Listen to the podcast here:
The world is changing so fast going into 2022—over the last year and a half we’ve watched organizations embark on an innovation journey that eclipses anything seen in decades prior. With more exposure to the board, and the revenue side of the business, what skill sets will CXOs need in order to move forward successfully in this environment? I sat down to chat with Anu George, a digital and business transformation leader with experience in C-level roles at leading multinationals like GE, Unilever, & Morningstar. Anu talks about her career, and her innovative approach to embracing the future.
Anu is well known for her strong background in driving global, enterprise wide transformations with emerging technologies like AI and with LEAN and Agile. She was recognized as a Crain’s Notable Women Executive in Chicago in 2020.
Anu was raised and educated in India and got her MBA at one of the top universities. She started her career at Unilever, working in sales and brand management and was the first woman sales manager in rural India. From there, she joined GE as a marketing head and helped launch consumer finance products for GE Capital.
“It was a time when we were literally creating a new market for consumer finance in India. Soon after that, GE was just getting into offshore outsourcing, a tiny industry at the time. They asked me to go to the United States to do business development and convince GE leaders to decouple processes and send them to India.”
Anu had what she describes as ‘a great 15-year run’ at GE, where she led the Lean program as well as the global Operations teams of GE Distribution Finance. She joined Morningstar in 2010 and led several enterprise wide transformations. At Morningstar, Anu also focused on digital transformation, and has been instrumental in bringing in robotics, automation, chatbots, AI, and machine learning, especially in the collection of unstructured data.
When asked how her background in India influenced her, Anu said “India doesn’t have the best infrastructure even to this day. So almost everything about daily life is a struggle. In India, there is a spirit of ‘We can do it, it’ll happen, no problem.’ And I think that’s a fantastic spirit to have, because…you just see the path forward. That philosophy has been my model and my spirit throughout life.
I’m also fortunate to have come from a culture that is very embracing of people. India has a very inclusive, very warm culture. And I think the ability to make genuine connections with people has been a big strength.”
The Early Days of Lean
“Jack Welch drove the Six Sigma era, which was very quantitative in nature and customer focused. The Lean era at GE came a little later, but there were organizations like Toyota that were embracing Lean in a very big way. I have been an ardent student and fan of Toyota over the years, and I honed my understanding of Lean from them.
Lean was founded on a deep respect for the customer and the employee. I’ve found that people use lean in two different ways:
They use it from the standpoint of ‘The Lean Startup’ because that’s been a very successful and helpful book. The Lean Startup focuses on the customer and experimentation. Many companies have used Lean in a very short-sighted way to reduce costs.
But Lean is more than that. It’s about having a deep understanding of the customer and building processes in a manner that serves them best. Lean is built on the foundation of respect for people and employees and on the importance of listening to them. Employees know their world the best and can continuously improve it. Cost reduction is a byproduct of doing things properly. But that’s not the primary focus.”
When Anu thinks of companies that continuously evolve and focus on the customer, she thinks of Toyota and their production system, and of Amazon. Amazon has taken innovation to a completely new high. They have made innovation real time with the help of technology. Amazon has so much data coming in and they continuously make tweaks to the product, continuously experiment, and continuously come up with new offerings for the customer.
Organizations like Amazon have made it a science of not only innovating continuously, but also establishing how they innovate. They put in the structures and systems to create that environment and culture for innovation.
Women in Leadership
Anu believes that as a leader you must help your team think bigger, think differently, and set a clear vision.
A leader’s job is not to tell a person how to do things. A leader needs to create an environment where people can collaborate and truly generate that team spirit. In her leadership calls, Anu starts every team and leadership call with ‘let’s celebrate’ so that employees have fun and build team spirit.
“A leader’s job in today’s world is to encourage transdisciplinary thinking. The world around us is changing so rapidly. Industries are morphing. Take Uber for example. Is it a technology company, a car company, or a transportation company? Leaders that don’t encourage transdisciplinary thinking aren’t prepared to embrace the future.
As a woman in leadership, I’ve been blessed with a dynamic mother and a family that treated me equally. But there is no doubt that women are constrained in terms of time and commitment, because whatever you might say, the mom is still very active as a member of the family raising kids. I’ve been fortunate with a very nice husband who’s been my rock in helping me take my career forward. The good news for women is that after this past year, work has become more open and flexible.
I believe that women in leadership should constantly equip themselves with knowledge to stay ahead. I read a lot; I talk to people a lot. I’m constantly learning and growing and delivering value wherever I go.”
