Marketing Planning Lessons from GE’s 26,000-Employee "Startup"

July 19, 2017 Matt Davis

As GE Digital’s VP, Marketing Strategy and Operations, Neenu Sharma’s job is all about enabling the marketing organization — in other words, setting marketers up for success. She creates and manages the structure, processes and technology that GE Digital’s marketers need to be effective. Neenu and her team run marketing, so the other marketers in the organization can do marketing. 

In our Marketing Planning Master Class interview series, Allocadia’s CMO, James Thomas, sat down with Neenu to chat about: 

  • Why this large, newly-formed business unit at GE still considers itself a startup
  • The marketing planning evolution she’s successfully set in motion at GE Digital
  • Neenu’s top learnings in marketing planning

Aggressive growth goals as a catalyst for change

In Fall 2015, GE announced the formation of the 26,000-employee GE Digital unit, bringing together a number of its existing tech and analytics businesses. 

Despite being a large organization within an even larger one, Neenu notes that GE Digital still considers itself a startup, albeit an exceptionally large and well-funded one. There are a few reasons for this. For one, like a startup, many processes in Marketing at GE Digital are still nascent, leaving great opportunities for improvement. 

Perhaps more notable, though, are GE Digital’s startup-like growth goals. When GE Digital came into existence, then-CEO Jeff Immelt publicly announced the goal of becoming one of the top ten software companies by 2020, which put them in direct competition with IBM and a host of other behemoths. GE Digital is also vying to double revenues to $15 billion in the same time frame!

Upon joining GE Digital, Neenu was already a GE veteran. Looking through her marketing operations and strategy lens, she could see that the company would need to completely reshape its approach to marketing planning if it was going to achieve that outsized growth.

The evolution of marketing planning at GE Digital

For Neenu, the job of evolving marketing planning at GE Digital was all about building consistency. When she probed around the various business units, geographies, and functional areas within Marketing, what she found was a hodge-podge of formats, spreadsheets and documents for each group’s marketing plans.

What she didn’t find was a consistent process that everyone could get behind and work towards. “It was a lot of work to mash it all together to make sense of the story and the plan — it was like matching apples to oranges to bananas,” Neenu said. 

It was clear to Neenu: in order to build the cohesive marketing planning process that GE Digital needed, significant change was required.  

Managing through change

Even at a company with a startup-like mentality, ushering in change at a large, matrixed organization the size of GE Digital is never easy. Over a period of roughly two years, Neenu and her team used a variety of tactics to improve marketing planning. Here are the top ones she told us about:

  • Marketing planning is a cross-departmental process. In addition to the typical sales and marketing seats at the table, you have to recruit Finance and IT as additional partners. Finance is important since, after all, you’re working with money, and IT also plays a part because marketing planning requires modern software tools. When asked for her single best piece of marketing planning advice, this was it: “[Other departments] need to have skin in the game too. It’s not just marketing’s fault if things aren’t working, and we all share in the glory when they are.”
  • There’s no shortcut to the ‘people side’ of change management. No matter the quality of the tools or processes you’re putting in place, the people in your business have to be trained on them, and you have to get their support. How do you get their support? According to Neenu, it’s by explaining how the changes you’re suggesting will make their lives easier.

While the nitty-gritty details didn’t emerge in her interview with us, there’s no denying the herculean effort Neenu and her team went through to truly transform marketing planning at GE Digital. 

NEENU’s #1 RECOMMENDATION: Share ownership and accountability for your marketing plan with other groups, both inside and outside of marketing, that can help you succeed, such as Sales, Finance, IT, and more. Don’t just ask for their help — make them partners with a shared sense of responsibility.

Marketing Planning at GE Digital today

Reflecting on how far she has come with her Strategy and Operations team, Neenu painted a picture of how marketing planning looks today at GE Digital. 

  • There is a significant increase in accountability. The cross-functional nature of marketing planning calls for collaboration but that should never come at the expense of accountability. When Neenu and her team hold a meeting, nobody walks away without ownership of one of the metrics or objectives.
  • Going hand-in-hand with accountability is representation. Neenu ensures that all the stakeholders of her cohesive marketing plan are represented in all key meetings where decisions are made. In an organization the size of GE Digital, this could include reps from various functional areas, geographic regions and other sub-groups within marketing. In Neenu’s words, there has to be “a face to every one of the pieces”. 
  • A spirit of innovation and fresh thinking is a key driver: Neenu reiterates the importance of overcoming what is often a natural tendency of large organizations: doing things the same way as they’ve been done in the past. Neenu cautions against marketing teams becoming too insular or inward looking. Instead, teams need to “bring outside thinking in” — this is something Neenu has carefully fostered through her leadership.  

Thanks to Neenu’s leadership, GE Digital’s marketing efforts are now much more cohesive. The improvements she’s made in how the company runs marketing will help others do marketing more effectively. This startup-within-an-enterprise is well-positioned to hit their ambitious growth targets for 2020.

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