Higher Power

How internal training programs molded one CFO.

Brandishing MBA degrees from universities in the United States, Europe, and Australia, Chinese nationals return in droves to make their mark on their nation’s booming economy. But only a relative few can match management education with experience in the real world. Many multinationals, keen to hire local employees but wary of the knowledge gap, are pouring money into management training programs. Credit General Electric, the U.S. multi-industrial giant, with tackling the problem with the biggest investment and most direct approach. GE has matched its recent expansion in China, to 12,000 from 7,000 employees in only four years, by importing its education methods and infrastructure along with its businesses.

GE is among the biggest investors in employee training worldwide — spending roughly US$1 billion each year. The company’s China Learning Center is located in the US$60 million GE China Technical Center, which opened for business in March 2003. Employees from GE and its partner companies typically come to the center for anywhere from half a day to three weeks of training. In 2004, the first full year after the center was built, 6,500 people attended training there.

Says Jeff Barnes, a GE employee for 21 years and now the company’s chief learning officer for China: “The desire of Chinese employees for education is something I have not seen in any other place I have been.” There is a rich range of courses offered at the Learning Center, including five levels of leadership, professional skills, quality and finance, and compliance and integrity.

But classroom training is only a small part of GE’s people development system. “It accounts for only 10 to 15 percent,” says Jiang Hongkuan, a leader and instructor in GE’s customer education and learning center operations. “Based on research, 40 percent of learning comes from stretching one’s abilities and 20 percent from role models,” he says. (The remainder comes from actually doing the job.) GE moved knowledge-based content out of the classroom a long time ago, putting it instead on-line to be shared globally internally. Classrooms are more like “workshops,” in which GE executives go through case studies and deliver motivational talks. This takes working time away from them, but does not dampen their commitment.

Barnes says that whenever top GE executives visit Shanghai, “I am always a priority. I seldom have people saying ‘no’ to me.” In China, GE tailor-made a China Leadership Development Program (CLDP) for its young workforce. Under the program’s methodology, trainees study for ten days in the center, go away to complete a project, then come back to the center to make a report.

A Test Case

The company has had its business established long enough in the People’s Republic to gauge the results of its educational systems on talented Chinese recruits. Nine years ago, William Wang joined GE Lighting (China) in 1995, fresh out of Fudan University in Shanghai. Now 32, he’s CFO of GE Medical Equipment (China). His experience is a case study in the range of leadership and training programs offered by GE to its employees, and how they helped him rise to the CFO job.

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