Charlottesville, Virginia—As Workforce journalists, we often interview our sources after a program’s proven success. Seldom have we had the opportunity to witness "works in progress." Most of our interactions normally take place by phone, fax and e-mail. I was, therefore, delighted to hop on a plane to Charlottesville, Virginia—birthplace of several U.S. presidents, including Thomas Jefferson—to spend one day shadowing Donald R. Borwhat Jr., senior vice president of human resources and public relations for GE Fanuc Automation.
GE Fanuc, you may recall, was a Workforce Magazine Optimas Award winner for Partnership in 1997. Launched in January 1987, it’s a joint venture between General Electric and FANUC Ltd. of Japan. The company designs, manufactures and sells products (including industrial computers and software) and services for factory automation.
Borwhat and I met the day before my scheduled visit at the plant. He had offered to take me out to dinner—arriving somewhat apologetically in his son’s disheveled 1996 gold Buick La Sabre. "You’ve got to excuse me. I walked outside to the parking lot only to find that my son [a 25-year-old law student at Syracuse University] swapped my [cranberry Porsche] for his car. He wanted to impress a date in D.C.," he says, chuckling at the pretensions of youth.
"How was your trip?" he asked.
"A bit bumpy on this tiny United Express airplane," I replied. "Another passenger and I were sure we were going to crash."
"You didn’t say you were a wimp!" he retorted.
I knew then that my visit was in good hands. Borwhat is flexible, confident, personable and direct. These were the qualities I observed in him from the moment I arrived—and admired even more by the time I said goodbye. Here’s a glimpse of an executive coach who knows how to listen, ask the right questions and keep his day—and those of others—from reeling out of control. (His day included no less than 12 meetings and one global telephone conference call to London—all pre-scheduled to run as briefly as 15 minutes and no longer than one hour.)
Up before the sun.
Thomas Jefferson would have been proud of Borwhat. According to history and legend, our third president of the United States always rose with the sun. Borwhat awakens when the Blue Ridge mountains are still pitch black. He catches a local TV news program called "Sunrise"—only to find out that the New York Knicks lost to the Atlanta Hawks. Before driving off to work, he permits his three dogs (a golden retriever, German shepherd and Bernese mountain dog) to run around the five acres of land he owns in a suburb known as Western Albemarle—15 minutes from work.
He arrives at his office to check his e-mail before picking me up at 7:00. (Eleven e-mails arrived in his mailbox, including one from London, another from Singapore, two referring to sales staff and one about an upcoming business trip to Los Angeles.)
As we drive toward the headquarters, passing dogwood trees, lush with fresh pink blossoms, he points out the building’s resemblance to a college campus. "We wanted our employees to feel their work environment was a cool place."
Inside, Borwhat’s office is decorated with miniature orange, blue and black model race cars. In addition, family photos, a Nerf basketball hoop, a DILBERT® calendar, certificates of appreciation from the local school district and a Japanese dharma adorn his workspace. His PalmPilot pocket organizer already is plugged into his office computer. "All of my staff have one," he says. "But I tell them they don’t have to read the e-mails I send them late at night."
His HR team includes seven individuals—all women—including an intern from Mexico who’s participating in GE Fanuc’s leadership program.
Borwhat meets with two HR staff members and a representative from Charlottesville Albemarle School Business Alliance. The joint venture serves as a clearinghouse to coordinate the needs of the schools with the community resources. Borwhat listens to their reports of a recent breakfast fund-raiser. When the staff suggests a better way to solicit larger donors, he quickly reacts, "Good idea!" and establishes it as an action item. He also suggests getting a mailing list from the local Chamber of Commerce and volunteers GE Fanuc to cover some printing costs.
Career pathing an employee.
An employee wants more challenge. She thinks she would like to transfer to sales and marketing—job functions outside her current department. Borwhat listens: "So, you want a new job?" He re-serves his judgment until he has spoken to her supervisor, but offers the employee encouragement. "Wait about a month. We’re making a lot of changes in marketing. In the meantime, perhaps you can consider a cross-functional move instead of a job change. And let’s get your internal resume and performance appraisal up to speed." (Within the last hour, he has received eight more e-mails.)
