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Protocol | Enterprise

The GE Mafia: How an old-school company birthed a generation of tech leaders

The conglomerate hot-housed graduates in the '90s and '00s to create an adaptable army of tech talent. Now those execs are everywhere.

Look at the resumes of the top tech executives at the nation's largest companies and you're likely to find at least one theme: a stint at General Electric.

The once-quintessential American conglomerate has served as a launch pad for individuals now spearheading IT operations at companies such as Airbnb, United Airlines, Unilever, Morgan Stanley, AIG and dozens of others, according to analysis by Protocol.

"You look across [top technologists in] the Fortune 100, it's pretty hard to find someone that doesn't have a background in GE," said Nationwide Chief Technology Officer Jim Fowler, who departed the company in 2018 after a 18-year tenure. "It was by design that it became something of a producer of talent," he added.

GE's ability to cultivate leaders is widely known. The company's famed former CEO Jack Welch, who stepped down in 2001 and passed away in 2020, was laser-focused on pinpointing the most promising talent across the enterprise. But an early emphasis on IT — and the training of its executives to focus on it — put the company on the precipice of what is now one of the biggest trends in corporate America.

In recent years, enterprises have been rushing to digitize their operations, transforming IT leaders from help desk aficionados reporting to chief operating officers into top executives overseeing billion-dollar tech transformation efforts with a direct line to the CEO and board of directors.

That phenomenon has put new pressure on a position that, until recently, could function largely within its own silo. Chief information officers and similar positions are tasked with figuring out how tech such as cloud computing and artificial intelligence can not only support existing operations, but give the firm a new competitive advantage. Or, more bluntly, turn IT from a cost center into a profit center.

"That's just the way this role has evolved," Silicon Valley Bank CIO and 17-year GE veteran Mark Rohrwasser said. "If you are just a pure technologist … I don't think you're going to be in the key roles going forward."

That's perhaps the key reason why so many tech leaders today have been on GE's payroll: The company made it a priority to give its most promising future IT executives a broad range of skills, and pushed them into positions in the conglomerate's many different verticals: everything from healthcare to investment banking. Nationwide's Fowler, for example, worked in seven business units throughout his tenure; Rohrwasser served in eight.

"At that period of time, that was pretty unique. You were sitting at the same table as the business leaders, you were expected to engage," Rohrwasser said. "That's commonplace now."

Taking tech in-house

GE also pinpointed those individuals early on in their careers and provided ample training and leadership development opportunities. It was a major investment in a relatively small selection of workers, one that former execs say is foreign in today's workforce.

"They figured out that they needed to pay attention to people throughout the continuum of their careers," said Lynn Boyd, a former talent development executive at GE who helped lead the IT leadership programs. "It's harder to do now, to invest that kind of money [only] to have people leave on."

While the company's troubles are well-publicized, including the way it navigated its own digitization efforts, GE's leadership development programs, many of which bore the fingerprints of Welch, became a de facto gold standard in corporate America: Outside of CIOs, it's not uncommon to find a GE alumni as a CEO.

And in a display of just how strong the connection between alumni is as a result of these initiatives, as many as 25 former GE tech execs get together roughly every other month at events sponsored by an outside consulting company, according to Fowler.

But the foresight to focus on IT, specifically during the late 1990s and beyond, was particularly astute. At a time when a glob of internet startups careened from success to failure amid the dot-com crash, what set GE apart from other corporations, former employees say, was its willingness to spend money to bolster its internal workforce. Instead of relying on the increasingly big providers like SAP and Oracle to manage the tech stacks, it chose to fend for itself.

Working with software companies, "if you didn't know what you were doing, you just gave the farm away. There's a lot of companies that don't know what they are doing," said Boyd, who is now an executive coach. "It became evident to GE early on, maybe because they were so big and were spending a pot-load of money on this … that we just can't have somebody come in and mismanage it," she added.

CIO boot camp

To cultivate that kind of talent, GE started early, recruiting IT employees straight out of college. Those individuals would immediately be placed into a two-to-three week bootcamp, setting them up for what would hopefully become a decades-long career complete with several more iterations of executive training. Once the introductory sessions were over, each person was rotated to four different positions across the enterprise over the following two years. The program also encouraged these next-generation leaders to specialize in a specific technology field, like application development or coding.

"We basically took the material that was coming out of colleges and we would 'GE-ize' it and teach it what we do, why we do it and how does technology play into it," Fowler said.

As they progressed from early to mid-level careers, the coursework would intensify. Each year, roughly 30 first-time IT managers would be tapped to attend the Experience Information Management Program at GE's storied Crotonville campus. At the two-week gatherings that occurred four times a year, they could schmooze with other emerging leaders, such as reps from the top business schools in the country and executives from other divisions. (A standout "rock star" at these events was former GE CIO Gary Reiner, who still serves as a mentor to Fowler and others). But it wasn't all social: Each was given a business problem to work on and, after six months, would report in with a division CIO at the company on their progress.

"We called it a mini-MBA," Boyd said. "That put you on the map. If you weren't already on the map for other reasons, that put you on the map."

Ultimately, a segment of that group deemed executive material was then advanced to another gathering at Crotonville that focused more on developing long-term strategic vision. Of that group, as few as three would be ultimately tapped to serve as a group CIO, former staff said, leaving as many as 20 executives who were likely to jump ship in order to ultimately reach the coveted role.

That is one reason why there is such a large network of GE alumni at the nation's biggest businesses. But it also meant that, when those internal positions did become available, there was little delay in appointing new individuals.

"There was never a time when one of those top jobs came open that we didn't have a list of five to six really strong candidates just ready to walk in," Fowler said.

While GE still runs its postgraduate program for IT staff, it no longer runs the later-stage development programs. Instead, it is planning a new, more accelerated training program that will be rolled out this year. Still, two decades after Welch left GE, the focus on pinpointing leaders early on and exposing them to the numerous facets of the business remains.

"With the speed of change across the industries in which we operate, developing technology leaders with the skills to take on complex, real-world problems is critical," current CIO Nancy Anderson. "We're proud of the tech leaders we've produced at GE."

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