Some leaders obsess over daily sales. Some track monthly milestones. Some focus on quarterly profits. General Electric’s (GE) Jeff Immelt thinks in terms of decades.Today marks Immelt’s 10th anniversary as CEO of GE. For most CEOs, surviving a decade in the job is a pipe dream. (Recall, 40 percent of new leaders fail in 18 months). For Immelt, 10 years is probably the halfway point.
Much has been written about what he and GE have done well and less well over that decade (see articles in Reuters, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal). And Immelt will forever be compared to his predecessor, Jack Welch. But Immelt is clear that he wants to be judged not on what he accomplished in his first decade in the job, not on what he accomplishes in two decades in the job, but on his lasting contributions to GE over time – over a long time.
Three Priorities: Strategy, Culture, People
Earlier this year, Immelt told blogger Neville Medhora that he sees his main job as CEO to “Pick initiatives and businesses to get involved in, shape the company culture, pick great people.”
Interestingly, Welch told Warren Bennis something similar in 1999 about his job as CEO: “Selecting the right people, allocating capital resources, and spreading ideas quickly.”
Strategy is about the creation and allocation of the right resources, to the right place, in the right way over time. Whether you call it “allocating capital resources” or picking the “initiatives and businesses to get involved in,” the heart of strategy is choices around where you want to play and how you want to win over whatever timeframe is important to you.
In his last earnings call, Immelt gave us a little insight into his timeframe when he talked about Aviation and how he’s looking “at the position GE has, not just for a year or two, but for a decade.” (1)
This is not a throwaway line. The strategic choices a leader makes with a one- or two-year horizon are different than the choices a leader makes who’s looking out a decade into the future.
There’s a subtle difference in the way Immelt is steering GE’s culture from the way Welch did. While they are both passionate about “spreading ideas quickly,” Immelt is pushing decisions down and out.
He has to. When he took over, two thirds of GE’s revenue was in the U.S. Now, the majority of it is outside the U.S. He’s moving his senior leaders out into the field, like Vice Chairman John Rice in Hong Kong. Immelt wants a culture of local decision making fueled by senior leaders in place locally with the knowledge and skills to make the right decisions.
GE has long been a source of strong general managers. That’s still important. Now Immelt is putting a premium on deep functional and business knowledge as well.
Do you remember the old description of the difference between a generalist and a specialist? A generalist is someone who knows less and less about more and more until eventually he or she knows nothing about everything. On the other hand, a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until eventually he or she knows everything about nothing. Obviously, both are useless.
The right answer lies somewhere in between: general managers with deep functional and business knowledge.
This is a good example of step 10 of The New Leader’s Playbook: Evolve People, Plans, and Practices to Capitalize on Changing Circumstances
By the end of your first 100 days, you should have made significant steps toward aligning your people, plans, and practices around a shared purpose. Remember, this is not a one-time event but, instead, something that will require constant, ongoing management and Darwinian improvement.
Immelt is a model for long-term, ongoing management and Darwinian improvement. Just as he is viewing the first 100 days of his 11th year in the job as the first 100 days of the rest of his career, so should all of us. Like Immelt, we’re all new leaders all the time.
The New Leader’s Playbook includes the 10 steps that executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis uses to help new leaders and their teams get done in 100-days what would normally take six to twelve months. George Bradt is PrimeGenesis’ managing director, and co-author of The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan (Wiley, third edition to be released fall 2011). Follow him at @georgebradt or on YouTube.
(1) Thank you Seeking Alpha for GE’s Q2 2011 Quarterly Results Transcript