Charlene Begley – President & CEO, GE Home & Business Solutions / SVP & CIO, GE
By Caroline Cox
She manages a team of nearly 40,000, a budget in the billions and is notoriously impatient. As president & CEO of GE Home and Business Solutions and senior vice president & CIO for GE, Charlene Begley is responsible for heading up GE’s innovative appliances, lighting, embedded/control systems and software platforms globally as well as their Information Technology organization and software, sourcing and quality initiatives.
The daughter of a Yale accountant and mother of three has been part of the GE team since 1988. She is fearless leader who’s well versed in world issues and top technology and says there’s nothing better than being outside with her kids.
Here, Begley talks to PINK about going to bat for her team, the importance of transparency and those summers she spent visiting all 48 states in a camper.
PINK: What’s the biggest issue for career women today?
Charlene Begley: Balancing a demanding career and motherhood certainly creates stress for career women. We all want to excel at everything we do. For me, the ability to prioritize and say “no” is critical to not only my success, but my sanity. I have to clearly define what I’m willing to do and not do. Then, I have to have the self-confidence to say no, while remaining flexible. Over the years, I’ve had to accept things will never be perfect. As leaders, we always have to be comfortable operating under stress and balancing changing priorities.
PINK: As technology advances at lightning speed, what do companies need to do to remain relevant?
CB: This is a reset world and we’re really seeing a multispeed recovery – a difference between the emerging and the developed world. The world is more volatile and competition is tougher than ever before, from all corners of the globe. To succeed and grow, companies must be transparent, operate in a digital world, and move quickly to deliver value for their customers and shareholders.
On a personal level, to keep up and remain relevant, I surround myself with great people, ask a lot of questions, and read, read, read.
PINK: Why is transparency so vital?
CB: Transparency is important in anything you do, whether it’s with employees, customers or even the media. Everything I say can be on someone’s blog or Twitter. It’s different from 20 years ago, when I started [working.] Today, everything’s at your fingertips, which makes everything happen much faster. When we look at the competition landscape, competitors, computers – everything is faster. If consumers aren’t happy with their appliances, they go on blogs and complain about it, which can spread to a million consumers. You have to be ready and prepared.
PINK: What do you like to read?
CB: I start off every day reading the Wall Street Journal and other news online. We also have agencies that scan different online and print outlets, pick up relevant news and email it to me daily. Right now, I’m reading all kinds of books, including one called Younger Next Year. The premise basically is that, if you work out a lot and eat [right], you may not age as quickly over time. It’s kind of fun because I’m getting older, and I don’t want to!
PINK: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
CB: It came from [GE CEO] Jeff Immelt years ago, but it can be applied today just as easily. He told me that, no matter what role you’re in, you must spend time with your customers. You can learn a ton by asking them what they like and dislike about your products and services and how your business compares with your competitors. Then you can use their feedback to improve your business. Customers won’t sugarcoat anything.
PINK: What kind of leader are you?
CB: I recently completed a new manager assimilation with the IT leaders. They described me as decisive, someone who has a bias for action, incredibly impatient, and a strong advocate for the team, customers and shareholders. I would have to agree that those descriptors are all true. I’m very curious and I ask a ton of questions. As leaders, we must listen carefully, learn as much as we can and articulate a clear strategy. We must be collaborative, while empowering our teams.
PINK: How do you advocate for your team?
CB: I give my team a lot of freedom to do their jobs and work to ensure they get credit for a job well done. If an issue happens, I’m going to stand behind them and give them more resources, time, and push them harder. My team knows I’m always behind them, which allows them to take more risks.
PINK: How do you manage your team?
CB: Right now I have more than 20 direct reports. However, I have a few different organizations that make up my areas of responsibility. We have approximately 40,000 employees in total across Home & Business Solutions and the IT organization. I work hard to be collaborative with the leadership teams, empowering them to run their teams as they see fit. Hopefully this helps motivate them. Each leader has quarterly and annual goals and objectives, and we have stringent operating mechanisms to ensure our goals are met.
PINK: How big is your budget?
CB: The revenue for Home & Business Solutions is approximately $9 billion and our IT budget across GE is $3-4 billion.
PINK: As a leader, what’s your biggest weakness?
CB:I’m incredibly impatient, and this leads to me being too demanding at times. I try to create a rhythm that allows me not to get too reactive with people, because we have structured communication and a structured flow. I try to manage [my impatience] by having things scheduled and using clear communication. At the same time, when I want something done, I want it done.
Time is by far my biggest enemy, because I have none – things can’t happen fast enough for me. I’ve had to learn to bite my tongue, not ask twice and try to be patient, but I’m just not. If you ask people that work for me, they’ll tell you I’m the most impatient person and I want everything done yesterday, which is true. I think I’ve gotten better, but it’s still my biggest [weakness] thus far.
PINK: How do you manage Life/Work balance?
CB: I live and die by my calendar and the things that really matter, whether home or work related, are on my calendar. It’s all about making choices. There really is no such thing as balance – it’s just having the self-confidence to know when family needs to win and when GE needs to win.
For the last few years, I’ve traveled Monday through Friday, so my family doesn’t always get a lot of my time during the week. However, I concentrate on them every weekend and try to attend the important things for my daughters [Paige, 9, Jordan, 13 and Jennifer, 16]. And I’m a text queen – my daughters tell me more through text than when we’re face to face.
PINK: How has your background helped you succeed?
CB: I come from a family of six kids. We each had to work hard and earn our own money for the things we wanted. This helped instill a good work ethic in me. Another key element in my success is my incredible husband, Chris. I couldn’t do what I do without him. He makes it work to have this crazy career, while ensuring our kids are a top priority.
PINK: What was your first job?
CB: Other than babysitting when I was 12 or 13 and being a cashier at a pharmacy, when I finally was able to get a car, I became a waitress. I made a lot of money [doing that] all through high school and college.
PINK: How do you relax and reenergize?
CB: I’m an avid runner, which helps me manage stress. If I can run outside, it’s even better. I also love to spend time with my kids, no matter what activity they’re doing. My favorite things to do is watch them play sports – there’s nothing better in the entire world. I love anything outdoors with the kids, whether it’s going to the beach, going on a hike, or even jumping on the trampoline – being outside is heaven for me. The last vacation we went on was to Kiawah Island, by Charleston.
PINK: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
CB: JAs a kid, we traveled to all the 48 states in the U.S. in a station wagon and camper. My father worked at Yale, and he took the summers off. We would load up in the camper – and I have five siblings, so it was no small feat. His goal was to get to every national park around the U.S. He’d map out this five-week trip, and we’d drive from one park to another. There was a time when I just hated it: I remember one time he read out loud every tombstone and every monument. But in hindsight, I’m grateful!
PINK: What’s one personal goal you haven’t yet achieved?
CB: I’m happy where I am – watching my kids grow and mature is what I am looking forward to most.
PINK: Do you have a favorite quote?
CB: Jack Welch once said, “The difference between confidence and arrogance is curiosity.” I think this is a great one to live by. We’ll never have all the answers, but we should be willing to ask questions and learn each and every day.
PINK: How do you define “success?”
CB: Happiness and health are two very important things to being personally fulfilled and finding success. When it comes to business, I take great pride in helping people grow professionally and positioning a business for success.
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