Immelt Speaks at West Point: Future Leadership Path (GE)

General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) has a unique speech with what will seem like some very new direction occurring today.  Chairman & CEO Jeff Immelt has prepared a speech for delivery to the United States Military Academy at West Point for its Distinguished Leader Series, the Black and Gold Forum.  Immelt discussed “the reset button” and a continued belief that the future will be better than the past.  On top of leadership initiatives, Immelt is effectively outlining a five point plan that includes listening more, turning leaders into thinkers comfortable with ambiguity, leadership building competency and with speed, leadership motivating with vision but winning through execution, creating leadership that likes and respects people.

This is a very different movement here, or at least this speech is.  Many issues goy us here, and Immelt is going far beyond touting Ecomagination and Healthymagination today.  One note he gave was that a Gallup poll gave 77% approval of our military personnel, but gave a 20% approval rating to big business and Congress.  Immelt is discussing a change in how America competes in the future.

On R&D, Immelt noted, “While some of America’s competitors were throttling up on manufacturing and R&D, we de-emphasized technology. Our economy tilted instead toward the quicker profits of financial services.” He stresses a new strategy for this economy and a move away from the status quo.  Clean energy is a push, manufacturing in America, government working WITH business, and an increase in R&D are all included.

Technology is a key focus today.  Immelt was quoted, “Technology is what makes people and countries feel wealthy. Technology is also the source of competitive advantage. An American renewal will be built on technology.”  This also applies to a clean AND secure energy future that has a rebuilt nuclear energy infrastructure and taking a leadership position in natural gas.  Clean coal, cost efficient renewables, hybrid technology and more are all noted.  This was not a US figure, but Immelt noted some 10 million jobs which will be created in clean energy in the next five years.

As far as exporting to growth regions of China, India, Brazil, and Africa, Immelt noted, “The U.S. ranks last among major manufacturers in export intensity.”  Exporting at the world average would eliminate the trade deficit AND create new jobs.  In this manner, Immelt discusses welcoming the government as a catalyst for leadership and change.  This notion here seems as though a policy of a token of cooperation never hurts, although Immelt did not say that.  But Immelt did note the strong public-private partnership here.  Immelt is, of course, part of President Obama’s economic recovery advisory board.

by Jon C. Ogg

You can read the full prepared remarks on his vision of that five point plan outlined in listening more, turning leaders into thinkers comfortable with ambiguity, leadership building competency and with speed, leadership motivating with vision but winning through execution, creating leadership that likes and respects people.  This is prepared below (reformatted for grouping):

First, we have to be better listeners. This sounds simple…but are we really listening? Do we really engage with people who have different opinions; are we ready and willing to accept critical inputs?  I recently read a book on D-Day, by Anthony Beevor. I have read extensively about WW II.  Eisenhower was a fascinating leader because he was a great listener. He didn’t shut any voice out, but was still able to make the tough decisions.  I decided that I needed to be a better listener coming out of the crisis. I felt like I should have done more to anticipate the radical changes that occurred. To that end, about twice each month, I invite one of our Top 25 leaders to a Saturday session where we talk about the company, the future and each other. At that session, we are “two friends talking.” I encourage an open critique of each other. Listening in this way has built trust and commitment. My top leaders want to be in a company where their voice is heard.  21st Century leaders listen. They use external inputs as a catalyst. They put their ego in check.  They ask more questions than they answer. They welcome dissent and debate, and are constantly seeking more intelligence. As leaders, a big part of your job will be telling people what to do. But remember that real intelligence comes more from the ask then the tell.

Second, leaders must become systems thinkers who are comfortable with ambiguity. I am an applied math major and an MBA. In school, I loved science. My career has grown in a linear fashion. There wasn’t much ambiguity in my education. I grew up in a simpler world, both economically and geopolitically. The future world is more complex, for both you and me. Success requires problem solving, and connecting the dots. This requires intellectual breadth and tactical depth. We must understand technology, globalization, politics, economics, human resources. We must understand how government, community, the environment, business, academics all connect.  And we must apply this to solving problems.  Let me share a story about systems thinking.  And it is one you can relate to. GE is helping to rebuild the electricity grid in Iraq. This is important for the peace process and it is also an opportunity to create jobs in the United States.  We need to be successful at this. To be successful we must: have high tech products that can handle the heavy fuel found in the country; work with local contractors to get processes on line; train a new GE team and keep them safe in Iraq; coordinate with the military and state departments; and figure out how to get paid by the Iraqi Government! It certainly isn’t boring!  Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft is my friend. I have been amazed at the impact Bill is having by applying systems thinking to philanthropy. Big problems can get solved – problems like reducing malaria in Africa or improving public schools in the United States – by apply systems thinking.  I didn’t learn any of this stuff in school. I have learned it through experience and getting comfortable with ambiguity. I don’t know all the answers, I often don’t know how things are going to turn out. What I do know is that 21st century leaders must be systems thinkers; they must be good at solving problems.

