GE Engineers More Ways for Women Execs to Get Ahead: Could You?

Karen FenaroliArticles, Views

If you’ve watched live television in the past year, you may have seen one of the many quirky ad spots GE has run in its current branding campaigns. Apparently quirky is in. Geared toward altering the perception of this industrial giant, the commercials present GE as a more progressive company hip enough to attract top talent in engineering, tech and data science, in addition to young women aspiring to leadership roles. This marketing angle follows suit with the company’s shift in management strategy, implemented shortly after the arrival of Chief Executive Jeff Immelt in 2001.

Karen Fenaroli and Beth Comstock

Karen Fenaroli and Beth Comstock at The Boston Club in November 2016

Knowing that great engineers are scarce to begin with and old line companies like GE tend to lose out on recruiting young workers to the high-tech sector and startup economy, Immelt has focused on transforming the company into a leaner, innovation-driven enterprise with a larger number of women positioned in the highest echelons. This reinvention effort has been supported by a willingness to look beyond traditional paths to executive leadership. GE has instead created a pipeline that supports diversity both demographically and across skillsets, and hired brilliant women like Beth Comstock to help execute on Immelt’s vision. In fact, the concept of “innovate your way forward with the genius of collaboration” was a recent theme during Comstock’s keynote to The Boston Club last month. As the first woman Vice Chair and Chief Marketing & Commercial Officer (with a science undergrad in biology), she is a fitting example of such transformation coming to fruition!

Thinking outside of institutional talent paths can be a challenge for companies who have operated on time-honored principles. However, those companies who are successful at doing so are creating the future of work and a critical competitive advantage. This talent genius is our philosophy at Fenaroli & Associates, because greatness begins with purpose and happens only through disruption and collaboration.

In 1996, General Electric Co. asked Beth Comstock, a newly appointed senior executive, to attend her first global leadership meeting. Few women had risen far enough to join her there, leaving Ms. Comstock feeling “very odd,” she recalled recently.

Two decades later, there were 149 female leaders invited to the conglomerate’s high-level session at a Florida resort. “One of the signs of progress at GE is that the lines at the conference ladies’ rooms are now as long as at the men’s rooms,” Ms. Comstock said.

Executive women are ascendant at GE, a company that had long hired and promoted male engineers after they gained extensive industrial experience. The company has intensified efforts to groom women for the highest echelons—partly by creating different paths to get them there.

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