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This Leader Says Having Courage Is the Secret to Career Success—Here's Why

Lester Childs, a senior engineering manager at GE. | Courtesy of GE
Lester Childs, a senior engineering manager at GE. | Courtesy of GE

Lester Childs first discovered he had a knack for engineering back in high school, when he participated in a summer technical enrichment program (STEP) for a few summers.

“This exposure started my curiosity and interest in the field of engineering,” he says. “We explored multiple science-based careers by performing experiments and participating in field assignments with professionals in each of the areas.”

This teenage experience stuck with Childs, eventually leading him to study engineering at Clemson University. “Toward the end of college, I found my calling in controls engineering, which combines aspects of electrical, mechanical, and systems engineering,” Childs says.

Today, Childs is a senior engineering manager at GE, where he’s spent the last 25-plus years of his career.

Here, he shares his journey at GE, why he doesn’t micromanage his team, and what GE is doing to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

What led to your job at GE, and how did you know it would be a good fit?

I was working as a graduate co-op for a controls systems integration company when they made me an offer to become full-time. Two months later, GE purchased the company and my career started here. The opportunities for growth in controls engineering made it a good place to continue my career.

You’ve worked at GE for over 25 years and held multiple roles within the company. What has your trajectory been like?

Wow, how can you sum 25 years of your work life in a couple of sentences? I started with control system design and integration roles before moving to field engineering and commissioning. By my mid-career years, I had the opportunity to lead large and complex controls projects. At that point, I had a decision to make: become a people leader or continue the technical route. I decided to go all in on the technical side. As I progressed into more senior levels, I took on more technical roles and ownership as a principal engineer, then continued as a consulting engineer. My curiosity and desire for new and different challenges led me to shift toward being a people leader and eventually to my current role as a senior engineering manager.

How have mentorship or internal coaching programs helped you succeed and develop your career?

I’ve had the most success seeking mentorship from the experts in my field when neither party initially realizes it’s a mentor-mentee relationship. I also believe that career coaching can be a valuable tool as well. I have had the opportunity to engage with coaching through some of the learning programs offered by GE, and I have enjoyed being able to work through what trajectory I want for my career and what steps I need to take to get there.

What are you responsible for as a senior engineering manager? What is the most fulfilling part of your job?

As the senior engineering manager and value stream leader for plant controls, I am responsible for the steam turbine controls, the heat recovery steam generator, the balance of plant, and the modeling and simulation for the controls organization in the pursuit of allowing our customers to operate the best power plants in the world. And by “I,” I really mean my team, because they are the experts that make it happen. One of the most fulfilling parts of my job is seeing our customers succeed at their mission and knowing that my team is a key part of that success. Another fulfilling aspect is helping my team succeed and achieve their individual goals.

How would you describe your leadership style? How do you inspire and support those on your team?

I start with the premise that I have the very best team and I make sure I give them the room and opportunities to grow, learn, make mistakes, and help each other. My leadership style is inclusive; I respect all ideas and opinions to arrive at the best conclusion or strategy. As I reflect on my early career years, I did not like being micromanaged, which I believe is the biggest deterrent to creative thinking and problem solving. As such, I am very conscious and purposeful in making sure that I steer away from those practices. We can learn from both good and bad experiences to shape how we lead.

As far as inspiration and support, it’s tied to creating an environment where people are comfortable imagining and implementing solutions, inventions, and innovations. I try to have the team create a shared vision of what they want to accomplish in the next five years. It may change and morph as the individuals grow and experience new things, but they will still have a collective goal to achieve.

Tell us about the African American/Affinity Forum (AAF), and the role it plays within GE’s efforts to foster a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

GE has a diversity, equity, and inclusion office to be the voice and driver of the effort, and employee resource groups (ERGs) are a main component. These groups allow employees to engage in a community of individuals with similar interests and backgrounds or those with a desire to ally themselves with the community.

The AAF has a deep-rooted history and culture within GE as the company’s oldest ERG. Since 1991, it has played a significant role in influencing GE’s diversity strategy, growing leaders, and driving investment opportunities globally.

Born out of activism, the AAF was founded on the principle of community, attracting, promoting, and developing diverse talent in America and across GE’s global operations. As we evolve from awareness and allyship to advocacy we remain committed to driving transformative growth.

For me, the AAF started out as a community of people to support and engage our local community through service. It has become a family of role models, mentors, coaches, and sponsors as my career has progressed with opportunities for me to grow and learn new leadership styles and capabilities. It has also afforded me the opportunity to mentor and learn from others outside my direct area of expertise. The AAF also has become a forum where we can discuss the tough issues and injustices we face, and coping mechanisms to deal with them by sharing where to get support, whether that be inside or outside the workplace.

What impact does having a strong culture of DEI bring to the company? How do you critically think about GE as it continues on this path?

Beyond the social impact, diversity, equity, and inclusion are important for a company because a diversity of backgrounds and experiences brings a wide range of ideas and creativity to solutions. The questions I often ask and consciously work towards are: Does a company’s culture and policies unlock that potential? Are their policies equitable to all populations? Is their culture inclusive and respectful? Are ideas and differences respected, encouraged, and valued from all team members? These are some of the hard questions that we ask as we continue to build a more inclusive culture in GE.

What does it take to succeed as an engineer at GE? What advice do you have for anyone looking to pursue this career path?

Beyond the technical skills you’ll learn in school, you’ll need the courage to take on the hard, complex tasks or projects, the courage to fail, and the courage to succeed beyond what’s easy for you. Courage to seek help, adapt, and be your authentic self are also key. Finally, you need the courage to find mentors, coaches, and sponsors. I use the word courage because all of these things can have a level of fear and anxiety associated with them, and it takes courage to do them anyway.

How do you like to spend your time outside of work? What activities help you recharge?

I like to spend time with my family and friends. I especially like traveling, experiencing new things and exploring new places. I have a wife and three children, two of whom are adults now so that makes it harder to coordinate schedules. It’s all about perspective and what’s important to you and for me, it’s family. Earlier in my career, I would say my time spent outside of working was working. I was forced into an epiphany when my children hid my laptop before we left on vacation so I couldn’t work. I never found out where they hid it but the reminder was received.