When Jack Welch wanted to take GE to its next level, the veteran CEO turned to Steve Kerr to lead the charge.
In more ways than one, Kerr was an unlikely candidate for the job. He wasn’t a high-flying young executive or a brash outsider ready to blow up the status quo. In fact, GE was doing OK at the time — regularly topping the list of most valuable companies in the early ’90s. From TV to appliances and lightbulbs to jet engines and nuclear technology, the corporate name was everywhere.
A professor of organizational behavior and dean at the University of Southern California’s business school, Kerr certainly didn’t need the job. He could have stayed comfortably ensconced in academia’s warm embrace for the rest of his career. Yet when Welch came knocking, Kerr took the plunge and went to work for GE.
What Jack Welch saw when he looked at GE wasn’t its successes. It was what remained to be done. He saw a need to create a company that thrived on change, one he could give a seemingly impossible challenge and watch people find a way to make it happen, again and again.
What he wanted was a company that was an engine for learning, constantly turning over new ideas and models as it hummed. And he had the right person to lead the charge in Kerr, a specialist in rewards and goal setting. The only problem? They weren’t quite sure what Kerr’s title should be.
Kerr suggested chief education officer. Welch objected. There’s only one CEO at GE, he told him. They settled on chief learning officer. And so in 1994 a new corporate role was born.
It’s not a trivial difference, Kerr told Chief Learning Officer magazine 10 year later. “If you think of yourself as an education officer or a knowledge officer, the important stuff becomes the knowledge itself, whereas if you think of yourself as a learning officer, then your client is the person doing the learning,” he said.
That origin story is more than an interesting side note for corporate historians. There’s a reason storytelling has become such an important leadership skill. Stories define a movement and communicate values in a way data and dashboards simply can’t. A CEO who can make a strategy come to life with a personal anecdote has a matchless tool to drive engagement.
But that application to leadership doesn’t tell the whole tale either. Stories are the path to continued self improvement and high performance.
In his book “Smarter Faster Better,” Charles Duhigg asks why some people, time after time, make the right decision while others with the exact same information don’t. Part of the reason is high performers create mental models about the way they think things should be. In short, they tell themselves stories.
Duhigg tells the story of Darlene, a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit, who seemed to have a gift for spotting babies whose conditions were on the verge of becoming life threatening. “The secret of people like Darlene is that they are in the habit of telling themselves stories all the time,” he writes. “They engage in constant forecasting. They daydream about the future and then, when life clashes with their imagination, their attention gets snagged.”
In other words, mental models define what good should look like and focus attention like a laser when it doesn’t. The stories we tell ourselves dial us in on what is meaningful and help us stay afloat when the flood of information and pressure rises up to our chin.
How Steve Kerr became the first chief learning officer is just one early example of the many stories learning leaders can draw on for inspiration, motivation and guidance. Many things have changed since the heyday of Welch and Kerr at GE. What hasn’t changed is the power of story to guide practice.
The learning executives who share their experience and insight in the pages of Chief Learning Officer magazine, at the CLO Symposium and Breakfast Club events, and through our newsletter, podcast and video features are a rich reservoir of stories. And the stories you can share with the community of learning executives are what will continue to bind it together and shape the future.
That’s no tall tale.