All in the Grooming

GE and American Express have developed fast-track programs for the top talent in their finance teams. But is the star system the best approach?

Some experts argue that it is precisely because renegade finance teams led to disasters at Enron and Worldcom that more —and better—leadership training is needed. “Companies know the public and their shareholders want accountability and transparency, partly to reduce the risk of future Enrons or Tycos,” says Jonathan Schiff, president of New York-based Schiff Consulting Group that specializes in finance leadership development.

Fresh from School

GE’s Financial Management Program (FMP) recruits right out of college and places its highest potential employees in its Corporate Audit Staff, where they travel among the company’s units as independent internal auditors. This gives them both lessons in independent judgement and an overview of the company’s operations. “We have always believed in driving financial leadership and creating a huge pipeline of financial talent within the company for GE,” says Roshan Thiran, human resources manager for GE’s finance professionals in Asia and director of the region’s FMP.

The company started FMP in the US in 1919 and began a program in Asia 30 years ago. Today, some 75 percent of GE’s top 20 business CFOs are FMP graduates.

Wayne Chang graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington, Illinois in the US in 1991. Never mind that he was an economics and psychology major and had never set foot in an accounting class, GE saw his drive and ambition and recruited him into its FMP. The program offers its participants four job rotations within a two-year period to learn all areas of finance and accounting, business development, strategy and controls. Chang’s first assignment was at GE Aerospace, a manufacturing plant in Utica, New York, doing cost accounting and financial reporting. After six months, he moved to internal auditing, handling compliance and policy issues. His third job was financial planning and analysis focused on product line profitability, long- and short-term forecasting, variance analysis, risks and opportunities. His last assignment was at the company’s Ocean and Radar Systems headquarters where he was an operations analyst dealing with total business measurements such as sales, margin and cash.

In each rotation, Chang picked up new skills and learned from his mentors and coaches through continuous feedback and regular performance reviews. He also attended lectures taught by GE senior managers and studied with other FMP participants via the internet. “My lack of training in finance in college was not a huge disadvantage, because GE picks people who can learn quickly and gives them opportunities to learn,” says the Beijing-based Chang.

After getting a grounding in finance and learning how a business operates, Chang got his first real job as investment analyst at GE Aerospace headquarters in Syracuse, New York. After two years, he was fast-tracked to another GE finance leadership development program: the Corporate Audit Staff where he got to travel first around the US and later in Europe and Asia, auditing the company’s businesses, doing due diligence and special investigations.

Chang recalls that as an auditor, he sometimes worked as much as 80 hours a week and traveled to two countries in one day. “It was one of the most demanding yet rewarding jobs I’ve ever had,” he says. As an auditor, Chang added supervising responsibilities to his list of talents, first by looking after a team of five to eight people and later 10 to 20.

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