Janice Semper of GE on Changing the Way People Work

Janice Semper has 22 years of experience with GE. During this time, she has developed her passion and expertise in culture transformation and organization change.

In this episode, Janice discusses:

  • Why the annual static performance management process is at odds with a lean start-up mentality.
  • How moving away from hierarchical feedback is improving employee impact.
  • The importance of focusing on behaviour change rather than process.
  • What happened when ratings were removed.
  • How technology can be an enabler to conversations.
  • The challenge of metrics.


Also mentioned in this podcast:

Full Transcript

Michael: Hi, I’m Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit, founder of Box of Crayons, and you’re listening to Performance Management Stories. A podcast about what really is happening in the world of performance management.

If performance management is something you think about, you know that we’re in a world of Topsy-turviness at the moment. We’ve all figured out the old way doesn’t work, but we’re all in the process of trying to figure out what are the path forward for figuring out ways of doing performance management in our organizations that is humane, effective and useful.

This podcast is about talking to people who have walked that path, and who are willing to share their stories. And I’m super excited about my guest today, Janice Semper. She’s a 21 year old veteran of General Electrics, GE, working in GE equity, GE capital, GE aviation. But where she is now is head of culture at GE. So a perfect place to be thinking about, worrying about, test out how to do performance management at GE.

So Janice thank you so much for being on the podcast with us.

Janice Semper: Great, thanks Michael. Thanks for asking us to come on and share our story and our journey.

Michael: Yeah, look I’m super excited about it. I mean everybody’s hear of GE, but people probably don’t know the minutiae about what GE is as a company. So how big is GE? How many business units is it these days? Can you give us a sense of just the scope of what GE is these days?

Janice Semper: Sure. So GE is a company that has over 300,000 employees. And it is actually a very global company, we’re in 180 countries, and we’re in multiple industries. So most people might just know light bulbs, but actually GE does … it’s in the health care field, it’s in the oil and gas field, it’s in the power field, it’s in the aviation field, it’s in the transportation field. So it’s a multi industry business, and even though we are headquartered in the United States, actually the majority of our revenue and employees actually now sit outside of the US. And it’s also a company that’s 125 years old.

Michael: Brilliant. Wow, what a thing to be head of culture for, because already I’ve got to guess there’s got to be a proliferation of GE cultures plural within such a diverse range of sectors and countries.

Janice Semper: Yeah. It’s interesting, because even though we have companies and we’re in multiple industries, in many places around the world, we also have a pervasive GE culture.

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: So certainly there are nuances within each business, and within each region, but there’s also a cohesive culture that presides over the entire organization. And that’s what makes it GE. And it’s not a holding company, It’s I would say just one large company with multiple facets to it.

Michael: Brilliant. So GE’s been one of those companies that has been thinking about, and experimenting with, the performance management process. How has it shifted over the last, let’s say one, two, three years? What have you seen change?

Janice Semper: So Michael we absolutely have completely transformed our approach. And this really comes as part of an overall effort to really change the way work gets done in the company.

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: So as we think about moving out of the industrial era into the digital era, and what does it mean for GE to embrace becoming what we call a digital industrial. It’s way more than just about embracing technology, it’s all about how does work get done in a world where you have incredible disruptive innovation happening through technology. You’ve get extreme volatility and uncertainty, a tremendous amount of ambiguity and complexity. Those conditions just warrant a different way of working so that you can stay competitive.

So for us it was about how do we ensure that we do stay around for another 125 years? And how do we ensure that we’re fast, that we don’t get beaten out in the marketplace by many, many competitors that didn’t even exist for us even five or six years ago? Being as large as we are, how do we make sure that we still operate in as simple a manner as possible, and we eliminate non value added work, and just focus on efforts and things that make the difference, and have impact? How do we be agile and nimble? Because that’s the only way you can be when you’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty is the ability to really quickly pivot if you will. And then how do we really deliver solutions for our customers that are really going to solve their problems?

So those were some of the outcomes we were trying to get to from a behavioral perspective, and one of the first things we did is we started to look at was well what does that mean for how work actually gets done? What’s the mindset and the mechanics we have to have in the organization? So a big part of our journey has been really embracing the concepts of lean startup, which come out the work Eric Ries did in Silicon Valley, and how does that influence how every employee does their work?

