Interview: SINC Sits Down with Nate Arnold, GE Gas Power

SINC interview Nate Arnold GE

SINC’s Director of Content Annie Liljegren conducted this July 2021 interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

I'm here with Nate Arnold, VP & CIO Operations and Software Engineering at GE Gas Power, who'll be featured at our 2021 Southeast Forum, September 19-21 in Miami. Nate, you were originally slated to speak at last year's (cancelled) event but your topic, “Leadership Within the Generational Divide,” has only increased in significance. How are you thinking about this subject now as compared with February 2020? Have the essential questions changed?​

Nate Arnold: Yes, thanks again for the invitation. It seems like a lifetime ago in February 2020, when we were first talking about this… A couple of reflections for me: When I first thought about this topic and previously explored it with some colleagues in GE, we were debating the colocation for software development with what we call the hub strategy. And we were observing different cultures depending on the location. Even cities within the US—a California city is very different than a New Orleans, for example—and then global cities and cultures, of course. We were observing different behaviors of retention. There were standard processes we had around extracurriculars, cafeterias, gyms and free food, game systems and ping pong tables and all the things you think about. We were really interrogating: Is that the concept? Is that what draws people and keeps people? And we were finding the uniqueness of the culture really influenced that quite a bit–what things really mattered—depending on where you were.  What I would add to that, in the fallout of the pandemic, is a personal story. I’ve always been very attached with folks on my team: spending discretionary time trying to get to know them, a lot of relationship management.
In the past, it’s been my experience that was something that really helps drive bonds and influence retention. I’ve had a lot of movement of folks lately, through the pandemic, and I’d say I was surprised the weapon we have in relationship-building was really changing in this environment. 

So I think it’s still a very fruitful topic. There are so many dynamics going on; it’s been an important thing for us to consider as we think about a mobile workforce and how to retain top talent.

"The weapon we have in relationship-building was really changing in this environment..."

Recent events certainly acted as a crucible for processes, but also for people. I'm going to ask about processes and structures in a minute, but as far as the people side: What surprised you or struck you? What did you draw out of leading people in and through the last 18 months?

Nate Arnold: We talk a lot about the productivity perspective; I think companies by and large are pleasantly surprised with the level of productivity. And then, we’ve been we’ve been dealing with that as almost a negative consequence—are people working too much? Are people not having that separation between work and personal life? We’ve seen burnout.

But one one thing that pleasantly surprised me, I think more than anything, was that even though we were remote there was a level of compassion and empathy, and relationship-building happening on a whole other level. There was a lot of understanding of people’s personal circumstances. We got to know people on calls a lot better because you were seeing their cats and dogs and kids, and laughing about it and accepting it. I found a rich relationship-building was happening with teams at the personal level.

"There was a level of compassion and empathy and relationship-building, a whole other level."

When we went fully remote in the US, a lot of us kind of freaked out. My global teams reminded me they’ve been doing this the whole time; it wasn’t a big deal and we could still get a lot of work done virtually. That was a great observation.

As far as non-people elements during the transition to remote, what stood out to you as having its worth absolutely proved, or something you were relieved to already have in place or have done away with?

Nate Arnold: I would say compute power, remote testing, performance testing—the simple things you expect to be routine. When GE closed the books the second quarter of 2020, that was the first time we did so fully remote. Without armies of teams in an office with workstations and contract teams, all hands on deck making sure we’re processing hundreds of thousands of transactions and millions and millions of dollars—a very open failure mode pool. That preparation and having systems in place to handle it was a great advantage for us and made the transition pretty seamless.

Let's address talent. How does drawing from a global pool inform acquisition, development and retention, as you’re compounding generational diversity with this other factor of real and even extreme geographical diversity?

