Diversity in Leadership: Michael Bai – GE Aviation

Michael Bai is a GE Aviation design engineer for aircraft engine hardware powering the Blue Angels and F-18 Super Hornet. Michael is a GE Asian Pacific American Forum local site leader and co-leads the National Communications Initiative, which provides opportunities for APA members to expand their communication strategies, skills, and impact.

Earlier in June, I was invited to the 2016 Asia Society Diversity Leadership Forum as a representative of GE Aviation. Internally, GE sponsors seven different Affinity Networks (ANs) which are deeply focused on making a difference in our local communities, developing and connecting our members, and supporting our businesses. As the local site leader of APAF, the Asian American Pacific Forum Affinity Network, I was eager to learn how others engage, develop, and promote their Asian and Asian-American employees. I was thoroughly inspired to see that other companies at the conference were equally passionate about embracing diversity and cultivating leaders in the APA demographic.

Asia Society releases an annual Asian Pacific Americans Corporate Survey Report benchmarking trends in the workplace related to APA development, recruitment, and advancement. Scanning through the survey, I found key points that resonated as strengths I’ve observed in my workplace. GE was recognized as a 2016 Best Practice Company for its ACE commercial team competition, focused on solving customer challenges through cross functional APA teams. The national Pipeline-to-Asia initiative provides opportunities for employees to pursue global assignments. Our well-established AN is represented across the national GE corporation and consistently engages our APA members. Finally, we offer world-class leadership training for employees and external customers at our Crotonville facility in New York.

But to be sure, there were areas in the survey for untapped potential. Could we do more to provide APA-tailored professional development? How could we further improve communication skills among our members and set them up for success in their interactions and negotiations? How could I promote broader engagement and help our members experience the value of being part of an Affinity Network (AN)?

There is a common solution: mentorship. 45% of the 2016 Asian Pacific Americans Corporate Survey respondents did not participate in mentoring activities, and 28% percent reported not having access to career coaching. The good news is that GE has a rich history of mentoring, both formal and informal; we have built our culture around recognizing individuals who go above their work responsibilities to guide and cultivate those around them. But beyond that, I wanted to provide a focused and truly impactful mentoring experience for our APA members.

Leaders who build productive and successful teams recognize the value of diversity in thought, cross functional skillsets, and an environment where employees respect, trust, and collaborate with their teammates. So why shouldn’t a successful mentoring experience also follow that same model? I teamed up with my APAF operations leader Joyce and set out objectives for what we termed the Mentor Pod Pilot:

  • Provide a group mentoring environment where members are concurrently learning from and teaching each other
  • Pilot a small-scale mentoring experience with highly engaged APAF candidates and mentors
  • Allow each group to develop their dynamic without prescriptive limitations or “checkboxes”
  • Limit pilot to 6 months and solicit feedback for improvement and full implementation
  • Maximize the mentor’s available time.

We started with a group of 12 interested individuals and identified 3 senior APA managers who we knew to be incredibly passionate about talent development. We set the framework with a kickoff meeting and then, as promised, let each 5-person group set their respective rhythm for the next 6 months. As I sat in my mentor pod for the first time, I immediately knew Joyce and I had done the right thing. As the mentees from various disciplines and departments introduced themselves, we quickly became comfortable sharing personal stories, paving the way for closer bonds. We delved into topics ranging from self-advocacy to flexible work arrangements, exploring the safe and experimental discussion forum for challenges at work and at home. After one of our sessions, a mentee reached out to two members in the group to seek feedback and advice toward a year-end discussion he was about to have with his manager. Not only did he set himself up for a successful session, but more importantly, he found a new sense of confidence and mindset that could be leveraged to other scenarios.

The post-pilot feedback session with the entire group yielded similarly encouraging findings. Discussion topics included “establishing your brand”, “how to be effective in recognition and appreciation for others,” and “having sensitive conversations with your manager.” Mentees were comforted to learn that they weren’t alone in their challenges. They found the pod size optimal for contribution and learning. Some mentees had previously interacted with others in varying capacities, but every participant agreed they significantly strengthened their existing working relationships. Areas of improvement included finding the delicate balance between the hands-off approach versus formal structure. Potential solutions included monthly goals, or a pre-determined list of potential discussion topics. Mentors emphasized the desire for mentees to come into sessions prepared with topics to contribute. Participants expressed common sentiment for more sessions and more time for additional discussion.

Group mentoring is by no means a novel concept, and there are multiple variations inside and outside of GE. The GE Women’s Network AN holds myConnections communities where larger mentoring teams gather across a region and meet with an executive to have valuable discussions. Similarly structured is the APAF-developed Peer Assisted Leadership & Mentoring (PALM), where groups of 10 mentees meet once a month for 12 months, and leverage Harvard Business Review case studies to initiate fruitful dialogue. Outside of GE, companies like AT&T and BT utilize similar peer mentoring models to improve their mentoring outcomes and reduce training costs.

The 2016 Asian Pacific Americans Corporate Survey Report highlighted that there are remarkable strides being made in the APA demographic, but that there is also more work to do. In addition to APA-unique leadership development and training programs, companies should not underestimate the value and self-sustaining impact of a simple mentor program. Look within your own business resource groups or ANs to find the leaders who are avid and capable in their support of mentorship; they could be the critical momentum to position APAs for growth and success. Regardless of your position or role in the company, I encourage you to consider how you can effect change and support the continued growth of APA communities in your workplace and beyond.