I spoke to Amita Tomkoria, a Senior Manager of Business Operations and Strategy for GE Digital, about why her role is different from a traditional CFO role, the key practices that make her team successful, how she improves processes at GE, her business transformation advice and her experience in other countries. Tomkoria has a deep understanding of the enterprise software marketplace, experience developing new business models, and expertise in driving accountability for growth.
Dan Schawbel: As Software & Services CFO, how is your role different from a traditional CFO role you may find at other companies?
Amita Tomkoria: It’s quite different. GE’s digital business is a zero to one undertaking. While GE’s reputation up to this point has been made in growing existing business lines to unprecedented global scale, the digital effort is different in that we are building a business from the ground up. As a result, some of my role has often resembled that of a Business Operations professional. In the software startup world, this function is tasked with leading cross-functional and company-wide growth and strategic initiatives. A strong financial foundation is critical but the responsibilities are far broader. For example, after early experimentation in the marketplace with a variety of tested and new sales tools, we kicked off a project to see if we could accelerate our commercial deal cycle. In most organizations this might be thought of as Sales Operations. Business Development and Partnerships is another area that has come under the scope of my role as CFO. It was in the early days in terms of launching a partnership strategy, so my team led the first round of partnership talks with a handful of early-stage technology companies with complementary technology to our portfolio. Today we have a strong company-wide alliance program, but when you’re just starting out, you need to be flexible and align your effort to what the business needs most to drive growth.
Schawbel: If other business operations leaders visited you at GE for a tour to learn a few key practices that help to make you and your team successful, what would you share with them and why?
Tomkoria: This journey over the past two years has taught me several lessons, two of which I’ll share here. Number one, diverse perspectives are valuable. At GE Digital, we are fortunate to have a diverse mix of professionals across all functions, from engineering to product management to sales. The key to our success is understanding our customers and delivering the next generation of solutions to solve their most critical problems. We lean heavily on the expertise of our teams that have been entrenched in our vertical businesses while consistently adding new talent to the team that brings the deep software domain knowledge that Silicon Valley is known for. It’s this combination of diverse talent that makes us successful, not one or the other alone.
And two, be flexible. Regardless of what functional hat you might wear, when you are in hyper-growth mode you will play multiple roles in any given week or month. The pace of learning and growth is so fast when you are in startup mode that the team needs to be adaptable to change and even thrive in the midst of it.
Schawbel: As someone who has experienced myriad change, what advice would you share on driving change and process improvement in a matrix organization structure?
Tomkoria: Change is constant, regardless of whether you are at a startup or a large organization. Industry has become so globalized that change is a necessary part of the growth journey. Further, technology has accelerated the pace of change significantly. I would echo what I mentioned early about diversity of perspective. One reason companies choose to organize in a matrix is to achieve this balanced decision-making. At GE, we rely heavily on our regional teams to have the beat on our customers, while our global product teams keep a beat on the market. Together these perspectives inform the strategic decisions we make as an organization.
Schawbel: With General Electric’s pivot to become a more digitally focused organization, what digital transformation advice would you have for other operational executives looking to make game changing efficiencies in their business?
Tomkoria: Don’t be afraid of change. Embrace it. And invest in it. Our Oil & Gas business is a great example. It is very easy to make short-term decisions given the recent volatility in crude oil prices. However, an investment in digital transformation can better prepare businesses for future volatility and uncertainty. Another valuable learning is don’t strangle growth. In a less than favorable business climate it is easy to forego investment in growth to achieve short-term business and financial objectives. It is important to create room in your organization for long-term growth initiatives to thrive, apart from your “keep the lights on” business operations. This means the leadership mindset has to be different in the growth business unit, the investment commitment has to be different, and the time horizon for measuring returns has to be different than the rest of your business. This is the only way growth doesn’t starve before it has a chance to succeed.
Schawbel: Having lived and worked in Tokyo, London, India and Singapore, what have you learned from these different cultures that pertains to business operations and management success?
Tomkoria: My international experience has been invaluable. It has taught me to welcome and appreciate a diversity of thought, which I discussed earlier. It has also taught me that what works in one place may not work in the next place. This is incredibly important to understand when building a business. If you don’t understand your customers, their needs, and their nuances, you will build the wrong product to solve your customers’ problems.
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