Retired Executive Sheds Light on GE's Human Side

Former human resources executive Bill Conaty last week used words like “integrity” and “compassion” in describing his approach to dealing with people during his past four decades in the business world.

Bill Conaty, former senior vice president for human resources at GE, speaks at Palm Beach Atlantic University during the third President's Lyceum. PBA is a private, accredited, Christ-centered college located in West Palm Beach, Florida, USA.
Bill Conaty, former senior vice president for human resources at GE, speaks at Palm Beach Atlantic University during the third President's Lyceum.
“It’s all about having the right people at the right time in the right slots,” said Conaty, speaking to a small group of students at Palm Beach Atlantic University during the third President’s Lyceum.

Conaty retired as senior vice president for human resources at GE in 2007 and is considered a leader in his field. He is the co-author of the 2010 book The Talent Masters: Why Smart Leaders Put People Before Numbers.

“I happen to come from a company that was really obsessed with leadership and talent development,” said Conaty, who estimated that about 85 percent of the company’s executives came from within. “With that broad portfolio of businesses that we had, we constantly had to develop leaders.”

Conaty himself was one of them, having spent 40 years with GE. His work in human resources gave him the rare opportunity to work on CEO succession one day and labor negotiations the next, he said.

He described a leader as someone who has what GE calls the “four Es” — Energy, the ability to Energize others, Edge and Execution — all done under the umbrella of the highest integrity, he said.

Conaty recalled an incident when he and the CEO, the legendary Jack Welch, were called upon to discipline, to varying degrees, a number of employees involved in misdeeds in GE’s international aviation business in the early 1990s.

It was later discovered that one employee had tried unsuccessfully to alert his superiors to the crime, he said.

“Those are some of the things when I look at leadership … when you see something that’s fundamentally wrong, that you have the ability to push back,” he said. “One of my lessons learned after 40 years at GE, and now with some other companies, is that if your personal values and the values of the company or wherever you work aren’t compatible, you’re in the wrong place.”

Conaty said he often has been asked about outsourcing. He acknowledged it has become an economic reality for many companies in order to stay competitive. He said that his company chose to be competitive, but at the same time compliant and compassionate as well.

“When we have to do these things, and when we affect large populations in the U.S., we have to be compassionate with providing those people a soft landing,” such as early pensions or enhanced training, he said.

Today, Conaty serves on the board of directors of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and on the board of trustees at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital. He also owns his own consulting company and has been a featured guest on CNBC’s Squawk Box.

The President’s Lyceum is a speaker’s series in which visitors who have distinguished themselves in various professions come to present their insights and experiences in a discussion with PBA students. Previous speakers this semester included Cleveland Clinic Florida CEO Dr. Bernie Fernandez and former high-level Defense Department staffer Philip Odeen.

Category Tag(s): 04/2012 General News