Nancy Abbott

A GE executive shares her story about changing fields, charting her own path and being persistent.

From the Fall 2014 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Have you ever wanted to ask someone questions about their career path? How I Did It asks those questions for you. Nancy Abbott, EMBA’91, GE Capital Real Estate’s global human resources leader, shares her story about changing fields, charting her own path and being persistent.

Nancy AbbottQ. What do you do?

I solve business problems and help GE reach its goals and succeed in the marketplace by having the best team on the field. What it takes to do that covers a lot of territory. I, along with very talented teams, have led major company restructurings, divestitures and acquisitions. I’ve owned development initiatives that spanned the entire GE Company. Right now, I’m the Global Human Resources leader for GE Capital Real Estate. My team and I drive organizational change to mirror the changing strategy of our business. Business decisions always have people implications, and as we change our product mix, we need to help employees either learn skills that meet the new demands of the business or find roles that leverage existing skill sets. In my previous role, I was the organization and talent development leader for all of GE Capital, the strategy side of HR. Having that role during periods of rapid growth, followed by the financial crisis and the recession, and then the recovery drew on all my skills and taught me a lot. In every situation, I’ve had the chance to coach leaders and teams to succeed. I love solving problems and like to “get stuff done.”

Q. How long have you been at GE? Why did you join the company?

Unlike most people, I’ve been at GE for my entire career, more than three decades. I grew up in a town near a major GE location. It was the natural place to go for a summer job. I really didn’t appreciate at the time the amount of opportunity, learning and challenge that would come my way when I joined GE full time. I’ve stayed with GE for so long because of the tremendous variety, the commitment to growing me as a professional and as a leader and because of the constant challenge. Whenever I’ve started wondering what new challenge was around the corner for me, another great role came up. I had the chance to chart my own path and do things that I love.

Q. What has been your career path there?

I started out in information technology roles, not what you’d expect given my current job. After a number of moves and great roles, I was approached about a promotion to a chief information officer role for a GE business. I knew that wasn’t for me—much to everyone’s surprise. I liked solving problems through people and developing people, and I wanted to completely change directions. I spent a lot of time talking to anyone in GE who could help me reach my goal and provide advice and mentorship. The move to human resources was completely right for me. But I had to rebuild my skills and gain credibility in a totally new area.

Q. What would you say was your big break or opportunity that put you on this path?

My big break was the chance to work at GE Company headquarters leading the IT Development Programs for our Leadership Development Center. It was the perfect bridge between my technical background and a future in human resources. I learned about hiring the right people, performance management and leadership development. I got to work with professors from top universities to develop curriculum and work with our IT program members, who constantly challenged the status quo … and me.

Q. What was—or has been—your biggest challenge?
Making a career switch is challenging, even within the same company. It meant a move for me away from my husband to work in another location. The dual career balance was challenging for a while, but we made it work. Since we both work for GE, we’re constantly fighting the urge to talk about work all the time.

Q. What was—or has been—your greatest thrill or accomplishment?

Seeing people who I have hired, coached or promoted growing into huge new roles. And instilling a sense of confidence into someone on my team or people that I coach. After a particularly tough and long acquisition project, someone on my team told me, “If I can do this, I can do anything.”

I’ve loved seeing Vanderbilt people that I recruited to GE grow by leaps and bounds. I get to reconnect with them at recruiting events and the Human Capital Case Competition.

Q. What’s your educational background?

I was a behavioral science major at the State University of New York. I spent a year of that time at the University of Copenhagen. Going to school in Europe was an educational experience on many levels. I came away from that time with a broader worldview, a better appreciation for different cultures and approaches, and learned there are many ways to solve a problem. I also came away with a lifelong interest in travel and a confidence that I could take on new challenges and thrive.

“Business decisions always have people implications.”

Q. What drew you to Owen?

I was drawn to the intimate scale of Owen … I wouldn’t get lost in the crowd. And I liked the team approach. My time at Vanderbilt continues to stand out as a professional highlight. I’ve made lifelong relationships with the school, with professors and with my study group members.

I’m also the lead GE recruiter at the Owen School for GE’s HR Leadership Program, and I sponsor the Human Capital Case Competition. I’m thrilled to stay connected with Owen students on a regular basis—they’re inspiring and fun.

In addition, I served on the alumni board for almost 10 years and was the president of the board for my final two years—an experience I highly recommend to any alum. I felt plugged into developments and changes at the school and expanded my network of Owen friends.

Q. If you could give other alumni and current students one piece of advice, what would it be?

There’s so much out there on career advice, but I think one overlooked trait is persistence. In life, at work—whether you’re in a startup or a huge company, faced with problems large or small—if you lose confidence in yourself or your plan, if you don’t tough out the naysayers, if you don’t keep chipping away at obstacles, you have no chance of achieving your vision. There are many different ways to be persistent that can fit any personality style, so whether you’re a raging type A or have a more consensus-building style, find a way to keep pushing your agenda.