And the basis of that is really starting your efforts with a discovery process around your customer, and then really getting to the best solution through rapid experimentation. So if that’s the way we’re trying to get work done, then you have to have a performance management system that basically fits hand to glove with that. And in annual static process, which is what we had in place, it’s really out of sync with a way or working that’s much more iterative.

Michael: Got it. If I can jump in. It sound like there’s a real business need, which is we have to move from industrial to digital industrial, and if we’re going to embrace the lean startup methodology, and have that infuse the culture, you’ve got to have the supporting systems also be aligned with that, rather than weirdly contradictory to that.

Janice Semper: Completely right.

Michael: And performance management in the spotlight going yeah, you can’t do lean startup and have an annual static performance management process.

Janice Semper: That’s right. That’s exactly right, that was the thought process. So for us what that then meant is okay, so how do we evolve the process to support a different way of working?

Michael: Where do you start?

Janice Semper: Yeah, it’s a great question. We actually used the lean startup, what we call fast works, we actually used that as the approach to design what we now call performance development. So we how we started is we basically did a discovery process with our customers, and in this case our customers were our employees.

Michael: Yes.

Janice Semper: As a customer of the process are managers of people, as another customer segment, and our senior leaders. And we went and basically talked to them, and said tell us what a successful outcome would be of a new process. Tell us what your current pain points are. Tell us what value you would want to get from a new performance management process.

So well really went to the key stakeholders, and again sort of users, and got their perspective on what would be important and valuable to them.

Michael: And Janice let me ask you about that, because I remember Henry Ford saying “If I’d asked customers what they’d wanted, they’d just have said a faster horse”. So I’m curious to know how articulate people could be … I’m sure they could explain the pain, because we all know what the pain of that traditional process is, it’s like a vast amount of work for no tangible outcome. But how good were they about explaining what they were imagining for the future?

Janice Semper: The way we did this Michael, is we went to our employee base, but we also talked to teams that were already applying fast works, or the lean startup methodology to work, because they could see the future because they were getting coached in working in that way.

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: And they were instrumental in telling us how out of sync our old process was with this new way of working.

Michael: Okay.

Janice Semper: So it was a combination of going to the employees that were beginning to work in a different way, and tell us what you would want for a performance management process that would support working this way, and then also talking to our employees to say what’s not working with our current approach. So it was really a combination of those two things that then lead us to design what we call performance development.

Michael: Nice, it reminds me of the saying the future’s here, it’s just unevenly distributed. And you’re like let’s go figure out where the future has kind of arrived, and see what we can learn from that.

Janice Semper: Yeah. And we also knew it’s not going to be perfect out of the gate.

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: Because this is evolving.

Michael: Which is also part of the lean methodology, right? The lean start up methodology…

Janice Semper: Totally.

Michael: Which is iterate, iterate, iterate, because you’re just trying to suck less than the last time.

Janice Semper: That’s exactly right. It’s continue to learn about impact, and iterate based on that. So I think of myself as like the product manager. Success was not the launch, success is adoption of the approach and behavior. Is it driving the behaviors we want in the company? And that’s what we’re measuring and continually saying is that happening or not? And if not, why not and what do we have to do to either iterate the approach, the messaging, the training, whatever it is to get to that outcome?

Michael: So what have you implemented that has really worked well? What are you delighted about?

Janice Semper: So let me describe a little bit of what performance development is, and then I’ll tell you what’s worked, and where quite honestly it’s been very hard. So basically what it is is it’s a much more continuous process versus a static annual process, which many companies have moved towards. It’s the ability of our employees to set priorities and then also continuously revisit them throughout the year as they are testing and learning, to say should we still work on this? Does it make sense? Or should we stop this work based on what we’re learning about the tests that we’re running with our customers around this?

So it’s the ability to be agile and adaptive, and have continuous conversations throughout the year versus highly prescribed, you know, once a year, in the middle of the year, at the end of the year. That was not enough.

The other thing that it incorporates is this ability to give feedback, what we call insights, at any time throughout the year from anybody in the company in any direction.

Michael: Love it.