Nate Arnold: Well, we’ve been talking a lot about core competencies. We’ve been talking about what we value the most and what we want to cultivate. We’re finding the importance of a career path is that much more important, as well as the need to get specific about the skill sets that matter to us. Now that leadership are differentiated the fight for talent globally is aggressive

I'd like to bring you back to something you said in your February 2020 interview with Jason Cenamor. I'll give you the full quote for context:

"Sometimes the basics are what matter most. I myself have fallen into the trap of thinking a foosball table and free bananas means I'll keep folks longer, but at the end of the day people want a sense of purpose, to feel valued in their work, to be respected. It's easy to lose sight of that when we complicate factors around the generational considerations. There are important differences you should know, but good leadership is good leadership. If you care about your people and focus on things that matter, you have a better shot at retaining those folks."

So to me this suggests a consistency of values or an underlying value system informing the tactics—treating the idea of leading across the generational divide, or leading virtually, or leading through a crisis, as informed by those values rather than as a grab bag of tips and tricks?

Nate Arnold: Yes. And I think there has to be consistency to it, right? One advantage of being with a company like GE is that we have decades of experience working globally within different cultures, and the leadership locally that involves themselves with those teams is critical.

Recently I was speaking with a young lady we have; she has a PhD and works outside the US. She has been very motivated within our team and very loyal to GE, even in the face of frequent external offers. So I was asking about that and really interrogating it. She said it came back to a couple core principles: the sense that there’s a genuine interest in her, that the leadership team cares about her, that there’s a focus on her development, and all of this consistently. And then there’s flexibility—an understanding of personal situations and allowing for a personal life. Those are three things that I meant [can get lost] by overcomplicating the thinking. 

It’s easy to just step back and say there must be a fundamental problem, and there must be an easy fix here, and if I throw a pinball machine in the hallway that’s going to fix it. That’s just superficial. If you don’t have those core principles, and consistency, and some good training and leadership—even in your junior ranks, to model it—then that’s the problem.

I understand you particularly enjoy the informal elements of formal events, the opportunities to "catch people in the hallway," and you encourage other folks to to really be proactive about that. So, especially as we're thinking about generational culture, to what degree can that hallway interaction ever be authentically replicated virtually?
Or is that a fading paradigm in itself—do younger leaders already not see the same distinction, or not necessarily feel a loss there between virtual and in-person?

Nate Arnold: That’s a good question. There’s an informality and an “ad hoc-ness” to the water cooler or the hallway. I think it can be replicated, there just has to be a lot of intentionality. Because, what I’ve found is this: my schedule is a complete disaster now more than ever. We do a lot of lean at GE and I try to follow some sense of lean standard work, but [my schedule] is a nightmare—no consistency.  So how do you accommodate for those ad hoc sessions, because you do have to force it—I have to ping somebody and say Hey can you jump on video for a minute? But if you do allocate those times, I think that interaction is genuine.

And I think it can serve the same purpose, where someone feels really motivated. If it’s one-under-one, or one-under-one-under-one, I think those kinds of sessions are the things that motivate people. They realize the leadership team really does care what their opinion is and cares about what they think.

So it puts a little bit more on the leadership or the culture, to ensure you’re educating teams to be comfortable pinging folks. I consistently tell my teams: I hate email. Do not email. Do not email. Ping me, text me, message me—whatever. That’s a more personal interaction, it’s one-on-one, and I can quickly do it. I think the more we buy into messaging services and let email die, and focus on the threads of interactions and the one-on-ones, I think it’ll be there.

"The more we buy into messaging and let email die, and focus on threads and one-on-ones, I think [genuine interaction] will be there..."

But, you know, I still really value at least periodic time. I’ve told my software engineering team we’re going to get together for big room planning sessions in the agile process—we’re going to find a way, once it’s appropriate. We’re going to do that again, and at least have those interactions, and then we can lean into the other remote ones as best we can.

Annie Liljegren:  Falcons or Saints?
Nate Arnold:  That’s a long story! But actually born in Cleveland so I’m a Browns fan.
AL: That’s unfortunate. I wanted to ask you about Taysom Hill…
Nate Arnold: Taysom Hill is a beast.
AL: And Matt Ryan coming back?
Nate Arnold: He hasn’t gotten over the hump in so many years, but at this point what do you have to lose? Go get something new and give it a shot.
AL: Indeed. We’re all set, Nate. Appreciate your time and we’ll see you at Southeast.
Nate Arnold: It was a pleasure—thank you.