LEADERSHIP: Eszter Szabo at General Electric

Leadership: Eszter Szabo at General ElectricEszter Szabo’s talent is helping women envision themselves as leaders.

Based in Budapest, Hungary, Szabo leads the General Electric Women’s Network, East Central Region. In fact, she started the hub in Hungary back in 2000. Within two years it became Best in Europe and in 2003 garnered a global award.

The secret to her success? Working simultaneously at three levels: First, support other women on an individual basis. Second, join (or run!) a network. Third, share best practices to help the culture progress in diversity and equal opportunity.

By day, Szabo is GE’s communications and public affairs leader in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). She drives stakeholder relations and media strategy for 19 countries, where GE has 26,000 employees, US $4.1 billion in sales, and US $5 billion in exports.

I was so taken by Szabo’s commitment to advancing women that I asked her to pass along what she’s learned with the rest of us:

Tell us about the environment for businesswomen in Hungary.

Let me put things into perspective—there’s a history here. I was born and raised in Hungary, which was a socialist state from 1947 to 1990. Why is the post-socialist environment significant? Because the recent socialist past wasn’t based on meritocracy, or equal opportunity. People—both men and rarely women–got promoted into CEO positions or the government not based on their performance but on their ability to keep the one-party system going.

As a result, we can’t understand the business environment in CEE the same way we understand business in an organically developed democracy and market economy such as the US or UK. Hungary’s changed political system in 1990 introduced a new set of values here, but our environment, the society, and the economy are still a work-in-progress. No society changes overnight!

Global GE entered CEE just before the changes, at the end of 1989. Overnight it introduced a totally new world to its employees. What do I mean? At GE you can progress as an employee based on your merits (performance and values). You can even benefit from equal opportunity best practices, like the GE Women’s Network. The concept of a female corporate network was a unique feature in CEE when it was first established in Hungary back in 1999. This created an unknown and different game for women working at GE.

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How did you get involved in the GE Women’s Network?

I was asked by the then European CEO of GE to establish a cross-business Women’s Network hub in Hungary back in 2000. The hub became Best in Europe in 2002 and received a global award in 2003. Currently I am the regional leader for our East Central region, where we have three hubs (Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania-Bulgaria) with more than a thousand members.

Tell us more about the network’s activities.

The Women’s Network is a tool for GE to attract, develop, and retain talented women, while also fostering cultural change. Members meet with role models and learn how others made a career while having a private life at the same time. It should be about career and family, not career or family. But as we know, this is easier said than done. We run the network as if it were a business, and this gives the women who run it an additional opportunity to practice their leadership skills in a non-threatening environment.

You do all this on top of your actual job. What drives your commitment to advancing women?

I come from a middle-class family that has had intellectual male members for many centuries. We lost everything that had been accumulated by generations during the post-1945 socialist period, when wealth was confiscated by the State. I am the first intellectual female with a career in our family. I want to prove that you can make an international career in the post-socialist CEE. I also want to help other talented women to progress. Why? Not because, as Madeleine Albright said, there is a special place in hell for those women who do not help other women. While I agree with her, I see it from another perspective. I want to contribute to the social and economic healing process of CEE, which is still in transition. It definitely would be a better place–and more competitive–if both women and men could advance in the workplace with equal opportunity.

You have a talent for inspiring, or even “selling” women on their leadership potential. How do you do that?

We do it as a group–I am very proud of the fact that nearly all GE women in senior positions are actively involved in my region’s network. We work in three main ways. First, we help HR and top leadership to identify more women candidates for top positions as we strengthen a pipeline of talent. Second, we talk with our external partners about the whole problem of low representation of women in top leadership. And third, we share our network as a best practice with academia and other businesses. This way GE as a change agent stimulates the progress of the “outside world.”

What keeps women from envisioning themselves as leaders?

They see so few role models. In the entire CEE, women are rare in government and at the CEO level. Most of the women here make it to just below the executive level, and they work very hard to support a man’s success. As a result, the region loses a lot of female talent who perform below their potential. This is the reason why women need inspiration and tools to envision themselves in top positions. They also need a legal framework and institutional support. And they need a personal network for support to make it happen, because the odds are against them. Why? My personal experience tells me that, while women create and maintain a family, men only adapt and contribute to it.

What can women do to develop their leadership skills?

If your company has one, join the women’s network. Step outside your comfort zone with stretch goals. Engage your colleagues in a collaborative way to help them grow. Take credit for what you do. I have seen it so many times, even within GE: a woman works hard to put a project together and prepare a presentation, then she asks a man of the team to do the presentation. For God’s sake, who will be remembered here?

I’m very interested in how women can work together to advance each other. And that’s part of your agenda. What have you learned about the power of women to help advance each other in the workplace?

First, networks work! In addition to the GE Women’s Network, I have been active in several external mixed and female networks. Second, leaders should support their reports in their goals. For example, I am the second female on the 14-person board of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary. It would not have happened if I didn’t run for the position and if my boss, the regional CEO, didn’t support me. Third, look for global understanding. I have learned a lot from the annual study tours organized by the Female Chapter of the Hungarian Business Leaders Forum. We have been in the UK, Austria, Israel, and, most recently, Costa Rica. In each country, we study the economic system, institutions, and diversity strategies. Costa Rica drives diversity with a 50% quota. Personally, I don’t favor quotas, but they do make a difference, because they put the equal opportunity on the agenda. But this is another story . . .

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