Crashing GE's Glass Ceiling

Charlene Begley is among a generation of female execs who may find room at the top

Charlene T. Begley was speaking at a women's networking conference at General Electric Co. in 1999 when she first admitted to heresy: She told the group she doesn't work weekends. Ever. One skeptical colleague told her to confess the truth: After all, this was GE, a bastion of back-slapping overachievers who idolized the workaholic John F. Welch and were expected to move to places like Erie, Pa., on a moment's notice to advance their careers. "No one believed me," says Begley, who argued she can get her work done during the week.

Guess so. Four years later, the 36-year-old mother of three is president and CEO of GE Transportation Systems -- the first woman ever to lead a major GE unit. She may be living in Erie and taking on some of the biggest challenges facing the $132 billion company, but she still doesn't work weekends.

That said, a lot has changed at her company in that time. Welch, who had a mediocre record on diversity and used to sneer openly at the idea of "work-life balance," has retired. In his place is Jeffrey R. Immelt, 47, who came of age in an era of feminism and has loudly pledged to make GE a model of diversity, especially in the senior ranks. On July 15, he appointed communications veteran Beth Comstock to a new position as chief marketing officer.

Of GE's top 173 officers, 13.3% are now women. That's better than the 4.5% of six years ago, but still less than the 15.7% average at America's 500 largest companies, according to a study last year by Catalyst Inc., which tracks women in business. Immelt, who asked Catalyst to advise the company three years ago and joined its board in late 2001, says Begley is just the most prominent of numerous female executives who are rising fast at GE. "We've got an excellent pipeline," he says. "But the only way I look at success in this area is the percentage of women and minorities in leadership jobs."

Begley, who says she never encountered any sexism at the company en route to the top, is classic GE: impatient, smart, and driven to succeed. She even plays golf. Growing up with four sisters, one adopted brother, and a constant stream of foster babies in Durham, Conn., Begley was always trying to distinguish herself. "I took a class with her once, and it was humiliating," says her older sister, Debra Turcotte. After receiving a business degree in 1988 from the University of Vermont -- chosen because it offered her the most scholarship money -- Begley fought to get into the financial management program at GE. A friend's father had convinced her it was "the best company in the world."

She won the job and was sent straight to the bleak industrial city of Erie, where she handled forecasting, accounting, and a range of other financial activities at locomotive unit GE Transportation Systems, for a salary of $26,500. There she met a young mechanical engineer, Chris Begley. When he left for Arizona and then North Carolina to pursue graduate studies in engineering, they continued to see each other two weekends a month. By 1990 she had joined the grueling but prestigious corporate audit staff; they married three years later. Her first assignment: improve the methods for sourcing materials at GE Appliances in Louisville. "I had no clue what I was doing," says Begley, who recalls tears, extreme fatigue, and angst-ridden phone calls to Chris about how terribly she was handling the job. In fact, she won a management award after she completed the four-month project.

That put Begley on the fast track, which at GE means she has worked in 20 locations worldwide over 15 years. "She is being tracked through the chairs that allowed other stars to rise," notes Peter Crist, an independent executive recruiter. The stints ranged from vice-president of operations for GE Capital Mortgage Services, a job that required her to lay off nearly three-quarters of the staff shortly after she returned from a six-week maternity leave, to heading the audit staff and becoming, at 32, the youngest corporate officer in GE history. In that job, she nixed the practice of mandatory meetings to discuss diversity efforts, saying it felt forced. Instead, she tried to make sure that people got better mentoring and assignments. She noticed, for example, that Japanese and Chinese employees tended to be quiet. So she let them do initial audits in their home countries to build confidence and tried to make sure "we weren't evaluating them on a style difference."

As someone who admits that she often didn't feel ready for the next promotion, Begley understands the value of a great mentor. Her biggest champion is David L. Calhoun, now president and CEO of GE Aircraft Engines. He recognized her talent when she worked for him on the audit staff, wooed her back to Erie to take charge of Welch's baby -- the Six Sigma quality initiative -- when he ran GE Transportation Systems, and then asked her to become its chief financial officer, despite what he calls a "skinny" background in finance. "She looked like a person with massive potential who just needed the right assignments," says Calhoun.

Such encouragement can be critical, especially in big companies, but women sometimes complain they don't get much of it. Like many men who advance to top jobs, Begley always has been quick to seek out feedback and support. Linda Micowski, her eighth-grade teacher, recalls a girl who would linger after class to discuss everything from boys to her plan to be in the top 10 of her graduating high school class. Micowski, a mother figure who has also become one of Begley's best friends, even helped her buy a power suit for her first GE job.

GE has tried to institutionalize that sort of assistance through its 16,000-member Women's Network. Begley grudgingly helped start the group seven years ago when more than a dozen top female employees were summoned to discuss with Welch GE's problems in retaining women. "I was initially against the network," says Begley. "I want no part of being treated differently because I'm a woman." She has since come to see its value in networking, mentoring, and promoting alternate routes to the top. Susan Peters, vice-president of executive development and another founder of the network, notes that GE's tradition of moving executives around the world on short assignments puts women, in particular, in a difficult bind since their spouses often have careers of their own to think about. And it doesn't help that many of GE's prime jobs are in out-of-the-way cities. Says Peters: "It's not that easy to be available to move to unique locations."

Begley's husband knows all too well how unique those locations can be. During the course of their marriage, he has lived in such spots as Easton, Conn.; Keswick, Va.; and Brasschaat, Belgium. Although he has put his dream of becoming a professor on hold, he notes that Charlene's financial success has "definitely given me a lot of freedom" to pick and choose projects as an engineering consultant. But the constant moves are still a strain. Their eldest daughter, Jenny, 9, cried into her pillow when they told her they had to leave Charlottesville, Va., for Erie. Even having her mom produce a list of local horse stables where she could ride did little to console her. Daughter Jordan, 6, wasn't too thrilled either. And Begley says that two-year-old Paige doesn't understand why mommy has to be away all week. By the girls' choice, they and dad have stayed in Charlottesville the past six months to finish school, and Begley flies home on weekends. "There's no question that Chris's flexibility has been essential to my success," she says.

Especially now. She has taken over the $2.3 billion transportation business at a time when sales of its freight and passenger locomotives are slowing. The division's profits were down 8% in the second quarter from the previous year on relatively flat sales. But with her family back in Virginia, Begley can spend half her time traveling to meet customers. Along with trying to become less dependent on North America for sales -- no easy task given the political nature of railroad contracts -- Begley says she's determined to help railroads take business from trucking rivals.

When Begley looks to the future, as she often does, she's pretty sure it won't include uprooting her family as often. "My kids are my absolute No.1 priority," she says. "At the point where I can't balance it, they will win." Immelt, for one, respects those limits. "I've been known to work weekends," he jokes. "But I've almost never called Charlene's house on a weekend." Then again, if he tried, he might not get an answer until Monday anyway.

By Diane Brady in New York

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