Janice Semper: So it’s not just manager to employee at a set period of time, it is colleague to colleague, it is employee to manager. And it’s in the moment, it’s contextual, and it’s authored. So with the intention of making whoever’s receiving it more impactful and more effective.

Michael: Can I just double click on that, because that’s super interesting to hear. How counter cultural was that, because in some organizations that would be a real shift away from a hierarchy and knowledge flows downward and you don’t really give feedback up or sideways. You maybe give a bit of feedback to your direct report. I’m curious to know if there was a cultural shift of significance within GE or not?

Janice Semper: It was a very big shift. I’ll tell you a very quick story of a major pivot when we were designing this is, you know, that was one of the outcomes that we wanted because quite honestly we heard that from employees. I would love to have feedback on a more continuous basis, and not just from my manager, but from other places. And I’d love to give my manager feedback, and managers are saying “hey I love this too”.

Well when we did the first test, we created this really simple tool just introduced it to 100 employees and managers and said “hey, for two weeks we just want you to give each other feedback, and use this tool to do it”. Two weeks went by Michael, we went back to those groups and nobody did anything.

Michael: Of course, it’s like I want feedback in theory, but in practice not so much.

Janice Semper: Correct. And we said was the tool too hard to use? Was it clunky? Turns out it was nothing to do with the tool, it was not what people … they said “look I’ve never given my manager feedback, I don’t even know how to … is it safe for me to do that?”

Michael: Where do I start?

Janice Semper: “Where do I start? I don’t even know how to give my colleagues feedback. In theory it sounds good, but I don’t know how to do it”.

Michael: Yeah.

Janice Semper: So we ended up putting a lot of emphasis and building into performance development a very simple framework around how do you give feedback? And the tool is there to help, but the most important thing is what is that behavior? And we introduced a very simple model called continue and consider. Just the way you sort of talk about the feedback, and we focused on that versus here’s the really pretty tool to give it.

So it was not part of our culture, we had to really practice those behaviors.

Michael: Some of the stuff that you’re saying that I’m kind of cheering from the sides is A, the focus on behavior change rather than kind of process, over engineering. Fundamentally we’ve got to have people doing things differently. And then that recognition that the simplest of tools are often the most powerful.

Janice Semper: Absolutely.

Michael: A feedback model that is continue and consider, it’s that’s all I’m trying to do here, I’m just trying to remember a simple model and then have the courage and habit of giving feedback. That’s where cultural change starts to shift.

Janice Semper: Absolutely. So I would say back to your original question, one of the things that’s worked well is that interesting enough, that’s been one of the things that people have really gravitated towards in the new approach. And they’ve gotten tremendous value from it. And, you know, when they do it, they really do get a lot from it, because it’s in the moment, again it’s contextual. It’s bite size, they can do something with it. It’s different perspectives that they’re getting.

So that’s been, I think, one of the things that’s worked quite well.

Michael: Beautiful.

Janice Semper: I think some of the challenges have been really having this sense of people really understanding the full intention of the approach. That it’s not just about development, it is about performance and accountability. And how to really change the conversations when they are having their more frequent discussions, that we call touch points, that those conversations actually should be different.

It’s not about just a review of the work, it’s actually an opportunity to coach. It’s an opportunity to ask a different set of questions about how the employee is getting their work done. So that part of it has been very hard, and we have not seen that it’s been hard for people to really understand that.

Michael: Yeah, I can see that. When you’ve got, and I’m projecting, but I’m going to say an ambitious, achievement orientated, hard driving culture, like how I imagine GE is, that process of shifting gears so you’re focused not on the fire that’s burning, but the person whose trying to put out the fire is quite a radical shift in terms of a different type of conversation to have.

Janice Semper: Absolutely. And what we know from measuring what’s happening is we have about a 60% adoption rate of the approach in the company. And we’ve got about 40% of our employees that are still trying to figure it out.

Michael: Got it.

Janice Semper: What we also know is that for those that are high adopters, they are getting the value from the approach as they articulated at the beginning of our discovery process, what would be successful to them. And they are working in a different way. They are working in a way that is more iterative, that is more based on discovery and experimentation’s. So where there’s high adoption, it is leading to the behavioral outcomes that we want. But it’s pervasive, it’s not a wholesale everybody is there yet, because it’s not about just put one process down and use another process. It requires a mindset shift and a behavioral shift. And that takes time, and that’s hard to do.

