In today's rapidly evolving marketplace, large brands are struggling to stay afloat and keep ahead of the competition. At GE, the company is trying to take a proactive approach to training and grooming the company's future leaders. For the past eight years, GE has created something called the Experienced Commercial Leadership Program (ECLP), a two-year rotational training program that prepares MBA graduates and experienced professionals for GE leadership roles in marketing and sales.

Participants also have the opportunity to work with colleagues across the international company to discuss where they are heading. This year, for the first time, GE is opening up the program to the media. For a week starting Monday, GE will bring all of the ECLPs together to help foster marketing driven innovation at the company, through training and networking with some of GE’s future leaders.

I caught up with Aparna Ramaswamy, GE's Senior Human Resources Manager to talk about the program, why GE is investing so heavily in prolonged training courses, and how digital is changing the game at GE.

How did this program get started?
GE, as you probably know, has a legacy of leadership development programs. We’ve had a bunch of functional leadership programs, like FMP, which is our Financial Management Program, and HRLP, which is the human resources program. This started eight years ago, shortly after Jeff Immelt took over as chairman and CEO of the company. With his strong background in sales and marketing, he said he wanted a premium program in the company to develop future commercial leaders for GE. And so it was really out of his vision that the ECLP program was born. If you think about ECLP compared to other leadership development programs, it’s still relatively young. FMP, for example, has been around for 75 years.

What have you learned in those eight years?
ECLP has come a long way in the eight years that it’s been around. You know, I say that we’re at an inflection point with ECLP, but in a really good way. And what we’ve been driving over the past eight months or so is how you take what is a great program and a great brand and make it more. Great is not good enough.
The objective of the program is to develop the future of the company commercially. Folks that graduate from ECLP may pursue a specific sales or marketing track if they choose, or a broad commercial track. Our goal is to have some portion of ECLP graduates running a PNL, or product line, and go down the general management track at the company. That’s what Jeff wanted as well. He wanted to see more leaders in PNL roles that had a commercial background versus the historic model of those who had come out of finance that ended up running big businesses in the company.

We've made a huge investment in this population and in this being a key pipe line for future leadership roles. We're looking at who is the talent ready for that promotion to the next level. And who are some of the rising stars, not only on program, but who've come off program and are ready for big visible, meaty jobs in different business areas.

How has the program changed over the last eight years?
One of the changes over the years is that we’ve gone from four six-month rotations to three eight-month rotations. Previously, the ECLPs were allowed to rotate between and across different parts of the business, now we hire ECLP candidates for the specific business space or vertical they operate in.

Also, we've historically we hired more ECLPs in the U.S., but when you look at where the growth for GE is happening, it’s in all the emerging markets around the world. So India, China, Brazil, Africa, the Middle East, Russia, those are the sort of new frontiers and markets where we’re really betting a lot on right now. And one way you do that is through the ECLP program, because you need to feed that pipe of commercial leaders in these key markets around the world.

How do you choose candidates for the program?
Well, 90% of the hiring that we do for every class is external — predominantly hired straight off of campus. This is an experience program unlike any the other leadership development programs in GE, which are entry level programs. The typical profile for ECLP is someone with an MBA or master’s degree with anywhere from five to seven years of commercial experience.

Why are you hiring MBAs? Why not spend two years training college graduates?
The focus of this program was to have a career accelerator for the commercial population. Jeff wanted it to be a more experienced profile, because he was really thinking about this program as folks who would graduate and be ready within a shorter period of time to assume leadership roles within the company. We're looking for people who bring some commercial experience to the table and a higher level of educational experience.

Are you worried about attrition?
Yes, I am concerned. With any leadership development program, you see a level of attrition and we sort of take that for granted. Data has pointed to program attrition being higher than sort of normal employee attrition in the company. ECLP attrition has been lower than some of the other programs within GE, but next generation changes and improvements we're making to various aspects of the program is intended to reduce that even more significantly.

How important is digital in your program?
For GE, social media and digital is built into how we communicate, so it's part of the 360 communications and how we message and tell our stories. For ECLP specifically we've got an ECLP blog that is actually predominantly hosted and manned by current ECLPs on program. And it really offers a perspective to the external audience, those on campuses and those interested in the program, to learn about what goes on in the life of an ECLP while they're on program on any given day.

When we look at our marketing audience, and certainly when we look at potential ECLPs, there's a pipeline for future commercial leadership roles. They need to be much more digital savvy and have more of that experience than they've had in the past because today you can't rely on a certain percentage of employees or a certain group of experts to bring that capability and expertise. Every single employee in the company needs to exhibit that and have that skillset. That's one of the things that is also built into some of the training that the ECLPs will go through specifically around digital.

Is digital savvy a prerequesitve for hiring at GE now?
I won't say that every ECLP candidate has to have it, but it's built into the overall profile as we evolve. As we hire ECLPs on the program, having that is important. Digital is certainly part of the evolution and making sure that it is built into how we think about who we bring into the company and then also finding ways to embed this into everybody's DNA.

And what’s happening next week?
On Monday all the way through next Friday, we’re kicking off a weeklong global conference. A big part of that is bringing all of our ECLPs in different training modules together. We actually hold two training conferences a year, but July is considered the main event because this is also when we graduate ECLPs who have completed two years in the program.

The conference is intended to do a couple of things. Clearly a big part of it is training and training around different commercial disciplines to continue to deepen expertise in different spaces. It's also training around leadership, things like executive presence, problem solving styles, that sort of training. They will also get a lot of exposure to varies senior leaders who will assess the ECLPs every day of that week. They'll hear from one of our vice chairs, Mike Neil from GE Capital. Obviously they'll hear from Jeff, who spends at least an hour a half to two hours with the ECLPs at these conferences. And several other senior leaders will be in attendance. And then another key objective of the conference is networking. Because this is really one of two times in the year where they get together with the rest of their 300 or so colleagues.

Meghan Keane

Published 8 July, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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