Former General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt reflects on his two decades with the company and the strategies he used to lead during three separate crises. In this episode Immelt discusses what happened during those events and why, what it was like to replace icon Jack Welch, getting the information you need to make decisions, activist investors, fighting complexity, the mismatched timelines between CEOs and shareholders, unions, and so much more.
Immelt served as the Chairman and CEO of GE from 2001-17, and is the author of the 2021 memoir Hot Seat: What I Learned Leading a Great American Company.
Here are a few highlights from the conversation:
Knowing what to do isn’t that hard, knowing how to do it isn’t that hard. Knowing when to do it is really hard.
I’ve always been comfortable being myself. I never wanted to be him. And in some ways, I never felt burdened by all that he stood for and all that he did. Earlier, probably in the mid-’90s, I almost got fired and what that teaches you is you really don’t need that person. When you go through a process of almost getting fired, you kind of say to yourself, “Okay, he’s great. I admire him, but I can live without him because he can live without me.” And so that was a good thing to go through.
Good leaders absorb fear in a crisis, so they absorb all the things that are going on. But they don’t point fingers and they don’t point blame. They just soak it all in. They’re able to keep a flexible point of view and what I call two truths, which is that great things can happen, terrible things can happen, and you need to kind of keep your mind open to both those things at the same time.
I find in a room there are four types of people. One is people that always are on point and always make good points and are always self-aware. The second is people that just talk too much and are always blathering and don’t make a lot of sense, and it’s tough to filter through. The third is people that know the right answer, but don’t speak. And then you have the people that know that they’re right, they know you’re smarter than you, and they just silently sit there and smolder. The fourth kind is the ones that always say, “I told you so,” after the fact, and the other three, just learn to live with it.
You start having good pattern recognition around which voices break out, which ones you trust. There’s nothing that makes a team crazier than repetitive analysis with no action. I’d say, particularly today in times of crisis: people, if you’re waiting for the perfect moment, it’s not going to come. We’re not asking people to solve every problem simultaneously, but let’s solve the most important one with a real priority.
And so much more. It’s time to listen and learn.