GE Hones Its Leaders at Crotonville (Training magazine)
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GE Hones Its Leaders at Crotonville
May 01, 2006
By Jacqueline Durett
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 advertisement
external leaders ready to take on global-scale business challenges—and there's no sign
of a slowdown. advertisement
"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
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Crotonville's history is rooted in forward thinking, Corcoran says. The facility was
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competitive. However, Corcoran explains, there were not enough trained managers to
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confident he had enough competent leaders on his staff, Corcoran says.
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of their choosing. But that changed with a new CEO in 1981, Corcoran says.
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"[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 * Las Vegas Meeting Planner FAM Tour April 811
growing ever more competitive, and GE needed to figure out how to stay in the game. * You, Too, Can Use Video in Your PowerPoint Presentation
"As a result, [Welch] used Crotonville as the main place and the main way to get * How to Select a Sales Kickoff Meeting Theme
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
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
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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
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
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