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Every year hundreds of GE employees are sent to the John F Welch Leadership Center in Crotonville, NY, a bucolic town nestled in the Hudson River Valley, to take part in what you might call business school boot camp.
The participants read case studies, take classes and pull all-nighters working on real-life business problems and putting together recommendations for senior management.
“There’s lot of reading and a lot of homework,” explains one recent Crotonville graduate. “It’s like graduate school on steroids,”
The Leadership Center, which opened in 1956 as part of a GE campaign to train its managers better, offers various courses ranging in duration from one day to three weeks.
Throughout the curriculum, there are general units on professional skills development including classes on hiring the right people, delegation skills and time management.
There are also specialised courses on risk analysis, loan structuring and capital markets securitisation.
The bulk of the courses, however, are designed to tackle the specific, nitty-gritty issues that GE faces in one of its many businesses – how to improve a supply chain in its jet engine division, how to market a particular product in its plastics unit, or how to improve margins in its financial services group.
Rob Phillips, vice-president of training at GE Capital Solutions, views the Leadership Center as the company’s way of “getting employees to the next level”.
He says: “GE realises it can run the company better if Bill Smith is smarter, so it sends him to Crotonville.”
Mr Phillips started at the company 24 years ago on an assembly line in Binghamton, New York and has since obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering.
He comments: “Whether you need to learn to make presentations better or underwrite deals better, this place accelerates your learning curve.”
The Center’s in-house staff teach most of the classes, but there are often guest lecturers from professors at Harvard Business School and Wharton.
There are also visits from top company management.
Jeff Immelt, GE’s chief executive officer, for instance, drops in on the Center about three times a month, both to lecture and mingle with employees.
“They’re looking for talent, trying to see if someone has a brilliant idea we should be using,” says Mr Phillips.
Anne Alzapiedi, a human relations specialist at GE Capital Solutions, has taken six classes at the Leadership Center during her eight-year career at the company.
She says that the courses help her “feel connected to the company”. “When I come here, it’s a big deal because I feel like the company is investing in me,” she says.
“I get to meet people from all over the world and I get exposure to business leaders I wouldn’t ordinarily get to see.”
Participants are selected to attend a course at Crotonville based on merit. GE managers evaluate their workforce and each year nominate those employees who have achieved a certain career milestone or have displayed a great deal of potential.
“It’s all part of managers reviewing the talent and determine how we’re going to grow them,” according to Ms Alzapiedi.
“I see Crotonville as a place to drive the culture at GE,” she says.
Sven Jurgal, who works for the equipment-financing department at GE Capital Solutions in London, recently undertook an 18-day management course at Crotonville with 69 other managers.
“It’s a recognition of contribution and potential,” he says of being selected to attend. “What I am taking away is a great network of people and the moulding from the senior people in the company.”
Despite the gruelling schedule, there is some built-in fun at Crotonville. There are regular movie nights as well as shopping and theatre trips to New York City, which is about 35 miles due south of the Center.
In addition, the 53-acre campus features state-of-the-art fitness and recreation facilities as well as a softball field, volleyball court and jogging paths.
The campus also features a 140-year-old farmhouse that has been converted into a multi-purpose recreation centre, complete with billiards, darts and table tennis.
Participants often meet there to unwind after rigorous all-day sessions. “No matter how tired I am, I always stop by,” says Ms Alzapiedi of GE Capital Solutions.
The GE Leadership Center also offers tailored courses for its customers, free of charge. Typically, a company’s senior management team arrives at Crotonville with a particular project or issue they’d like to focus on.
Through discussions, workshops and other exercises, Crotonville instructors help the team work their way through the problem. Last year, about 200 customers participated in classes.
“Customers are like sponges, they just soak this stuff up,” says Mr Phillips. “It doesn’t matter if you’re making money or making widgets, companies across the board all have the same problems. Our job is to come up with solutions. There are basic processes that seem to work.”
Then again, he says, GE also learns from its customers. “We don’t have the answers for everything. There are many instances where we’re scribbling madly as customers are talking,” says Mr Phillips.