Third, leaders must build competency and move with speed. GE is a big organization, like the Army. The problem with size is that it can be too slow.  At GE, we must push decision-making down in the organization and we must delegate more.  But delegation, in a risky world, is tough. It isn’t natural to give authority away, but that is what a 21st century leader needs to do. They have to empower others, and they have to develop the kind of followers who will make a call when it is the right thing to do.  At the top of a big organization, speed requires trust. GE is a believer in rules; but in point of fact, we work on trust.  Think about General Petraeus and the surge in Iraq. He is a great leader – and he moved with speed and certainty because he had the trust of the nation. His actions forever changed the shape of that conflict.  In the fall of 2008, in the peak of the financial crisis, it seemed like the world was going to end every weekend. I had weekly board calls, making frequent decisions, and doing things I never thought I would have to do. I am sure that my board and investors frequently wondered what in the heck I was doing. I had to act without perfect knowledge; I had to act faster than my ability to communicate or explain my actions. I could do this because we had built trust. And we kept GE safe because we moved fast.  Similarly, I have learned that speed is important as we globalize. I have been frustrated by our growth in India. We have missed opportunities because of our bureaucracy. So I moved one of our most talented leaders to create a “mini-GE” in India. I am giving him complete delegation of authority to pick up the pace.  But trust can only be built on competency. We are trying to build competency in to our junior leaders even more quickly, so they will be prepared for the complex situations and decisions that lie ahead.  To that end, we are launching a new Corporate Leadership Staff. These will be the best and brightest of our 22-30 year olds. We will give them accelerated experiences and training. The goal is to have them ready to run a big business by age 30.  We know this works. We have taken some of our best talent and given them intense and accelerated experience. It is the way you train in the military, and we know that intensive training and complex real experiences are the best tools for creating future leaders. Speed means delegation; delegation requires competence. To develop both, we are focused on the “leadership bookends.” People at the beginning of their careers; and the top leaders in the company. If our “bookends” are better and stronger, then everything in between will improve.

Fourth, leaders must motivate with vision, but win through execution. This is something we have learned from you at West Point. We know that you build “leaders of character” and we
know that you have to execute in extreme situations.  We respect and admire your understanding of leadership – so much so that we have asked Colonel Tom Kolditz and Colonel Pat Sweeney,
instructors here at West Point, to teach at our leadership institution, Crotonville. We have learned a ton from you and we are excited by what the West Point leadership perspective provides to our business managers. The truth is, people want an emotional connection that inspires action and commitment.  They need charismatic vision. I want GE people to believe that they can change the world. But this requires words and action. Our slogan is “Imagination at Work.” The work part is quite important.  There is no “one style of leadership” that you should emulate. But great leaders always match vision with execution. And leadership in general must welcome both purpose and power. Let me give you studies in contrast. One of my heroes was President Reagan. President Reagan was very charismatic. He could give speeches all day long and you would never be bored. At the same time, he was responsible for an aggressive reform agenda that forever changed our country.  On the other side is the Chinese government.  They are executing their eleventh “five year plan.” They do exactly what they say they will do.  They will likely be the biggest economy in the world someday. Man, these guys are good!  GE has a vision to transform healthcare, called “Healthymagination.” We want to reduce cost, improve quality and increase access. It is a great vision. But we are also spending $6 billion to launch 100 new products; conducting healthcare delivery experiments around the world; moving ideas from the United States to China and back again; dedicating our best human talent; and I am spending about 15 percent of my time on the initiative. In the end, actions speak loudest.  I believe in mission-based leadership. This requires clarity of communication, transparency of purpose and unity of team. Change requires incredible determination. You will always be criticized when you challenge the status quo. So we want true believers. GE is not the right company for everybody. We want people who see a purpose bigger than themselves.  21st century leaders will have the vision …and they will connect with people in a way that enables people to follow. When the vision connects with actions … when the head connects with the heart … drastic changes take place.

LAST, leaders must like and respect people. I think we are at the end of a difficult generation of business leadership, and maybe leadership in general. Tough-mindedness, a good trait – was replaced by meanness and greed – both terrible traits. Rewards became perverted. The richest people made the most mistakes with the least accountability. In too many situations, leaders divided us instead of bringing us together.  As a result, the bottom 25% of the American population is poorer than they were 25 years ago. That is just wrong.  I was recently at an event with some unemployed steel workers. Their stories are truly sad. They just want to work. They want to be led. What is my responsibility? What will your responsibility be someday? Technically, nothing. Financially, nothing. We do not have to care. But we should.  It begins by people telling the truth. We do have to compete to be great; we must improve training and education; we cannot protect everyone in a global economy. In my career, I have had to deliver difficult news that I believed was in the best interest of the enterprise. At the same time, ethically, leaders do share a common responsibility to narrow the gap between the weak and the strong. I have taken on the challenge to increase manufacturing jobs in the United States. These are the jobs that have created the Midwestern middle class for generations. Manufacturing jobs paid for college educations, including mine. They have been cut in half over the past two decades. Many say this is a fool’s mission. I don’t have all the answers. What I can bring … what GE can bring … are investments, training and operating approaches to help everyone win. The residue of the past was a more individualistic “win-lose” game. The 21st century is about building bigger and diverse teams; teams that accomplish tough missions with a culture of respect.

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