Cate Gutowski, Vice President for Commercial, GE Corporate, is the powerhouse behind ‘If You Can See It, You Can Be It’ – GE’s global initiative designed to teach women in business on how to use storytelling to significantly improve their leadership skills. This two-year programme has been travelling across the globe, bringing together female leaders to share their stories in order to inspire the next generation of female leaders.
Cate passionately believes that empowering women with the skills to tell the right story at the right time and in the right place will lead them to have greater influence in both their professional and personal lives. With these tools at their disposal, women will be better able to mobilise others to act and transform attitudes, opinions and behaviours.
LadyBoss spoke to Cate to learn about the global initiative and why storytelling is a powerful tool.
Q: Tell us more about GE’s global initiative ‘If You Can See It, You Can Be It’. What was the inspiration behind it?
A: I often say that the “If You See It, You Can Be It” Leadership through Storytelling initiative is the type of professional development experience that I always wish I had access to early in my career, as I was seeking out role models who could help me navigate balancing a family along with a growing career, but it was difficult to find. Specifically, it was hard to find women who were successful in multiple facets of life – happy marriage, children, and “dual careers,” where both spouses are pursuing career paths.
It wasn’t until I took on a role in Budapest, Hungary for GE, that I realised just how powerful sharing my own story could be to other women in building their careers. To build trust and rapport with my new team in Budapest, I would often share stories of how I was trying to balance my roles as business leader, mom and wife. My employees would enthusiastically thank me for sharing. I looked at them, puzzled. I honestly didn’t think much of it; I was just trying to enable the team to get to know me. However, my employees explained that “people just don’t talk about how they juggle multiple roles here in Eastern Europe. You are not only talking about it, but you are demonstrating how it can be done.”
Through this process, I learned first-hand how storytelling could truly resonate with other women, and inspire them to reach for greater opportunities. This experience helped to inspire me to design “If You Can See It, You Can Be It,” a strategic storytelling training for female leaders on the rise, both within GE and at our key customers in the region.
I believe that the only glass ceiling that exists is the one we accept. If we don’t accept that there is a glass ceiling, then it doesn’t exist.
Q: How has the initiative grown globally in bringing together female leaders to share their stories?
A: In two years we’ve had over 400 GE customers and employees across three continents participate in the “If You Can See It, You Can Be It” Leadership through Storytelling global initiative.
Although we are proud that we have touched so many women with our program, it was important to me that seek out ways to leave a more lasting impact, and to find ways to help those who may not be able to attend in person. Therefore, in order to help as many women as possible, we invested in building a Leadership Library Video Collection. We’ve captured the personal stories of a diverse range of customers and employees that represents women from over 20 countries. The video stories we’ve captured showcase women at different stages of leadership, as the intention is for a woman to see or hear another and think, “I can do this.”
We also love hearing from our customers as well. We recently heard from a customer in the Power industry about how she was asked at an All-Employee meeting to share what she learned by attending our training. Many of her peers had never seen her speak in such a large, public setting … it was a large auditorium. She recently shared with us that by successfully sharing her story in a large auditorium at our Crotonville campus in front of 160 women gave her the confidence to present to her company leadership. A few months later, she wrote to us sharing that she was promoted to a much larger role, and she thanked us for giving her new skills that she believed helped to contribute to this new promotion. When we received letters like this, it is incredibly inspiring because this is what our program is about- by enhancing the leadership skills of our customers, we are helping them achieve their goals.
The feedback from our events has been overwhelmingly positive thus far, strengthening the bond between women within GE and enabling unmatched collaboration with our participating female customers. The response rate was especially strong for our most recent event in Singapore, and as a result, we’ve received multiple requests for us to bring this initiative to other countries that we hadn’t considered before.
In the spirit of “If You Can See It, You Can Be It,” sharing our expansive collection of authentic stories featuring strong, female leaders and the challenges they’ve faced and overcome, we can inspire those growing their own careers at GE, and at our customer companies. Now that we’re sharing these stories online and in social channels – any professional women looking for positive role models for success in the workplace can access the material.
Now that we’re sharing these stories online and in social channels – any professional women looking for positive role models for success in the workplace can access the material.
Q: How have you overcome the challenges and obstacles that could limit women in the workplace?
