“Your personal assistant is calling Wouter. You have a 4.30 planned. We might have to end thi…”
“It’s ok, we’ll work around that,” Wouter van Wersch, President and CEO of GE ASEAN, reassures me, before the communications manager could finish her urgent thought.
We were only midway through what would end up a 52-minute long interview, but if the Dutch-born van Wersch was in a hurry to get to his next appointment, I could not tell, as he puts me at ease about getting through my long list of questions.
“We have all the time in the world,” he iterates in a light accent.
This is the draw of van Wersch, who despite being the leader of one of the largest organisations in Southeast Asia, and someone who has built his career exclusively at global, multi-billion dollar corporations like Alstom, Airbus and Vivendi Universal, still has a laidback way about him. He simply enjoys a good conversation.
As I learn throughout our exchange, van Wersch is a comfortable, perhaps even eager, orator, seamlessly navigating a myriad of questions with both candour and acuity. He is just as happy detailing his life and experiences, as he is discussing his business and people strategies for GE.
He reveals that this is actually his second stint in Asia – he lived and worked in China and Indonesia in the early 2000s. In 2011, after six years back in Europe, he was assigned to take charge of Alstom’s Asian operations based in Singapore, an opportunity he quickly took. As he puts it, “I had started to miss the dynamism of Asia”.
This need for adventure perhaps explains why the sales and marketing veteran seems so at home throughout our interview, maybe even thriving in its ambiguity.
Having spent his formative years in France before going across to the UK and back to his native Netherlands for tertiary studies, van Wersch credits these early experiences for his ability to transition smoothly into different jobs and environments.
“It’s not about people adapting to me, I am the one who has to adapt to them and their culture,” he says.
Now sitting at the helm of GE Southeast Asia, this flexibility has allowed van Wersch to embrace the biggest job of his life thus far. He has big plans for the region (“I want to define where GE will be in Southeast Asia in 2025”), but believes his most important task is to ensure all 10,000 employees across the region work well together towards the same goals.
That’s because at his core, van Wersch maintains that he is a team player with a keen interest to not only “support” his people, but also “challenge” them.
“I don’t like people who think they are the best, or have a big ego. It’s always a team effort,” he remarks.
Indeed, van Wersch is the first to admit a leader is only as good as the people around them. “I have a great support system here, without whom I would not be able to do my job well,” he says.
And as a team player, van Wersch loves having open, honest dialogues with employees on an organisation-wide feedback app called Performance Development @ GE.
GE, which operates eight business units including oil and gas, power, transportation and aviation, in a historic move last year eliminated all semblance of former CEO Jack Welch’s infamous “rank-and-yank” style of performance ratings.
Constant feedback and conversations are now favoured over the practice of automatically culling the bottom 10% of the workforce each year.
“The world today is not the same one as when Jack Welch was heading the company,” van Wersch clarifies, adding that the new performance management tools show the organisation is changing with the times.
As the communications manager signals to me to wrap up the interview, I ask van Wersch how he would rate his performance at GE up to this point.
He laughs at the the question, but almost immediately goes into deep thought.
“On a scale of one to 10, I would give myself an eight,” he pauses. “No erase that, maybe a seven.” Either way, he admits there is still room to grow in the years ahead.
GE turns 125 years old this month. What has been the key to its continued longevity?
One of the key characteristics people need to have nowadays is to be flexible and adaptable. If you look at the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world that we live in today; it is very unpredictable. So there is a need to constantly adapt to the environment that we are in. If GE wants to be successful as a company, we need to always be changing, looking at new opportunities, and making the best out of what is happening around us.
In our 125 years, we have constantly been reinventing ourselves. It all started with a lightbulb, and now we are a digital industrial company – the first such organisation in the world.
If you look at a map of all the innovations we have been behind, it’s amazing. It is not only technical innovations, it is also innovations in terms of how we run the company – such as in performance development. We’re constantly looking at how we can do things differently, and better.
How does this philosophy translate into your people strategy?
GE is a very big company. We have eight different business activities. When you have a company with close to 300,000 people, the biggest challenge is to make sure everyone works well together. That has been my biggest push here. Of course, everyone has different approaches and objectives, but as a leader, I need all skills and personalities.
To be successful, the number one factor is the people. If you don’t have motivated employees, or employees dear to the vision of the company and really willing to give their best, then the organisation will fail. So that has been one of my top priorities: making sure that our people feel happy, have fun at work, but are also committed to working hard.
Our people are our strongest assets. One of the things I’m trying to push more and more – which is not always easy – is that I want all 10,000 employees across Southeast Asia to feel like they “own” GE. They need to be our ambassadors, to help us find new ideas, products and developments.
That’s why we launched a concept unique to GE called the GE Store. This is a platform that has a number of functions and activities to help the different teams communicate with each other, and perform together as one GE.
With that said, how does GE Southeast Asia view diversity and inclusion?
We push to be very local here. I have a very limited number of expatriates in the region because I want the locals to be in charge. I want Indonesians to run Indonesia, Singaporeans in Singapore; and I think we are doing this very well.
We still need to improve in terms of gender diversity. I saw the figures this morning - we’re at 26% (female representation across the workforce), but I want to get this number up to around 40% in the coming years. So there’s a lot to be done.
Of course we are also promoting all other types of diversity. We want our employees to be working in a safe environment. Everybody is welcomed at GE. They are here because of their skills.
Having a diverse organisation is rich and fantastic. I love it when I have all these different nationalities, people coming from different horizons, cultures and religions; it makes things much more interesting, and this openness is what makes GE what it is.
GE also invests over US$1 billion globally each year into training and development. Is that right?
That’s a big amount, right? I was with the CEO of another very big, worldwide company yesterday, and when I said we were investing that amount into training, his mouth dropped open because they invest much, much less than that. So training is a big key for us.
But we are very lucky to have built up a very strong learning organisation inside the company. Externally, we also have training modules that are dedicated to our customers. We also have training for government officials. So we really leverage the skills we have and the tremendous experience we have built over the years, to be a differentiator.
We have our GE Management Development Institute in Crotonville in the US, a huge campus that employees from all over the world go to for training. It’s a place that has very strong innovation vibes. There are many leadership development courses for entry-level staff, up to the most senior levels.
I just spent three weeks there myself for the executive development course, and I was there with 17 of the top company leaders.
What kind of leader are you?
I’m a very hands-on leader. Of course when I lead an organisation of this size, I need to empower my people. Empowerment is the way of being successful, simply because I only have 24 hours a day, and cannot be everywhere!
I have great teams to support me as well. So I pick and choose the areas to be hands-on in. In some areas – such as when the teams might be struggling, or when they don’t really know how to take things forward – that’s when I will be much more involved.
I try to focus on the places where I can have an impact. If I cannot have an impact, it’s a waste of time. I need to inspire my teams, I need to push my teams to be curious – they need to look outside at what is happening outside of our traditional industries, have broad networks. I give the direction globally, and then I’m there to help the teams be successful.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming managers to move up the career ladder?
You need to have sincerity, curiosity, be trustworthy, be committed, work hard, and be a team player.
I love: To put together a team of people, define a common goal, and win together.
I dislike: People who don’t have the right values and can’t be trusted.
My inspiration is: To work on subjects that matter and help to make the world a better place.
My biggest weakness is: Being impatient.
In five years’ time, I’d like to: Be able to look back and say that I’ve found a good work-life balance.
Favourite quote: “Sometimes you win; Sometimes you learn” - John Maxwell
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