When Anu first joined Morningstar, she was brought in to help lead a Lean transformation and to introduce Lean thinking in a data-collection world. She used an innovative approach and took the leadership team to Toyota and said, “Let’s see how cars are manufactured. We’re going to follow that same thought process to manufacture our data.”
The team then came back and assimilated what they learned. Their cross-functional team—technology, sales, service, quality, and data collections—met in a room for five days and mapped the process from a customer standpoint embracing what they saw at Toyota, such as real time dashboards showing every step of the manufacturing process. Toyota empowered employees to raise the andon chord when anything went wrong, and even stop the assembly line. Morningstar went on to establish a similar culture to empower employees to correct things without going and seeking permission. This is how you create a culture of continuous innovation and improvement.
“I find innovation is so intellectually satisfying. It’s my core strength. I am a big lateral thinker and have the ability to connect very disparate thoughts, and create new realities. Innovative thinking will soon become a survival skill. The world is changing so rapidly, and you need to keep thinking about different ways of doing things. I just read an article the other day in The Wall Street Journal that reported that Gen Xers and millennials are learning about investing from TikTok!! The world is evolving so fast that thinking creatively about the future will probably become a survival skill.”
Anu was trying to automate their data collection at Morningstar using AI and ML to collect unstructured data so that they could free up resources and innovate for the future. But often times people have a hard time embracing the future:
- They’re not clear about what their future is going to be like
- They’re not clear how they’re going to get there
- They’re worried about what will happen to them
To help employees overcome these fears, they created cross-functional squads of technologists and data collectors and assigned each of them certain areas to automate. They also developed Project Seed, a program to upskill their data scientists and data analysts so that they felt equipped to face the future.
Finally, there was a sit-down with business leaders, the technology team and technology leaders, where every project was looked at objectively to determine whether or not it was aligned to Morningstar’s vision of the future. And if not, those projects were stopped. This freed fifty percent of their capacity, which was able to be redeployed towards AI and ML. It was a hard call, but future investment requires that what you’re doing aligns with your goals.
Advice for Startups
- Take every opportunity to engage with larger organizations. Collocate in their organization if possible or welcome someone in the larger organization to co-locate with you. If you don’t work very closely with each other and go deep, you won’t understand their business or pressures
- Don’t assume that large organizations have deep pockets. Most have very rigorous processes for capital allocation and capital utilization.
- Show larger orgs a different way of working and help them make those shifts. Some startups also come in with a very pre-defined offering and say: ‘I have this platform. Work on my platform’ and that org might say, ‘No, we want you to work on our platform.’ Make sure you can flex your business model to make it a win-win for the larger organization.
Takeaways for the CXO of the Future
- Today’s organizations are monolithic hierarchies with many levels of reporting relationships. I believe that organizations of the future will be decentralized with the prevalence of remote work and as the employer-employee relationship becoming more tenuous with the gig economy.
- We may start seeing organizations becoming networks and coalitions of centers of production, centers of creation and creativity. 20 years ago, companies started outsourcing so-called non-core functions. Now you look at a company like Uber and everything is outsourced.
- Being a good leader—a good manager—is not going to be enough. The skill sets that will be at a premium are being able to manage networks of people, networks of teams, and networks of organizations.
- Encourage transdisciplinary thinking. The ability to collaborate with people across different fields, disciplines and industries is going to be a huge skillset as well. The ability to manage different ways of thinking is going to be at a premium.
Anu George is a customer focused, global business and digital transformation leader with an excellent track record in accelerating innovation and excellence in an organization.
She works at the intersection of emerging technologies, strategy, leadership & operational excellence. She is most energized when she is helping leaders discern the trends of the future and help them successfully embrace that future. She is a frequent speaker on topics such as ‘future of work’, driving transformations, diversity & inclusion, business excellence and leadership.
She is an innovator and entrepreneur at heart, having pioneered many new products and initiatives throughout her career. At GE, she helped create from scratch a market for consumer finance in India and contributed to the birth of the “offshore outsourcing industry.” At Morningstar she radically changed key processes with the successful introduction of emerging technologies like Robotics Process Automation (RPA), chatbots, AI & machine learning.
Anu also has a strong background in operational excellence methods such as LEAN, Six Sigma and Agile. This helps her build sustainable and scalable operations. In appreciation of her efforts, Anu was recognized as a Crain’s Notable Women Executive in Chicago in 2020.
Anu is a values and mission driven person. She has held long tenures at reputed multinationals like Unilever, GE & Morningstar. Anu, being a woman of color, believes in diversity, and has been the executive sponsor of the women’s and Asia affinity groups at both GE & Morningstar.
Join The CXO of the Future Community today: