General Electric has always been more interested in go than show, preferring its products to dazzle over any one person or fancy building. Its powerful jet engines, its elegant wind turbines and its robust locomotives kindle a sense of wonder in almost anyone who catches a glimpse of them.
So, why would a company with a blue collar soul be convinced to relocate to the humming, at times throbbing, Seaport District of Boston? Of course, there are the financial incentives, and the easy access to new ideas, but it’s likely that GE still would have had those benefits even if it moved to a far less glamorous spot in the metro area.
Both Boston and GE have made a big play toward the future, and that bodes well for American cities and industry.
Tired of losing engineers to Silicon Valley, GE comes to the Seaport District to change its image from a company that is all work and no play, to one that acknowledges the needs of its people. The new location suggests that GE embraces the beauty of the waterfront, modern art and fine dining. What potential employee sipping a drink outside at the ICA on a warm summer night wouldn’t be tempted to work for a company that helps bring such good things to life?
Boston made the same calculus when it developed the area in a manner that attracts art lovers, entrepreneurs, innovators, people who use the harbor, tourists and conventioneers. The image of the old, gritty Beantown has slipped into the mist. Both Boston and GE have made a big play toward the future which bodes well for American cities and industry. Build it and they will come, cultivate it and they will stay. Workers of all kinds need inspiration, stimulation and relaxation.
For GE, this represents a cultural change. In the past, the company has placed more emphasis on its products than its people. Its goods literally went to the moon in the 1960s; there was silicone on the astronauts’ boots and Lexan plastic in their helmets. Yet, GE was slow to accept the social changes happening on earth. It delayed adopting affirmative action in the 1960s, and 14 of its factories in the Midwest employed no people of color. Yet, once GE acknowledged that racial integration was necessary and inevitable, it quickly expanded the number of minority employees. Today, the company takes diversity very seriously and is more advanced in its outreach and hiring processes than most corporations are.
the modern values shared by Boston and GE — intellectual horsepower, hard work, creativity and concern for the contentment of their people — seem poised to produce some impressive results.
GE has not always been on the side of right, but it has acceded to the changing times. In the 1970s, the company was at the heart of a landmark legal battle over whether its female employees should have to take mandatory unpaid maternity leave under a disability plan. The Supreme Court ruled in GE’s favor, but the public and many political leaders felt the plan was unfair to women. Within a year after the decision, GE changed its policies and abandoned its forced maternity leave, allowing women and their doctors to determine what was best. In 1978, the Civil Rights Act was amended to prohibit employers from discriminating against pregnancy.
As an organization, GE learns and tries to improve. It uses Six Sigma to perfect processes in production and customer service. It teaches management courses to its employees at its own leadership institute in Crotonville, New York. Its philanthropic wing, the GE Foundation, has invested more than $225 million to improve public school curricula in grades K-12.
No corporation or city is perfect. But the modern values shared by Boston and GE — intellectual horsepower, hard work, creativity and concern for the contentment of their people — seem poised to produce some impressive results.
Susan E. Reed wrote about GE in her book, “The Diversity Index: The Alarming Truth About Diversity in Corporate America…and What Can Be Done About It.”