By Kate Siber D’02
Published May 15, 2014
GE Canada CEO Elyse Allan D’79, T’84 is helping advance the company’s innovation agenda one good idea at a time.
In downtown Toronto, the Royal Ontario Museum rises out of a historic city block in a fit of steel and glass. Inside, on a Saturday afternoon, Elyse Allan D’79, T’84 wanders the hushed galleries. Allan is a member of the museum’s board of directors and the president and CEO of GE Canada. But on this day, she is just another visitor.
Allan is, self-admittedly, a very slow museum visitor. She walks at a tortoise-like pace, reading each caption and contemplating each object before her: an Egyptian mummy, an array of gems and minerals, a reconstructed Chinese temple. She loses herself in the details, in visions of past cultures, and thoughts of what they could reveal about today.
“Museums like this are about not only preserving history, but helping people understand the relevance of history in today’s market and today’s society,” she says. “It also encourages people to contemplate creativity, something I believe is important for business. More and more, as we look at what drives innovation, there is a key role for creative, out-of-the-box thinkers.”
Allan’s visits to the museum are not unlike her visits to her company’s facilities. At GE’s aviation facility in Quebec, Allan takes her time, fascinated by the array of new technology. She asks employees questions and listens intently to their answers. She has a deep respect for what they do and wants to learn every detail.
This is who Elyse Allan is: a lifelong learner and an inspiring leader. Her curiosity and consuming desire to understand the world around her are part of what makes a wide-ranging company like GE perfect for her—and Allan perfect for her job. Over the past 130 years, GE has grown into a global technology powerhouse that is taking on some of the world’s toughest challenges—finding solutions in energy, health and home, transportation, and finance. Now is an exciting moment in the company’s history, as GE embraces a cultural transformation toward simpler internal processes and faster innovation on every level. In Canada, it’s a process that is making GE more relevant in the marketplace, and there may be no better person than Allan to lead the way.
The last few decades have led Allan on a sure route to the helm of GE Canada through three stints at the company and several roles at other organizations. But even before her professional career began, her curiosity and appreciation for business sprouted early. Growing up just outside of New York City, she worked as a waitress for the hard-working owners of small restaurants. Delivering plates and hustling in the kitchen made her fiercely proud of every penny made on a tip and she quickly gained an appreciation for the team effort it took to be successful—and the enormous value a good business can contribute to a community. At the same time, Allan’s family nurtured her naturally inquisitive mind. She fondly remembers long intellectual debates between her parents, brother, sister, and herself over the dinner table. Often young Elyse would take the other side just to explore ideas from a different point of view.
Allan knew she wanted to pursue a liberal arts education and went off to Dartmouth College, where she majored in biology and environmental studies. After graduating, she worked as a health care consultant and discovered a love for industrial marketing. Still, she knew that one day she wanted to go back to business school, and she also knew exactly which one: Tuck.
“At the time, Tuck billed itself as a school for general managers and, like a liberal arts education, it gave you a full overview of strategy, marketing, operations, and organization behavior,” says Allan. At Tuck, Allan loved the diversity of courses, the small class size, and especially the opportunity to work in teams of students with wildly different perspectives.
“I learned that everybody doesn’t have to line up and look the same,” she says. “You can learn and be informed by different approaches. Leadership styles can be different and yet, you can achieve great success.”
After graduating from Tuck, Allan joined GE in Hartford, Conn., where she worked as a consultant in a series of businesses, including aviation, gas and steam turbines, lighting, and plastics. It was her first introduction to the company and she loved it. But young and adventurous, she was also open to new opportunities. When a group of former GE staffers invited her to work at a manufacturing and specialty chemicals company called GAF in New Jersey, she jumped at the chance to try something new.
“I remember my father, who was a one-company man his whole life, saying, ‘What do you mean? How can you possibly leave the best company?’” says Allan with a laugh. “I started and left GE three times, always on great terms. Every time I left, I learned more, I developed more, I was able to bring back those new skills. And I think I was better in my next role at GE for actually having had those opportunities, exposures, and perspectives.”
After her stint at GAF, Allan returned to GE, this time to Toronto, where she led marketing for GE Canada’s industrial lighting business, followed by stints in operations, where she managed appliances and refrigeration. When GE was ready to send her back to the U.S., she once again left the company on good terms; she wanted to stay in Toronto, where she had just started a family.
While working as a senior executive with Ontario Hydro, the provincial utility company, headhunters with the Toronto Board of Trade called with an opportunity that would become an inflection point in her career. The business-lobbying organization was a somewhat dusty old office teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. They needed a dynamic leader, and, in her classic fashion, Allan was not only game but excited for a new challenge.
