change initiatives—cultural change and business change processes—have either originated at Crotonville as a result of best practice assessments and evaluations or executive leadership summits, or they have been broadcast, trained, amplified or rolled out with Crotonville as the change agent."
Corcoran himself is a 27-year GE veteran in human resources and executive leadership, and holds the distinction of being the first CLO and head of Crotonville who is a graduate of all of the executive development programs. Past CLOs have been academics, who came to the position, which he has held for five years, following lengthy tenures at universities, he says. "I understand and know the dynamics in the classes, I think better than the other faculty did because I really understand what they're doing, what the impact is. So we've refined a bit more on some of the ways in which we teach, and in some of the ways, frankly, in which we allow [employees] to learn—in other words, we don't teach, but we force them to come to grips with and learn certain things."
He says he also thinks his GE tenure has been especially beneficial in running the facility because he's been able to focus Crotonville on what matters most to the company, explaining that it's the application of the lessons to the business that makes the lessons so effective.
Founded on foresight
Crotonville's history is rooted in forward thinking, Corcoran says. The facility was conceived in the early 1950s at a time when GE, under the leadership of then-President Ralph J. Cordiner, was quite centralized but looking to segment itself in order to stay competitive. However, Corcoran explains, there were not enough trained managers to run additional divisions. Cordiner's team researched universities, but ultimately established its own leadership center, and in 1956, the first class came to Crotonville. After three years, Cordiner, who by then was chairman and CEO, restructured GE, confident he had enough competent leaders on his staff, Corcoran says.
By the 1970s, Crotonville's focus had shifted, and employees could elect to take courses of their choosing. But that changed with a new CEO in 1981, Corcoran says. "[Crotonville] experienced a retasking by Jack Welch. At the time, Jack had really issued a call to action to GE." And that call came from the realization that the global market was growing ever more competitive, and GE needed to figure out how to stay in the game. "As a result, [Welch] used Crotonville as the main place and the main way to get executives together and challenge them with that, charge them with that responsibility, but also with the tools to do that," Corcoran says. "In the late '80s and early '90s, it really became the cultural change place for GE."
Welch also instituted another change at Crotonville by opening the classroom doors to customers. It was not only an effort to share ideas, but also a way for GE leaders to teach training sessions to those searching for leadership models.
CEOs and their direct reports continue to come to Crotonville today for the same reasons, and Corcoran says it's a positive strategy. "When our customers grow, when they're successful, we win," he says.
What might surprise the casual observer about Crotonville's primary advanced courses (there are 16 levels of courses) is their duration. When the center first opened until the 1970s, those courses were three months long. Now, the center's three executive-level in-residence classes run from three weeks to a month.
The training today for those courses as compared to the past is similar in structure, but different in timing, as now the classes are developmentally segmented, and as Corcoran jokes, "Lots of young children around the world are better able to recognize their mother or father because they're not gone for three months."
Nominated executives stay in the Residence Building, a 190-bed facility where each room is a carbon copy of the next, reinforcing the level playing field Corcoran says he wants all attendees to be playing on. "Every person who comes here wears a little nametag; it doesn't say you're the [head] of health care, it doesn't say you're a junior finance accountant. It says your name and your business." He says employees are there to discuss values, processes and change initiatives, regardless of position. "It really is a place that fundamentally reinforces the concepts and principles of a meritocracy."
And while students are there, they'll be treated to lectures from not only leadership experts in the academic world (the late Peter Drucker taught there), but also GE leaders. In 25 years, Welch and current Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt have spoken at 329 of the last 330 executive-level courses at the facility, which is 60 miles from the GE headquarters in Fairfield, Conn. Welch, who missed one when he had heart bypass surgery, was known to speak up to six hours to students.
But lest one think taking leadership courses at Crotonville is a cushy reward for good behavior or a golf-centric retreat, Corcoran stresses that students, who represent each GE business, are there to work. "Our classes don't just go 8 to 5," he says, explaining project work, evening lectures and roundtable discussions take up participants' time.
