Thursday, August 14, 2014

Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit -- Jeffrey Immelt

(Here at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit in an effort to improve my leadership as a volunteer with Operation Christmas Child.  Learn more about OCC at ) --  Jeffrey Immelt on "Positioning Your Organization for the Future"

Interviewed by Bill Hybels --

Bill:  Jeff, you've been in the middle of one of the biggest acquisitions of your career and you've been flying back and forth to France.  How/when do you empower others to make decisions.

Jeff:  That's a good question.  Teams worked on this strategically.  When's it's the most important thing the company is working on you don't delegate it.  You have the experience and you want to protect your team.  You have to be hands-on at times like that.  We worked together as a team.

Bill:  I read the speech you gave to the French Parliament.  Did you write that speech?

Jeff:  I wrote most of it.

Bill:  You should be a pastor

Jeff:  I said sink or swim, I am going to do this myself.  No job has ever been beneath me.  You've gotta be involved.

Bill:  I was told that you're the purest natural leader this person has ever seen.  When did you become aware you were a leader.

Jeff:  "Thanks Mom!"  I don't think anyone ever thinks of themself that way.  I was an athlete and learned great skills.  From the earliest age I always wanted to do my best and I always tried to demonstrate self-confidence.  My parents taught me not to be afraid.

Bill:  After studies at Dartmouth and Harvard you went to GE.  Did you have a plan when you first joined the company did you have a plan to differentiate yourself.

Jeff:  I think anyone who plans to become CEO is a little weird.  I thought I would learn to be a business person and I got lucky.  I loved the people I worked with and for me it was always about the work--never the career.  It was about creating things.  In a company like GE you can create the future.  Your peers ultimately decide how far you go.

Bill:  As your career was advancing Jack Welch assigned you a terrible job to fix a plant in Kentucky.

Jeff:  I was 32 years old and it gave me the confidence to do what I do today.  Be around a crisis early in your career to shape your leadership.  These three years from age 32-35 really shaped me.  I made everyone, including me, learn how to fix a compressor.

Bill:  You eventually were chosen to be the new CEO of GE.  You may have had the shortest CEO honeymoon in corporate history.  How long were you in this position when 911 happened?

Jeff:  I started on Friday 9/07 and 911 happened the next Tuesday.  We live in a more volatile time today.  When you turn on the news today in 30 minutes you're bummed out.  We're going to live in this time for a while.  People are not going to be given the luxury to go backwards.  I think the best leaders go forward--keep the company safe but go forward.  I've never seen a time when the value of leadership is more important.

Bill:  I read about places where leadership is taught.  GE has a facility for a leadership development university--probably the most famous I've heard of.  Why is that so important to GE?  Why do you put so much time into that?

Jeff:  I lead a big company and you need to have things that drive the oneness of the company so we invest about a billion dollars a year in leadership development.  The campus has been around for 50 years.  Certain values of leadership don't change but you also have to constantly be tuning up your leadership.  We expect our leaders to go to train and teach.  I teach twice a month.  It takes away all the layers as I get realtime feedback.   It's a strategic imperative for the company but also drives the culture of oneness of the company.

Bill:  How do you feel when you invest in an employee and then they resign?

Jeff:  To me it's deeply personal.  We train people because we want them to be self-confident.  I don't want people to work at GE out of fear--let's come to work because I love what I do.  It's my job to make sure they are enjoying what they do.

Bill:  Jack Welch said when someone left the company he wanted to stay in touch with them.

Jeff:  He did after a certain period.  I think it's good you have a change in leadership.  We're not a perfect company but GE is an institution;  it's not about an individual.  There's a camaraderie that exists because of that.

Bill:  When you see _______ quality -- what makes you want to promote them? And what turns you off?

Jeff:  The difference is the willingness to stand apart and buck the system.  How'd I become CEO?  I never took "no" for an answer.   You want someone who questions authority and promotes change.  We bring the top 35 people together once a quarter and I give them a vision  "Let's do it my way".  You have to be willing to stand apart.  Excuses and lack of accountability turn me off.  We don't expect people to have perfect careers.  We expect them to learn from mistakes and get better.

Bill:  Hardest person you ever had to fire?

Jeff:  I had a person who worked for me as CEO but there was something that was missing about how he connected with the team.

Bill:  I am fascinated by this because some years back I had to make a tough leadership call.  My advisors asked if the person was meeting expectations, had high integrity, godly?  Yes to all these.  But the person is not connecting with his staff or with the team.

Jeff:  I said the same thing.  And I was right.  You're in the business of giving people confidence.  You can give negative feedback but want to do it in the tapestry of making them self confident.

Bill:  You've made a big deal for the value of diversity in GE.  How did that value develop in you and how do you foster is?

Jeff:  If you believe in talent and meritocracy you must believe in diversity.  More than half our employees live outside the US.   If people don't see diversity then it's code that you don't care about people.

Bill:  About political diversity -- When President Obama called to ask you to lead in getting more jobs in America--how did that happen?

Jeff:  I'm center right and the president wanted to form a council on job preparedness.  I grew up in Cincinnati, OH and my parents watch Fox every night.  The four of us who did this really wanted to help.  I'm proud of the work we did and I'm glad we did it.  We really wanted to make a difference.  We're a global enterprise but we're proud to be an American company.

Bill:  You talk a lot about simplification.  Can you explain that?

Jeff:  Institutions are all searching in this global world for new ways to run institutions.  Lately I wasn't sensing the joy in work.  I was spending a fair amount of time in Silicon Valley.  About 18 months ago we started on this culture of simplification based on:
--less management; smaller headquarters
--marketplace rules
--test and learn
--network and transparence
I respect everyone who wants to be a public servant but the system is antiquated.  Every good institution is trying to find a way to govern itself in a different time.

Bill:  You will need to create a succession plan.  How will yours be different from the one you were subjected to?

Jeff:  The board and I do this as a team.  I think it shouldn't be quite as public.  There are things that don't need to be in the public view that can be done more naturally.

Bill:  So your plan will be more private?  Will it be as long?

Jeff:  It will be more private (laughter)

Bill:  You refused to take a bonus your board offered you.  Did you not need the money?

Jeff:  It's all personal.  It has to be about what I think is right.  I felt this was a way to be accountable for what was happening in the economy and the company at that time.  The constituency you play to the most is not the media--it's your own team.  I said to my team, "Over time you're going to question my decisions but you're not going to question my intentions."

Bill:  I tried to dig up some dirt and the worse thing I could find is you work 80 hour weeks and you only take 12 days off a year.

Jeff:  I love work.  I have a great family.  I have one company, one wife, one daughter.  My dad worked for GE so I know the power of a GE job.  When you walk through a factory people love what they do.  The one thing we can't guarantee is outcomes but we can look everybody in the eye and say we can guarantee process.  No one will ever work harder than GE works.  Everyone from the top of the company down is going to work hard on your behalf.

Bill:  One last question--your wife is a little bit more regular in her church attendance than you are.  If you show up at a church after working an 80 hour week what would you like to experience?

Jeff:  In a big leadership job you're "on" all the time.  After a few years in leadership I started saying less because people hung on my words.  So you need time to regenerate.  Maybe a couple of hours a week is all you need so you can do it again.  The ability to sit for an hour and be at peace and listen to somebody else talk is priceless.

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