Jeff Immelt: What I Learned, What I’m Learning

In an excerpt from his new book, the former CEO of GE shares hard-won wisdom about surviving defeat, coping with regret and moving forward.

In the three years since I left GE, I have chosen not to speak publicly about the company. I didn’t want to have my words sliced into sound bites. I wanted to tell the whole story or not say anything at all. And I wanted to give the current leaders of GE the time and space to get their feet underneath them without my voice adding to the cacophony.

I needed to take some time to think. I’ve gone through periods of despair, embarrassment and anger. I will always cheer for GE, even if it is different from the company I remember. But I’ve also learned I have to keep going, keep trying, keep learning. People often say to me, “You must have thick skin.” But no one’s skin is thick enough to fend off all pain. The haters hurt.

Now, as a venture partner at New Enterprise Associates, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm, I spend a lot of time with founders of new kinds of companies, as well as legacy brands that are struggling to survive. That I have seen good and bad days gives me empathy, and people seem to value that. I’ve said that military history has much to teach entrepreneurs. Well, in California, I’m viewed to some extent as a combat veteran, back from battle, beaten up but still standing. People here want to learn from my successes and my mistakes.

You should know something I didn’t in 2017: that it is possible to be happy, even when things don’t work out the way you planned. For that reason alone, you can’t give up. At GE, I learned lessons that have proved valuable to others. My mission now is to share those lessons. In doing that, I have felt satisfaction and happiness that I never would have expected when I first left GE.

Joining NEA has been a gift for me—a way to give back and to be of use. Sometimes the CEOs I advise, and on whose boards I sit, put me to work—giving pep talks before a sales kickoff, say, or closing deals or helping recruit talented executives. But a few have told me my most meaningful contribution has been empathy. Because I’ve sat in the CEO’s seat, I know that what they need from outside advisers aren’t marching orders—“Do it this way!”—but informed perspectives. And I understand how it feels to have the weight of all your employees’ futures on your shoulders. I know how lonely that can be so I make a point of being accessible and staying in touch.

Teaching, too, has given me another, valuable vantage point. At the end of each semester at Stanford, we ask our students where they hope to get jobs. I’m happy to say that these mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings are still willing to work at so-called classic companies such as GE. But they worry about how dedicated such companies are to remaining relevant. I have asked students, “Who will improve healthcare more in the future: GE or Apple?” I watch as they consider GE’s history, record, and capability. But they still say Apple. This is not merely young people defaulting to a technology leader. It is young people backing a company perceived to have the will to be great.

This is GE’s challenge today: to recapture and articulate the promise of the future. When I joined GE in 1982, probably 90 percent of college grads would have considered a career there. Now that number might be 50 percent.

There are certain business icons who have created something out of nothing. I’m thinking of geniuses such as Jeff Bezos. Other leaders benefit from good luck or good timing. If you were the CEO of a bank from 2000 to 2007, you were seen as a hero. If you got the same job between 2008 and 2015, you were seen as a villain. Same person, same job, different circumstances.

Most leaders will not be perfect or lucky as they make hard decisions without a map to guide them. But especially in crisis, if they insist on waiting until the skies clear, they will never do anything at all. Inaction is bad leadership, but it can feel safer than action because to act is to open yourself up to criticism. There was never a time in sixteen years as CEO that I was sheltered from the critics—the media, our investors, my predecessor. But I always had my team and our customers on my side.

We live in a world without enough nuance. Too often, complicated situations or people are distilled down to simplistic judgments. When Jack Welch died in March 2020 at the age of eighty-four, the business press, which had glorified him in life, was critical of him and his legacy. But if you look at the totality of his contributions to GE and the broader business world, there’s no question that Jack was a great leader. I attended his service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, where no less than Babe Ruth and Bobby Kennedy had been memorialized before him. Ken Langone, the billionaire businessman, and the journalist Mike Barnicle gave eulogies, but I stayed quiet in a pew at the back of the church. I’d known him, loved him, and argued with him for most of my life. His absence is surreal.

I know there are some within GE who believe that I failed them. In October 2019, when GE moved to freeze the pensions of twenty thousand workers in the United States, it felt like a betrayal of trust. Many lay the blame for that setback, among others, at my feet. When I announced my retirement, the stock was at $28.94; as I complete this book, it’s trading at less than $7. That makes my heart ache, and it always will. But I also know what my team accomplished, working together. We weren’t perfect—I’ve made that clear. But GE is an incredible and purposeful company.

Every spring I tell my students that in this confusing world, leaders must be able to do contrary things well—to master conflicting principles at the same time. They must make their companies be at once big and fast, global and local, digital and industrial. They must manage in a way that is both competitive and empathetic. They must think short-term and long-term. They must deal with ambiguity. In the spring of 2020, the situation we were all in—locked in our houses, uncertain about the future, staring at each other through our computer screens—brought that reality home.

In our final class, I looked into the camera and told our far-flung students that I empathized with them. “Look,” I said, “this really stinks, having to finish your business school career on Zoom. You have every right to be frustrated and anxious as you face this pandemic world. But believe it or not, you’re going to be better for the experience.”

I could see on their pixelated faces that they weren’t convinced, but I pressed on. “Your career is going to have bad days and good days, but believe it or not, you need the bad days,” I said. “They make you a better leader.”

 

“From Hot Seat: What I Learned Leading a Great American Company BY Jeff Immelt. Copyright © 2021 by Jeffrey Immelt. Reprinted by permission of Avid Reader Press, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.”

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Jeff Immelt
Jeff Immelt is the former ninth chairman of General Electric and served as CEO for sixteen years. Currently, he is a partner at NEA and the author of Hot Seat: What I Learned Leading a Great American Company. Immelt has been named one of the “World’s Best CEOs” three times by Barron’s. During his tenure as CEO, GE was named “America’s Most Admired Company” by Fortune magazine and one of “The World’s Most Respected Companies” in polls by Barron’s and the Financial Times. Immelt has received fifteen honorary degrees and numerous awards for business leadership and chaired the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness under the Obama administration. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a lecturer at Stanford University. Immelt earned a BA in applied mathematics from Dartmouth College and an MBA from Harvard University. He and his wife have one daughter.