“I thought, this is great, I can come and fix this and meet a lot of Canadian businesses and learn about Canadian government,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about lobbying, but I felt like I could learn all that and get good people.” She transformed the company’s ledgers from red to black in a year but stayed for nine, enthralled by the ways the organization could drive change in the business climate through public policy. She worked with Canadian CEOs that headed up all sizes of business, a well-credentialed board of directors, and about 400 volunteers. She met with provincial and federal ministers, premiers, and the prime minister to express the business community’s views, but she also led grassroots campaigns to change policies on issues like affordable housing. She began to even more deeply understand two things: the ways public policy is made and the increasing importance of working harmoniously with a wide array of voices.
“In today’s market, when I see power becoming so much more diffuse, I think good leadership requires much more collaboration than it ever has before,” says Allan. “I learned the value of finding a winning end point for everybody.”
In 2004, GE Canada’s CEO retired and Elyse Allan was an obvious candidate to assume the helm of the company. And after nearly 10 years at the Toronto Board of Trade, she was ready for her next challenge. Not long after she arrived, she and the leadership team began to identify exactly what they wanted to do over the coming years. The answer: The time was right to invest in growth.
Part of that investment involves building a talented team that is deep with expertise, from upper-level managers who intimately know the lay of the land in their regions to people on the factory floor who can comprehend the most advanced technology. One thing Allan particularly nurtures is an array of programs to cultivate and support that talent. Within the company, she has encouraged a series of groups to support a remarkably diverse workforce, including a women’s network and groups for veterans, African Americans, Asians, and young professionals. Outside of the company, GE invests in youth through organizations like Actua, which runs science, math, and technology programs for more than 220,000 young people every year.
Allan sets an example herself by continually working to develop her own skills and understanding. One way is by volunteering for community causes that are dear to her and important to GE. She has served as chair of the board at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and currently serves on the board of directors of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives; the Conference Board of Canada; the C.D. Howe Institute, a public-policy think tank; and MaRS, an organization devoted to commercializing publicly funded research. She is devoted not only to learning what she can for the sake of herself and GE but also making her adopted homeland as healthy and competitive as it can be. Her involvement is one of the reasons why she is so respected amongst her peers as well as her colleagues.
“Employees find her very approachable, accessible, and inspiring,” says Anna Cvecich, GE Canada’s vice president of human resources, who has worked closely with Allan for nearly a decade. “People feel comfortable talking with her.”
The ability to make people comfortable sharing ideas is key to leading a cultural sea change in GE, from a slow-moving giant with disparate divisions to a well-connected machine that innovates, fails, and succeeds far more quickly. Part of making that happen first, however, is understanding what innovation is and how it happens.
“What does innovation look like?” says Allan. “What are the steps that you would have to go through with a customer, with experts, with stakeholders, to try to drive creative thinking and problem articulation? How are you creating solutions?” Innovation, she says, takes courage, and it happens not only on a company-wide scale, but also on an individual level.
“Going forward, how do we also show people that it’s OK to put out crazy ideas? It’s good to have a different perspective at the table. As a leader, how do we help those voices get heard because they’re so valuable, both to innovation but also to the art and science of collaboration?”
One way GE is kindling new ways of innovating is through a novel tactic: crowd-sourcing. Looking for a new design to reduce the weight of loading brackets on jet engines, for example, the company reached out to the public with a design contest and received nearly 700 entries from 56 countries. After rigorous testing, the winning design reduced the weight of the structure by a remarkable 84 percent.
Another example of the company’s focus on innovation is the Calgary Customer Innovation Center, which opened in the heart of the oil-sands energy industry in June 2012. It encompasses an entire floor with glass-walled collaborative spaces, mod furniture, and video-conferencing technology that can connect customers to some 30,000 GE engineers and scientists all over the globe. On screens, customers can bring up tools like Google Earth or watch videos of new technologies or even run simulations.
What’s most remarkable is that it is a collaborative center devoted to developing solutions for a wide range of customers. The first step to innovating is listening and learning, says Allan, so that is what the staffers have learned to do. When a customer arrives, the first order of business is to identify the problem. Only once there is an understanding of a problem and its context does a path toward a solution become clear.
“What we’re offering customers is a one-stop shop for solving industry-level challenges,” says Gandeephan Ganeshalingam, who leads the center. “This center is positioned to become a subject-matter expert on the way you innovate.” Already, the center has helped orchestrate the development of solutions to sustainability issues that plague companies working in the oil sands, such as the large amount of water that must be used in the extraction process. Several multimillion-dollar pilot projects are currently being tested in the field today. Innovation centers in Japan and Saudi Arabia, in part, modeled after the Calgary facility, have opened in the last year and a half.
Allan visits the Calgary Innovation Center regularly. And it’s easy to see the influence of her leadership. She worked hard to get the support of GE’s businesses to fund it and to hire domain experts and engineers. But you can also see Allan’s optimism about the future. This is a place where you can get the sense that with curiosity, with the willingness to learn, and ultimately with understanding, one can change the world.