Interview with Jeff Immelt

The Transformation of GE

GE CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt

The interview with Jeff Immelt at GE headquarters was made for my YouTube series, IconicVoices.TV, in late 2015. I wanted to get his view on the company’s digital transformation, dealing with the new geopolitical risk, how to grow the company’s talent base through diversity, and the learning curve of a global CEO.

The following article based on the interview was published on January 19th, 2016 in the Arizona Republic.

On Sept. 7, 2001, Jeffrey R. Immelt was named chairman and CEO of General Electric, the industrial giant founded by Thomas Edison 123 years ago. In that half week, Immelt’s world cascaded from an era of “benign growth to one of unprecedented geopolitical and economic risk.”

Since then, GE has become a nimble, market facing, digital organization, a transformation that is relevant to any enterprise, small or large.

Whether you are launching a startup or running a family business you can imagine how Immelt felt his fourth day on the job when the 9/11 tragedies struck. Like most CEOs, his first thought was how employees were affected, then he worried about the country coming under attack. The very future of his company was also very much on his mind. Immelt quickly saw, as all business leaders would realize, GE needed to reshape itself for a world that posed as many new challenges as opportunities.

In making the big “pivot,” Immelt took to heart a crucial lesson he learned from his predecessor, Jack Welch, one of the most successful CEOs in business history. Immelt says Welch taught him to stay focused on “what was right for the moment not what was right 20 or 30 years ago.”

Accordingly, the company jettisoned its financial services business and an America-centric outlook. For the next few years it would undergo a total makeover in which it became an expert in technology and data, and laser focused on global business.

Inspired leadership wouldn’t be enough, however. Many companies fall into the trap of believing the right team will carry them forward, particularly in difficult times. During the financial crisis, an entire generation of experienced CEOs never saw the tumultuous changes looming ahead and helped drive the country into the Great Recession.

But Immelt recognized leadership is only part of the answer: “We used to think if you had good leaders you could be in any business. Now we believe deep domain expertise is critically important for the future. Business has no shelf life.”

That’s another way of saying markets demand constant analysis. Any CEO that assumes personal leadership alone will keep customers happy is tempting fate in a changing world.

If you’re an entrepreneur and you want to change course, most likely you are considering a shift in the product portfolio. In that case, Immelt says, there is no better teacher than Warren Buffett. What he admires most about Buffett is that he never follows a fad when buying a business. Buffett’s approach, says Immelt, is that “he always thinks strategically and focuses on certain industries.” Immelt recommends this approach to any business leader: “I stick to a very disciplined box of what makes a GE business and (only then) what makes a good investment.”

During difficult times, leaders are supposed to have all the answers, but Immelt found a dollop of humility on the part of the CEO or founder can be good for business: “I’ve done this now 14 years. It’s a hard job. You have to learn every day. What I love about our company and what I try to match myself is this sense that we’re never as good as we can be and we can keep getting better.”

Jeffrey M. Cunningham was publisher of Forbes Magazine before becoming CEO of Zip2 (Elon Musk’s first company) and a venture capital partner/advisor at CMGI, Schroder Ventures, and Highland Capital. He is now a professor at Arizona State University. @CunninghamJeff

Written by

Producer of Extraordinary Lives 2019 @TellyAwards for documentaries @ IconicVoices.tv; Author of Be Somebody @ jeffcunningham.com; ex-publisher @Forbes

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