Michael: Janice, what’s GE relationship with ratings? You read a lot about the kill your ratings, don’t kill your ratings. I’m curious to know where GE’s ended up on that? Because folks in GE, they know their hierarchy, they know where they fit. So, again, I’m curious to know?

Janice Semper: So Michael we did a lot of research into this, because as we were designing performance development, this was like the hot topic. So we talked to a lot of companies about their experience with it, and we said look, there’s pros and cons we’re yet to decide which way for GE and let’s test it. Before we make a decision, let’s actually test it and understand the impact. So we actually tested it for two years. The first year with a group of about 1,500 employees, and then the next year with a group of 30,000 employees.

And we basically went back and measured well okay, what happened?

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: A, did employees who did not receive a rating understand how their performance was assessed, and do they feel that that performance review, or view of their performance was fair and accurate?

We also looked at could the managers, who did not have a rating, differentiate performance. Because a meritocracy is something that our employees, our managers, and our senior leaders all said was important to maintain.

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: So we literally looked at the plans of those managers that were still using a rating, and those that were no longer using, and compared the differentiations. And then we also went back to employees and said tell us what your experience was like at the end of the year, when there was a point of reflection on your performance throughout the year, and when you received your reward. Did you understand why you got what you got?

Michael: Yep.

Janice Semper: And basically what we learned was that yeah, we could do it without a rating. That employees felt that the conversation was actually a better conversation because there wasn’t a distraction about the rating.

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: They understood why they got what they got, and our managers could differentiate. So we made the decision to move away from performance ratings. I think what is really, really important here that we learned that companies that moved away from performance ratings, and didn’t necessarily replace it with anything, I think struggled.

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: Because employees have the right to know how they’re doing. So the fact that we’ve been able to introduce an approach where continuous feedback is given all year long, then employees have a sense for how they’re doing.

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: If you don’t have that, plus you take away their rating, they have no sense at all.

Michael: Right, and then they’re in a void, and going what’s happening?

Janice Semper: They’re in a complete void. So you’ve got to have one or the other. Either you have to give them continuous feedback, or you’ve got to give them some sort of an indicator, a rating.

Michael: Let me keep being nosy here if I can, is there a technology or a platform that you found useful? Even if you use one … because you’ve got to kind of capture this. Or do you? Do you capture the ongoing feedback? Is there a way?

Janice Semper: We do.

Michael: Okay.

Janice Semper: We do, yeah. So we emphasize the behavior because we really want the behavior, but we did create a tool that we completely did in house. It collapsed three tools into one, and it’s really super simple. It’s basically an App which is also available on the desktop that allows you to capture first of all notes from the conversations that you’re having throughout the year, and the priorities that you’re working on, and it allows you to send feedback through the tool if you want to. Or at least capture any verbal feedback that you’re getting. So it’s all in one place.

How we position the tool is it’s an aid to memory. And that’s a big shift in how we’ve used the tool in the past. With our old performance management approach, the tool basically was the workflow. Like everything centered around the tool.

Michael: Yeah.

Janice Semper: And now we’re like no, the tool is important, but it’s an enabler to the conversations and the dialogue.

Michael: I love that Janice. What I love is that shift between going it’s about an interaction between two human beings, and the technology supports that. Rather than the technology trumping the actual conversation.

Janice Semper: Yes. And again if I look back as to what’s been hard, and maybe what’s not gone as well, is probably explaining the role of the tool. Because we’ve had so many people that were still thinking about our old tool, and they were just using it to be compliant to the tool. And we’re like no, we want you to use the tool in a way that you extract value from it.

Michael: Beautiful.

Janice Semper: Because if you’re not getting value from it, there’s no point in using it.

Michael: Yeah, exactly.

Janice Semper: But that’s really, really hard Michael, for people, especially in a large organization. I think what we’re really constantly struggling with is what are the right metrics to be capturing? What’s just a leading indicator versus a lagging indicator? What’s really telling you about impact? And that’s been really hard for us to not fall back to our traditional metrics which are very activity based, but they don’t really tell you about the impact. But when you’re in a large organization if you don’t have anything, you don’t have any sense for what’s going on.

