Getting Through a Crisis
Teamwork wasn’t just a nice concept, but a must for GE Capital executive Bill Cary during the economic crisis in 2008.
The turmoil in the financial markets was an all-encompassing emergency for the country and the company, and it was too big for one person at GE Capital to solve, says Cary, its former president and chief operating officer. A core group of senior leaders, including the CEO, CFO, treasurer and Cary, prioritized the company’s biggest challenges and addressed them in their order of urgency. They met regularly, divided the work and supported each other as they tackled each issue, he says.
“Clearly, the biggest challenge of my career was the financial crisis,” he says. “There was no time for egos or competing agendas. Sometimes in a crisis, leaders try [to] make all the decisions because it’s faster or easier. The reality is that’s exactly when you need to rally a committed team.”
The GE conglomerate’s financial services unit was caught up with Wall Street in the turmoil and received bailout dollars from the federal government. With that came increased scrutiny and heightened regulations. Until the crisis, GE Capital had been a major contributor to GE’s earnings overall with about $600 billion in assets. By 2012, the annual report said the company planned to reduce those assets to between $300 billion and $400 billion. In 2015, after Cary (who also served as GE’s senior vice president) retired in January, GE continued to reduce GE Capital’s risk profile by selling off much of its $360 billion in assets, according to the Wall Street Journal and Forbes.
A year into his retirement, Cary is now experiencing teamwork in a different capacity. He and his wife, Debra, have a home in Naples and are one of four couples who are cochairing the 2017 Naples Winter Wine Festival.
“We’re doing the same thing with the Wine Festival; it’s not a crisis, but it’s a big task and we’ve got a great group of supportive and committed co-chairs working collaboratively with a singular purpose. It’s working great,” he says.
Cary first visited Naples in the mid-2000s as vice president of GE investor relations for a winter meeting with shareholders at The Ritz- Carlton. He and his wife bought a condo on Gulfshore Boulevard in 2009, and then sold the condo and bought a home in 2015.
During difficult times as well as periods of growth, leaders who take the blame and share the credit are the types good people want to work for, he says. When a situation goes haywire and a manager blames workers, it’s just plain wrong.
“It’s like the bad news story that immediately just permeates your organization. That’s not a person that has good values, it calls other elements of their character into question and it snowballs in a really bad way,” he says.
But when a leader stands up and says, “I’m ultimately responsible for it,” and points out what he or she has learned and how he or she is going to fix the problems, that can be a huge lesson for staff.
“You don’t bang around a company like ours [GE] for 30 years and not make a whole passel of mistakes,” he says. “People can help you solve a problem if they know about it. But if something goes wrong and you try to keep it to yourself and solve it, more often than not, it just gets worse and worse.”
That’s sound advice for anyone in business, no matter his or her title. People at any level of their careers should have the courage to own up to the problem and even ask others to help them fix it, he suggests.
“I’d much rather work with people who view the world in a collegial fashion, that are happy to be star athletes but want to be on a team, as compared to doing their own thing,” he says.
Cary also believes it’s crucial for leaders to be candid, by offering reassuring feedback to star performers and giving brutally honest feedback to those that aren’t delivering. Then, always be straight with your customers, he says. “People can deal with anything, as long as it’s the truth,” he says.
Cary’s positions through his years at GE included working in Southwest Asia and Europe. As GE Capital acquired consumer finance businesses, Cary was careful to integrate GE’s values without disrupting the business models that attracted GE to them in the first place. He didn’t want to “slather” GE Capital’s approach over companies and tried to be flexible regarding procedures and systems for conducting business that had worked well.
Still, GE wanted to be consistent with its values and compliance of regulatory matters. He learned to avoid pitfalls related to communicating with new employees and sharing company values. While employees of acquired companies knew to expect changes, Cary recognized the most successful approach was to be clear about those changes in a fair and compassionate way.
“You just can’t kind of roll into town and unroll the scroll and say, ‘Here you go,’” he says. “It starts with communication.”
Communication also involves listening, which he says is another key leadership trait. If you really listen to your employees and your customers, they will tell you how to serve them and how to avoid problems.
“Too many leaders think they have all the answers,” he says. “In my experience, it’s best to shut your mouth and open your ears.”