Diversity in Leadership: Mahendra Nair – General Manager, Customized Services Agreements at GE Aviation

Mahendra Nair is the General Manager for GE Aviation’s Customized Services Agreements portfolio and is one of the National Operating Leaders for GE’s Asia Pacific American Forum (APAF), an 8000-strong US based affinity organization, celebrating its 18th anniversary this year. APAF’s vision is to attract, develop and retain Asian-Pacific American leadership talent, to lead GE’s Industrial & Digital growth globally. Today, Mahendra will share about his career and the importance of Mentoring & Sponsorship in one’s career growth.

Mentoring and sponsorship have clear and distinct roles to play in ones career as it has in mine. My first mentor happened to be my Dad’s cousin (fondly known as CNR), an MBA in Marketing, who lifted me up from the depths of disappointment from not being able pursue the medical profession. He used his experience and helped shepherd me towards an MBA in Sales & Marketing, opening up a world of new opportunities that I had not considered.

Mentoring is a two-way street. It is a safe space for a mentee to develop new business expertise, grapple with cutting edge technologies, build a professional network and navigate through organizational minefields. It is safe as mentors are ideally removed from your day-to-day functions. For me, with a consumer goods pedigree, I leaned on a host of mentors – for both technical and commercial expertise – who helped me appreciate the complex technologies, build relationships with airline executives and develop the domain expertise required, to earn credibility in the Aviation space. For the mentor, this relationship represents a great opportunity to build a reputation as a good coach and for the mentee, it hones his / her ability to become a lifelong learner who is able to connect the dots from various insights to deliver transformational outcomes.

Sponsorship, on the other hand, is very specific for high performers. One can’t go out seeking sponsors. You are usually tapped on the shoulder to be sponsored as part of a specific affinity network program or an informal division specific program within the business. To be considered worthy of sponsorship, one needs to demonstrate a sustained record of business accomplishments, act as a role model for the company’s value system and punch at a higher level than one’s current role would demand.

Once sponsored, one has specific responsibilities. While continuing to perform at a high level, the protégé has to document specific operational, technical & leadership successes, highlight learnings & development needs and through regular interactions, enable the sponsor to continue to advocate on one’s behalf. Here is someone who has already telescoped their willingness to promote your candidacy by accentuating your deliverables and promoting your leadership skills for the next big business challenge and it is your responsibility to make this a tenable relationship. Needless to say, the sponsor stands to gain too, building a reputation as a talent spotter and ‘leadership scout’.

I have had the privilege of having a sponsor at GE Aviation, one with whom I have had honest conversations when things were ambiguous, who has picked me up when the chips were down, who has guided me with tools to help make career choices and who has, forever, had more belief in my abilities than I’ve ever had. A combination of mentors and sponsorship (some call it - the Personal Board) has helped me navigate my career from consumer goods sales through Six Sigma quality in IT, Marketing & Product Management to my current role in leading GE Aviation’s Contractual Services businesses. 

While the fundamentals remain the same, both Mentoring & Sponsorship have taken on new dimensions in this fast-paced, data-driven, disruption-heavy world, we inhabit today.

There is an incessant thirst for talent that has the cultural experience of navigating the ‘HQ’ world, has cultivated relationships that extend beyond traditional silos, boasts networks that transcends industry verticals / geographic borders and possesses the intellectual horsepower to connect together and thrive in the Industrial & Digital spaces. 

That profile of talent is in much demand in emerging markets. To mobilize this global professional, organizations need programs that can seamlessly rotate high potential talent from Asia into ‘HQ’ for multi-year assignments and back out to the regions.

GE APAF is embarking on a targeted ‘Sponsorship’ program for its middle managers to be highlighted and sponsored by key executives to get them ready for the challenges ahead. One of our key initiatives, championed by GE’s Vice Chairman & APAF sponsor, John G. Rice, is called ‘Pipeline to Asia’. Connecting the two initiatives, identifying high potential US based Asian talent who want to move back to Asia & sponsoring them, represents the ‘holy-grail’ of our efforts in 2016.

Today, GE is a $130B high-tech Digital Industrial leader, with strong global franchises that use our enterprise strength in technology, brand, globalization & services to collectively solve our customers’ toughest challenges, while generating consistent growth and returns for our shareholders. As the Company evolves, so does our organizational structure, from a command and control pyramid to an adaptable matrix and now the next evolution - a horizontal organization built for speed and disruption where the outcomes are the drivers.

Having joined GE in 2000, a year before Jeff Immelt became Chairman & CEO, I have had the privilege of occupying a ring-side seat through this transition. To be successful in leading people through this cultural change, I have had to unlearn some old behaviors, reinforce a few and challenge myself to exercise new muscles, primarily in Digital. I am proud to have a millennial as my Digital Mentor who is ripping apart my rudimentary IT skills and replacing it with the new Internet of Things (IoT) domain knowledge and the language of GE’s new Predix platform.

I’d like to share three traits that have kept me grounded … Having the humility to learn new things every day, being clairvoyant in connecting these new learnings to business outcomes and being a risk-taker to ensure execution and delivery, even in ambiguous situations.