Meeting with the HR team.
The main topic of concern is employee recruitment and retention. Borwhat’s staff discusses the relationship between the "critical-to-quality" (CTQ) needs of the company, such as engineering and software expertise, and the "key process input variables" (KPIV)—employee-driven factors that impact the CTQ items, such as job training, compensation, family, work environment, growth opportunities. Charlottesville, Borwhat explains, is one of the most family-friendly cities in the United States. Even so, GE Fanuc faces the challenge of keeping its employees—particularly the skilled engineers and sales reps—tracked in its "High Involvement Workforce (HIWF)," driven by HR.
Borwhat walks me to the shop floor, where he’s able to observe one of the teams review its ‘promises kept.’ Last year, GE Fanuc employees reduced its order-to-ship days from 22 to 11. Team members are able to produce their results on computers, read production charts and articulate their assessments with workers’ pride—an example of HIWF. On the way out, I notice a showcase against the wall, which displays awards given to GE Fanuc by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich as a best-practices company in his Model Workforce Program and attention from President Clinton as a best-practices company in his Workforce 2000 initiative.
Borwhat conducts a smaller meeting with his HR manager and a staff member from IT. They discuss two employees, including one who has ego problems and poor communication skills. He suggests crafting the job description more along the lines of the employee’s strengths while working on his weaker areas. As the two colleagues discuss the employees, Borwhat’s hand is clicking on his mouse while his eyes are focused on the computer screen. I tease him later, but he assures me, "You notice I didn’t respond to any e-mails during our meeting. I was listening the whole time."
As soon as he walks into the conference room, he announces: "I just want an overview." He encourages colleagues to ask a lot of questions. "Argue with me," he says. "I’m good at that," quips Shelly Cerio, HR manager, sales and global locations. Apparently, HR is concerned about how to motivate its sales staff. They discuss what kinds of company bonus plans can be created that will still be aligned with new Department of Labor regulations about overtime and profit sharing.
Once a week, a cadre of employees from various departments are invited into the executive conference room for lunch with the CEO. A month earlier, GE Fanuc hired Joe Hogan to replace former president and CEO, Bob Collins, who is retiring. Borwhat listens as the six employees explain their jobs and field questions from Hogan: "Do you like your job?" "What’s a normal day for you?" "What questions or concerns do you have?" At the end of the meeting, he asks, "Say, what do people in Charlottesville do for fun?"
Manufacturing training team.
A dozen employees meet to discuss the qualifications for a training director. Borwhat sits along the edge of the room. His objective, he explains, is to simply listen. "I want to check out their framework for standardizing training throughout manufacturing." HR may end up not hiring for the position, but Borwhat says the employees’ discussion will illuminate their needs. Then he can return with suggestions that might solve the problems without having to recruit another manager. "What are you looking for? Someone to do the training or to administrate? If you’re looking for a real trainer, that person may not want to do administration," he cautions. "On the other hand, a person can be the best on process, but not be able to teach others." All of a sudden, someone says, "We’re out of time." And he’s off to another meeting.
Borwhat has already spent nearly eight hours on the job. He had to e-mail me the rest of his day because I had to catch a plane back to Manhattan. In a nutshell, he proceeded with a conference call to London to discuss HR issues related to a recent acquisition and attended two more meetings about distribution in California and business interests in China and Singapore.
At 6:30 p.m., he cleaned up his e-mailbox, returned his phone calls and met with Michelle Clatterbuck, HR manager, organization and staffing. Borwhat arrived home at 7:40 p.m. His wife, Margaret, had prepared a seafood dinner.
"It’s great to have a wife who lets me get away with these crazy hours," he says.
Outside for a cigar and time to play with the dogs.
Workforce, June 1998, Vol. 77, No. 6, pp. 84-88.