Defining Leadership: Bill Conaty ’67

Integrity. Trust. Self-confidence. These are some of the ways Bill Conaty ’67 defines character. As senior vice president of human resources at General Electric (GE) for nearly15 years, Conaty knows a thing or two about assessing someone’s character. Under Conaty’s leadership, his department became a key asset for former CEO Jack Welch, one of the most admired executives in recent American business history.

Former General Electric executive says character truly defines success.

January 27, 2009

Human resources should have a major role to play in the executive C-suite, says Conaty. “Most corporations are only as good as the people who work in them,” he notes. “If you don’t have talented people and an HR organization making sure those individuals get the equitable treatment and professional development they deserve, your company will be at a real disadvantage.”

So what kind of people should an organization try to entice or retain? On Conaty’s watch, retention or dismissal depended in part on a rigorous ranking system that regularly removed GE’s least effective performers.

A vision for success

As for recruitment, Conaty says GE looked for leadership candidates with the ability to energize others, the self-confidence and decisiveness to make key business decisions, and the capability to achieve results by executing on vision and objective.

A person with all these character traits could rise to the top at GE. The company has a tradition of promoting from within. Loyalty was appreciated. Until his retirement in November 2007, Conaty spent 40 years climbing through the ranks at GE. Jack Welch worked two decades at GE before becoming CEO, then led the company for another 20 years. Jack Welch’s successor, Jeffrey Immelt, also rose through the ranks after

working at GE for many years prior to assuming the role of CEO. GE expects managers to train their own replacements and assesses executives on the strength of their succession plans. Self-confidence is rewarded. Egotism is not.

A passionate and compassionate leader

Working side-by-side with Jack Welch, Conaty says he saw how the character of a great business leader blends passion with compassion. Many leaders have a passion to succeed, to be the best, or to make more money. Welch could be a take-no-prisoners businessman, but Conaty says he had a less public side of caring deeply for the people who worked for him. If a spouse or child was sick, Welch would take a personal interest and make sure that the patient was being seen at the right hospital by the best doctor. “A lot of leaders win over their employees’ minds with their strategy and their intelligence,” says Conaty. “Welch won our minds and our hearts. This mix of passion and compassion motivated,energized, and inspired loyalty throughout the organization.”

Of course, even the best organizations will face people problems. At a company the size of GE with hundreds of thousands of employees, even the best HR departments couldn’t ensure that bad apples wouldn’t slip into the barrel. So Conaty says it’s vital for companies to lay down standards of behavior upfront to new hires and then have multiple avenues through which whistleblowers can anonymously report problems. Having these safeguards helps companies nip problems in the bud before they grow into major disasters, and also helps maintain an upright corporate culture with low tolerance for misbehavior.

“It all comes down to character.”

Ultimately, Conaty believes that times of adversity reveal an individual’s true character. “No one ever got to the top job without going through a rough patch,” he says. “The key is how we deal with the adversity. Do we take it on our shoulders, or do we start pointing fingers?” Conaty respects those with the character to accept responsibility for their own

mistakes.

Since 2001, Conaty has served on the Bryant Board of Trustees and is a long-time generous supporter of the Annual Fund at Bryant. He has extended his support by contributing to the Trustee Challenge this year.

Conaty hopes those who know him would consider him genuine, authentic, passionate about his work, but fair and compassionate too. He’s proud of the fact that he could relate to people at all levels of the GE organization from the board of directors and the CEO to the factory floor union stewards. He may have tussled with the unions over contracts, but Conaty says there were no hard feelings. “It all comes down to character,” he says. “They knew they could trust me, and that I was not going to sell them short. They knew that I wanted what was right for the company, but also what was right for them.”

 

One comment

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