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Questions for Heather Chalmers (MBA ‘04), President & CEO, GE Canada

Interview by Karen Christensen

A CEO and Rotman alumna talks about the business challenges caused by COVID-19 and how to re-frame them as opportunities.

GE’s lines of business range from power to aviation to healthcare. How would you summarize the pandemic’s effect on them?
As a company that  supports essential services like  hospitals, power generation and airlines, our priority has been the health and safety of the GE team that has served on the front lines since the beginning of the pandemic.

For healthcare, this has been  a wonderful opportunity for us to step up and support Canadians, living our purpose of improving lives  in the  moments that  matter. That  has meant making sure that our clients have the equipment they need — and  not  just in terms of fighting  COVID-19  itself; the backlog  of non-urgent and elective cases  is long and growing, so we have  been  actively  working  with providers across  the country to ensure that  this ‘surgical  debt’ doesn’t become urgent. We have  also pivoted our business so that we can connect with providers and patients virtually to train them on the equipment required to manage COVID.

With respect to the rest  of the portfolio, the impact of the  pandemic has  been  most  acutely felt  in our  Aviation business. We expect the commercial aviation market to start to recover in the second half of 2021, which is dependent on containing the spread of the virus and effective vaccine programs. With the exception of some project delays, our power and renewable businesses have continued to focus on operational execution and serving customers.

 When the chips are down, people are going
to take care of their own first.

Specifically, how has GE Healthcare been involved in the fight against COVID-19?

The biggest  response has been  in terms of ventilators and
monitors — the things hospitals need to support patients in the ICU. In addition, as mentioned, there is a huge backlog of non-essential procedures to contend with. For example, cases  of diagnosed breast cancer have  been  reduced significantly in the past year. But we know that   breast cancer hasn’t  gone away; it’s just that people haven’t been going in for their  screening mammography. We’re very focused on working  with our customers to address these concerns.

The other area we’ve helped with is enabling the provinces to use real-time integrated data and analytics to manage capacity planning. We’ve come up with tools that allow them to know where  the patients are, where  the equipment is to  treat those  patients, and  where  they  have  available capacity. This was something we were already doing before the  pandemic. For example, we have  a Command Centre set up at Humber River Hospital.

You recently  said that  throughout  this pandemic  you have been “impressed by the capacity for change at an accelerated pace”. How has this manifested itself at GE?

It has  been  so wonderful to see  our  employees and  customers rise to the  challenge. We’ve managed to keep  our manufacturing sites up and running in a physically-distanced manner using  additional PPE and  ingenuity while maintaining expected levels of output. As for our headquarters office, we have implemented full COVID-19 restrictions, with limited onsite  personnel.
We’ve taken our meeting rooms and  converted them into studios so we can  virtually  train  clinicians on our equipment. Leveraging virtual  tools to connect with customers across the country was part of our plan before the pandemic, but  it was met  with  a lot of skepticism. The  reality  of COVID-19 has acted as a change management catalyst for this, and the adoption has been  incredible.

In recent  months, employee safety has been a priority for every organization. How have you approached it?

Safety comes first, period. That is a shared sentiment across GE Canada, regardless of the  business. The  approach we took was to look at it through a very cross-functional lens. At the beginning of the pandemic, we created a task force that  included environmental health and safety,  medical directors and  nurses, human resources, our  legal  team, our government affairs team, tech  staff and some  manufacturing leaders. It was important to have  this cross-functional approach as we began to develop solutions, because each situation required input  from various areas  of expertise. As an example, whatever you do, you have to consider people’s privacy;  and  you have  to be able  to take  action based on what the latest health data tells you.
At the beginning, this cross-functional team met daily to triage  the  questions and  issues  as they  emerged. Our belief  was  that  it was  best  to  over-communicate and  to be overly-accessible to everyone on the  team — and  then share best practices across  our sites and business lines.

It has been said that ‘we can never let a good crisis go to waste’. How have you embraced this mindset?

We are in a multi-year transformation to make GE a stronger, nimbler company. Our  underlying reset  prior  to COVID-19 gave us a running start for what we face today, and in our  response to the  pandemic, we’re  moving faster to transform our businesses for the long-term.

As an example, despite the  pandemic, we have  accelerated our efforts  around lean  — the  operating philosophy based on the Toyota Production System — which is helping us improve safety,  quality,  delivery, and  cost in support of long-term growth.