Michael: What else have you learnt through the change management process? I’ve really valued hearing some of the insights around being more human based, and it feels like a drive to keep things as simple as possible. But, you know, it’s one thing to come up with a plan, it’s a whole other thing to actually get a bunch of people to adopt it. Particularly when you’re 300,000 people in 180 something countries. What are the lessons learned, or the scars from the change management process?

Janice Semper: Yeah, and there’s been a lot of scars.

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: And there’s been a lot of pivots a long the way around the change management, the communication, the messaging. We’ve had fantastic partners, and my communications team, our leader was day one involved. They didn’t come in at the end. They were like “you need to be here in the discovery sessions throughout the whole thing if you’re to understand the intention of this”…

Michael: Yes.

Janice Semper: …”so you can accurately communicate it”.

I think we’ve learned a few things. One is as hard as we worked on crafting beautiful corporate communications, that had very little impact.

Michael: Nice, great insight.

Janice Semper: The biggest impact was first of all keeping it very real, very simple, out of corporate speak and in plain talk. Having employees who were experiencing it themselves tell their story, and talk about what they’re experiencing and the value they’re getting from it.

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: We’ve also created, probably about a year into this, just really simple two minute videos that were animated and narrated that broke down each element of the approach that people could watch at any point in time.

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: And really super simple. Like again very plain speak. Those ended up being used a lot.

Michael: Clever.

Janice Semper: Because people could pick them up when they need it, and again it was two minutes.

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: The other thing I will say from a change management perspective, this is extremely lumpy. You are not going to get adoption consistently … you’re not going to be able to control it.

Michael: Right.

Janice Semper: You’re going to get pockets where it’s going to be adopted, and you’re going to get pockets where it’s not. And you’ve got to be okay with the messiness of that, and you have to have a resilience to keep pushing forward. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

And then the other thing I would say, which is traditional is look, the fact of the matter is if a senior leader of a company is out there openly demonstrating it, and practicing it, it just accelerates everything, you know?

Michael: Yes.

Janice Semper: And if they’re not, it’s not to say it doesn’t necessarily form and happen at a grassroots level, it just takes a lot longer.

Michael: Yep, got it.

This has been so interesting, and I feel like I’ve got about another four hours conversation here that we could dig into, because there’s so much going on and we’ve barely scratched the surface I think. But, you know, I’m sure this isn’t over for you yet, so as you look ahead and you look to the next year, or two years, or even three years out, what do you imagine is going to happen? What do you see as the continuing evolution of performance development, performance management?

Janice Semper: Yeah, I think for us it’s about continuing to learn about the impact it’s making and where do we need to continue to iterate and pivot it, and make it more, again, impactful. Something that we don’t know yet, part of it is how do we drive higher levels of adoption in the company, and what are the best ways to do that? What drives adoption and then how do we lean into that?

I think this balance of what are the right metrics? Not balance, but what are the right metrics to be measuring?

Michael: This quest to find out what you should measure?

Janice Semper: Yeah. Especially in a large organization. That I think, over the next few years, will be something that we’ll get further clarity on. We know the formula works when it’s adopted, it’s how do we drive adoption? And then how do we use that data on impact to help figure out what do we need to continue with, and where do we need to further iterate?

Michael: Janice this has been fantastic, it’s been such a rich conversation. Any final comments or thoughts before we say a fond farewell?

Janice Semper: Michael, look, thank you again for giving me the air time if you will to tell this story. I think it’s still a story that’s unfolding. I’m very careful not to claim victory, because again, I think there’s still chapters to be written. But I think that there’s a lot here about developing the right approach for how companies need to work moving forward. And I think we’re on the path to do that, and I’m excited about all of this work, and I think that there’s so much that … we will figure it out, and I think companies at the end … we will have this great approach that I think will be totally in sync with how work gets done. And we’ll have highly engaged employees that are contributing at really high levels and performing at really high levels in the company. I’m a firm believer in that.

Michael: Brilliant. It’s been great hearing the successes, but also kind of that honesty about the lumpiness of the process, and how bits haven’t worked, but also that commitment to continue to refine it and get it right. So Janice, thank you so much.

Janice Semper: Thank you Michael.




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