A: I don’t believe there are any obstacles that truly limit women in the workplace. I believe that the only glass ceiling that exists is the one we accept. If we don’t accept that there is a glass ceiling, then it doesn’t exist.
I do believe that if you don’t see yourself “on the same path” as other women ahead of you then it can be difficult to advance your career, because it doesn’t feel possible. I remember early in my career when I working in a technical sales role in GE Energy Connections that I would regularly attend meetings where I was the only woman in the room. To be honest, it was very uncomfortable. At that time, that I didn’t see a lot of women who I could emulate. I was seeking out role models who “had it all”- a successful marriage, children, and dual careers.
Early in my career, I was seeking a playbook for how to balance these competing demands, but it was hard to find. This was one of the major reasons why I created the program, “If You Can See It, You Can Be It.” We often don’t know what we are capable of until we see it in others who we admire, and the more we can share our stories, the more we can connect and inspire each other. I believe this is how we can give the next generation of female leaders the confidence they need to push forward, and achieve their dreams.
Q: Why is storytelling such a powerful tool?
A: We believe storytelling is a critical leadership tool because a good story can help influence and inspire others to take action. People follow people. People don’t follow powerpoint. If you want people to follow you, you have to connect and inspire… and stories are the best way to do that. We also know that stories are the best way to engage customers. You can’t sell something until you’ve entered a customers heart or mind, and there is no better way to do that than through stories.
Q: How women can apply storytelling in the workplace and in their personal lives, and help them achieve more?
A: Storytelling is all about building trust, and deeper connections with your audience. If you think back to your childhood, when a teacher says: “let me tell you a story,” you immediately lean in, and listen more closely. You are inspired to go along on that journey.
We believe that women are uniquely positioned to achieve the same connection in the workplace every day, whether they are selling a new GE software solution, or sharing a personal anecdote with their internal team about how they persevered in a challenging working mom scenario. Being a more effective storyteller can help you build more stronger teams that enable speed, and deeper collaboration.
There are good days, and there are bad days, but what motivates me is knowing that the work we are doing will enable GE to thrive for the next 125 years.
Q: As a 19-year GE veteran, how have you applied these skills from your early days at GE – when you were the only woman in the room?
A: I think one of the hardest things I had to learn as a woman in business – often the only woman in the room early in my career– was to speak my own truth. I remember being invited by CEO Jeff Immelt to a dinner to celebrating GE’s Commercial female leaders and to discuss how we could inspire more women to join the Commercial function (sales, marketing, product management), and help them secure more leadership roles. To be honest, and I found myself a little bit uncomfortable with the topic. So, I did what I knew best: I took a data-centered approach – preparing hard facts around why we didn’t have more women in leadership roles.
When Jeff asked another attendee why it was important to develop female talent within in GE, she shared the same statistics that I had carefully collected. So, when he asked for my input, I had no other choice than to speak from the heart. It set me free to talk about my own experiences working as a female leader within GE. And that night, when he challenged all of us to take action and help the next generation of female leaders in the company, I realised I could have an important role in helping others become more comfortable sharing their own truth by focusing on the strategic skill of storytelling.
I immediately recognised that if we focused on storytelling, we could provide women with a strategic leadership skill, and at the same time, we could uncover through stories some of the barriers that caused women not to raise their hand for the next promotion, as well as inspire the next generation of women by providing them with real examples of women who were successfully navigating these competing priorities.
I think one of the hardest things I had to learn as a woman in business – often the only woman in the room early in my career– was to speak my own truth.
Q: As a business leader, what motivates you?
A: One of the books I am reading right now is by Simon Sinek. It’s called “Start With Why.” It is all about finding your true purpose. What motivates me right now is answering this question for myself, and for our 25,000 Field Sales Reps who we want to digitally transform. This process has made me think more about how we can find our collective purpose as we transform GE from a 125 year old Industrial company to a “Digital Industrial.” Right now we are changing the way we work all around the company- we recognise that we have to transform ourselves, so we can better assist our customers with their own digital transformations.
I know that when we transform our sales experience, we will be able to transform our customer’s experience. But- it’s not easy. Driving transformation at this scale is hard work. There are good days, and there are bad days, but what motivates me is knowing that the work we are doing will enable GE to thrive for the next 125 years. This is important to me, because GE has been a wonderful place for me to grow and learn. I would love for my children, Hannah and Matthew, to have the same opportunities when they grow up.