Leadership Lessons from the CEO of General Electric

Just-retired CEO Jeffrey Immelt says of his 16 years at the helm of General Electric, “my story is one of progress versus perfection.” Here are his big take-aways, some or all of which might apply to K-12 education:

  • Be disciplined. This includes “nesting initiatives within one another – showing how each one fits with the rest – and staying away from new ideas that don’t fit,” says Immelt. His calendar reflected a focus on five big transformations in the company, and he spent the bulk of his time on areas that needed the most change: “I had to provide ballast against stagnation.”
  • Soak. Good leaders are curious, says Immelt. “They are absorbing information about potentially important trends and developments all the time, but they don’t instantly react to them. They contemplate them. They read about them. They listen to internal and external experts with a variety of perspectives. They engage in what I call a ‘soak period’ before they reach a conclusion about what the input means…”
  • Swing for the fences. “Every time we drove a big change,” he says, “I treated it as if it were life or death.” But Immelt knew that one speech wouldn’t be enough and reached out broadly in the organization, including spending one weekend a month with a key GE officer, first over dinner at his home with their spouses, then the next morning probing the person for ideas.
  • Be all in. “Half measures are death…,” says Immelt, “because people can smell lack of commitment. When you undertake a transformation, you should be prepared to go all the way to the end… You’ve got to be willing to plop down money and people. You won’t get there if you’re a wuss.” All points of view should be heard and adjustments might have to be made, but at a certain point, everyone has to get on board.
  • Be resilient. “I hate to say it, but transformation takes time,” says Immelt. “If change is easy, it is not sustainable. You need a thick skin to see it through.” There will be setbacks and failures, and you have to learn from them and keep going.
  • Be willing to pivot. Immelt says he and his wife enjoy The Bridge, a Scandinavian murder mystery on Netflix that has ten episodes a season. Watching the second episode of one season, his wife said, “Who did it? Who do you think did it?” He replied, “Honey, just let it come to you.” His belief: “We need people who are willing to stick around to the eighth or ninth episode and just let more of it come their way… Nothing we’ve done has ever turned out exactly as it began.”
  • Embrace new kinds of talent. Immelt prides himself on hiring good people from outside GE and transforming the performance evaluation process from intense end-of-the-year rating meetings to a continuous performance development process. The focus is “on giving people the feedback they want and need to produce better outcomes for customers.”

“How I Remade GE and What I Learned Along the Way” by Jeffrey Immelt in Harvard Business Review, September-October 2017 (Vol. 95, #5, p. 42-51), no e-link available

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