In the first of the three progressive courses, Manager Development Course (MDC), 75 to 80 students compete in an artificial intelligence marketplace via computer simulation following lectures that teach them business management basics. Instructors, who Corcoran says are two-thirds internal, one-third external, stress both theory and practical application. The format of the course, given eight times a year, Corcoran explains, is "concept, application, practice." And although it's the first of the top three courses, a GE executive won't be eligible for the program until 10 to 20 years into his or her career.
In the second and third courses, Business Manager Course (BMC) and Executive Development Course (EDC), respectively, not only do participants get assigned a real problem GE is facing, but also must present their findings to Immelt, who hand selects the problem. In BMC, given three times a year to 50 to 60 participants who are eligible about three to four years after MDC, the focus is on assessing and evaluating change with action-learning techniques, Corcoran says. The program typically involves a week of world travel, as many of the problems students are given hinge on staying competitive in a global market. The students conduct interviews and merge that into a recommendation for Immelt and his team.
EDC, meanwhile, focuses on changing GE's culture. The annual course is given to 35 individuals who are among the top 300 in the company and could potentially become one of the 170 GE corporate officers. "They get big issues to deal with," Corcoran says. There are guest lecturers, and students wrestle with broad-based solutions. Lectures are given in "The Pit" at Crotonville, which is a 100-seat amphitheater that Corcoran says truly puts the speaker in the spotlight. "When lecturers are there at the bottom, our classes don't sit quietly and say, 'Thank you very much,' and then talk badly about them when they leave. They smack them around live, and it doesn't matter if it's a vice president or not of GE." Participants also present their findings to Immelt and corporate officers.
While all this learning is happening under Immelt's scrutiny, Corcoran stresses that participants' experiences, successes and failures are not reported to supervisors. "We create a very, very safe learning environment. We fundamentally said Crotonville is a safe haven," Corcoran says. "You have to be free to make mistakes. The reality is that in the real world, in real life when you're not in the classroom, people learn most when they make mistakes. We encourage people to take risks; we encourage them to try."
There is no grading process during the courses, Corcoran says, stressing that it's more important that students take the lessons learned and apply it and create value in their jobs. "Potential's good, but results are better."
Crotonville continues to blaze trails in the learning world. During the past six months, GE has been running two-day industry "2015" sessions, such as "Health Care 2015" and "Energy 2015." In them, Immelt and some top GE executives meet with high-ranking industry customers to discuss what's shaping that industry for the next decade. Says Corcoran: "[The sessions are] good because they get very smart people whose companies, whose shareholders, whose employees all depend upon their businesses making the right competitive decisions in the next decade about this industry." Sessions will run into next year.
The center also is continuing to hold its Learning and Leading conferences, which are grouped by affinity within GE. African-American executives, GE Women's Network members—and this year for the first time—Hispanic executives meet with external notable attendees of the same race or gender. Past attendees include Hillary Clinton and Andrea Mitchell. "We get really senior, high profile [people]… to talk about leading, to talk about learning, to talk about continued growth, to talk about how do you impact, how do you be all that you can be to make a difference in this world."
Corcoran points out that Crotonville continues to evolve, and that's thanks to the leadership of the past and the desire to grow in the future. "I think Jack [Welch] did a great job reinforcing Crotonville as a change agent in the culture and to drive performance in GE, and that continues to accelerate today under Jeff [Immelt]. I think [Immelt's] done a phenomenal job with customer engagement with getting our customers truly into Crotonville to talk about big issues and also to increase our leaders' ability to think like a customer."
And the philosophy that drives Crotonville is parallel with the one that drives GE, and drives GE to spend $1 billion worldwide annually on training and education. "This is a company that says, 'Here's who we are, this is our culture, this is what's important to us, this is how we drive change, this is what we're here to do, and if you can't as a leader, if you can't embrace that and lead it, then you've got to go," Corcoran says. "We owe to our shareholders the absolute best management team we can field."
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