Canada can be the global leader in climate change solutions.

COVID-19 has highlighted some key vulnerabilities in the healthcare supply chain. How has GE addressed this?

We hear  a lot about countries around the  world  becoming more  protectionist — especially since  the  seamless movement of resources across  the  globe  has  been  challenged. This  reminds us all that  when  the  chips  are  down,  people are going to take care of their own first. Like it or not, that is a reality, and as a result, Canada has found  itself exposed in a number of areas.
We have to be really thoughtful about what we need to have available in-country, for-country, and invest  appropriately in those  things. Not in a reactionary way, but we need to ask, ‘What  tools  do we need to deliver healthcare going forward?’  And, ‘Where  do we need to have more  local control than we have today?’ If we do this smartly, we can create wealth and really good jobs in key areas that will support our healthcare system going forward. That’s why I would flip this around and look at it as an opportunity.

As a company, GE is dedicated to ‘Building a World that Works’. Which particular aspects of the world are you focused on?

The biggest opportunity for Canada right now is to be a global leader in the energy transition. Climate change is an urgent global priority, and de-carbonizing the world is going to take a suite of solutions to lower greenhouse gas emissions near-term while securing a path  towards a lower-carbon future. We must  increase renewable energy deployment, utilizing  gas as a force multiplier for accelerating decarbonization, and  modernizing the  physical  and  digital  grid  for resiliency. We are leading by example by committing to become carbon neutral in our own operations by 2030 through absolute reductions of direct emissions and  energy use via new  operational investment, waste  elimination and  smart power sourcing.

The second piece of this is, how do we make  Canada a global centre of excellence in this arena?  That takes us back to that economic wealth creation opportunity. We can be the global leader in climate change solutions.

Given the events of the past year, where do you see opportunities to improve the Canadian healthcare system?

There is a big opportunity to look at using  technology differently. Whether it’s working  with patients more  virtually outside of the  traditional tertiary centres, or  the  obvious need to look at our long-term care system and do that differently. This is not just healthcare’s responsibility or society’s responsibility: it’s a combination of the two. And the other area  I’d mention is using  data  and  analytics in real-time in order to inform how care is delivered, where  it is delivered, and  offering  increasingly personalized care,  with  the  goal of improving the  quality  of care  and  access  to care,  while not necessarily decreasing the cost but trying to keep it at a sustainable level. Those  are the three buckets that need our attention as a country — and  where  we as a company have an opportunity to contribute.

On a personal level, you are known to be committed  to physical and mental well-being—and for fostering these things in your employees. How do you go about that?

As a leader it is so, so important that  every employee feels you’ve  got their  back  and  you understand them. We have doubled-down in a number of areas. The  first one  was reinforcing all the health benefits that  are  available to  our employees and  making it okay to talk about their  concerns with their  managers. We want  to create a culture where  it’s okay to talk about mental health concerns, for instance. Our employees know they can talk about anxiety, or about feeling disconnected. That  starts with  transparency and  with creating a safe environment for your people.  In addition to the benefits we already had, we made a decision at the Board level to offer virtual  healthcare to our employees. I think  it meant a lot to them to know  that  we understood the  challenges they were facing and were empathetic.

In addition to that,  there was regular communication. At first I thought, who wants  to hear  from  me? I got that everyone would  want  to hear  about what’s  going  on at a business level, but who wanted to hear about me and my family, and how we were dealing with the pandemic? Wrong! After I shared personal details of our situation, I was amazed by the e-mails I received. I had joked on one blog post that now that  my husband and  I are  working  from  home, my father sees  no issue  in stopping by for a coffee  in the  middle of the work day. I was clear that  I struggled with this, because I didn’t  want  to be disrespectful to him  — but  I was working! Let’s just say I received many  e-mails back saying,  ‘My mother is doing  the  same  thing!’ It’s at times  like that  you realize that we really are all in this together.

Another thing  I’ve  realized is that  video  calls  are  a great  equalizer. When  you’re  on a Zoom call, you can see people’s home environment, and there is a humbling aspect to that.  It makes people  seem  more  real,  and  as a leader, I think the more genuine you are, the more you can connect with your employees. That’s  been  one  of the  silver linings in all of this. 

Heather Chalmers (Rotman MBA ’04) is the President and CEO of GE Canada and the President for GE Healthcare Canada. She sits on the Board of the C.D. Howe Institute.

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