The senior vice president and general counsel loves a challenge and spends much of his time building a team to meet the needs of the global organization and its multiple businesses. Though matters span continents, complexity is not an end goal, and Denniston’s focus is on managing between value-added, enterprising initiatives and administrative, reactionary measures. Tipping the scales toward the former starts with efficiency, and the legal department just completed a simplification overhaul to strip away redundancies and speed up operations. “We’re a big and complicated organization,” Denniston says. “When things build up in your closet, you have to clean them out.”
An 18-year veteran of the company, Denniston was recruited in 1996 as senior counsel for litigation and legal policy. By the time he stepped into the general counsel role in 2004, he was primed to lead legal from a strategic and cultural standpoint. To solve difficult problems, GE’s prescription is great leadership. With a strong partner to carry out the multifaceted approach to simplification, Denniston was able to delegate key roles in the simplification process to achieve a faster, more responsive legal and compliance function.
The initiative comprised five component goals: creating centers of excellence where appropriate, reinforcing culture with an emphasis on speed, revising processes, renewing the commercial focus on leanness, and recognizing team members for good work.
Previously, many of GE’s government affairs attorneys were embedded in the businesses. This organization created a long and sometimes repetitive reporting chain. Uniting its international and US leaders, GE was able to create a single government affairs center of excellence. The result was so successful, saving money and simplifying the chain of command, that Denniston replicated the process for GE’s legal teams working on legacy sites, litigation, and mergers and acquisitions, among others.
As a company, GE strives to respond to global demands in a timely fashion, so it follows that each department’s hand in the business must be up to speed. Redoubling its commitment to that culture required legal to have excellent lines of communication, on both ends of which listening and learning are mutual. Denniston, with the help of corporate communications, developed a plan that not only streamlines exchanges between legal and the businesses, but provides an integration mechanism for the future. Denniston himself also implemented global calls with all legal personnel for GE’s global teams to increase consistency across the function.
GE’s size doesn’t make it a unique victim of bureaucracy. The “closet” that Denniston refers to is a place any general counsel is familiar with, where good intentions get muddled by pages of protocol and policy. Two by-products of that glut at GE were the onboarding policy for new customers and the code of ethics. Denniston’s compliance officer and corporate auditors were able to reduce the onboarding policy to a short and sweet four pages, one twenty-fifth of its old form. Without incurring any significant risk, the simpler version led to a more-than-70-percent reduction in the number of approvals required for new clients. And the code of ethics was trimmed down 40 percent, to a two-page guide.
Denniston took similar action to promote lean processes on the commercial side. Just as Denniston’s department functions best with delegation, a level of regional autonomy goes a long way in making remote operations seamless. Transportation issues, for example, might have passed all the way through the Chicago office before a solution was implemented on the ground in India. Where nondisclosure agreements once cluttered the approval process, Denniston instituted one-page guides to address almost every situation.
The key to the success of legal’s simplification was its people, and Denniston made sure that was a fact valued by his entire team. The most important part of this job, he says, is hiring the best people and bringing out the best in them. GE’s associate general counsel functions as Denniston’s COO, helping him carry out initiatives like the simplification effort. Because of GE’s diversified portfolio and global reach, Denniston’s team is structured along businesses. Each business has its own executive team with a general counsel who is connected by a “dotted line” to Denniston.
The binding aspect for the simplification initiative was recognition of those employees whose work exemplified GE’s culture and legal’s goals. GE couldn’t solve the world’s toughest problems without strong leadership, and that is what Denniston has brought to legal both by his own direction and that of the talent from his department.
With the efficiencies gained by simplifying legal, Denniston hopes that GE can continue the trend of executing on a dynamic agenda each year. For his department, that means high-value contributions that showcase just what legal is capable of doing when it’s freed to partner with the business. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to build a function that facilitates a business with great ethics and great execution,” he says. “It’s about creating a better business than the one we started with, and that’s what I love about this challenge.”