4/1/2005 - For a person who makes a living leading one of the world's biggest companies, General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt was remarkably candid about his livelihood during his April 6 address sponsored by the Business Leadership Club at the Kellogg School.
“CEO celebrity in the 1990s got way overblown. The truth is, regular people do these jobs,” Mr. Immelt told the capacity audience of Kellogg students, faculty and staff in O.L. Coon Forum at the Donald P. Jacobs Center. “In a perfect world, I'm unnecessary.”
Of course the world is not perfect and so Mr. Immelt's job remains viable. Indeed, the particulars of his role as GE's chief executive — which he assumed Sept. 7, 2001 — were precisely what the Kellogg School students who submitted electronic questions before the event wanted to hear. The crowd's rapt attention and applause afterward suggested he did not disappoint.
Among the main discussion points were the CEO's opinions about leadership and the skills today's MBA students most need so they can assume top positions in global companies, and the strategic course he is setting at GE, where he has served in various capacities over a 22-year tenure.
For 60 minutes, Mr. Immelt delivered the answers in a relaxed, conversational tone that nevertheless suggested his passion for driving growth at his company, a task he described as “a strategic imperative” given the challenges of regulation and economic and political volatility worldwide.
Today's managers need to produce such growth, he said, and also be “totally consumed with customers and marketing” while remaining aware of global trends.
“You better get these traits and understand how to be a growth leader,” said Mr. Immelt, 49, who spent part of the evening articulating the ways how his company strives to achieve this objective in a demanding market. GE has reinvented itself as an innovation leader producing “imagination breakthroughs” across 11 businesses in a wide portfolio that includes energy and entertainment, he said.
The current economic tide is unlikely to “raise all boats,” explained Mr. Immelt, a situation that he said makes it more probable for clear “winners and losers” to emerge in the business world. GE intends to be among the winners, said its CEO, who stated the importance of his company having “an enhanced portfolio of goods and services in the pipeline,” even if doing so means assuming more risk.
“We've got to be big in China, in India,” he said, adding that he can, and must, legitimize risk-taking at his firm so that the company can continue thriving even in more austere economic times.
Risk for a company such as GE, however, must be defined relative to the 126-year-old firm's size (300,000 employees), revenues (more than $152 billion in 2004) and global scope (presence in 100 countries).
“I can give a 29-year-old manager a million-dollar business and that's zero risk. Zero,” said Mr. Immelt, explaining that this person steps into a corporate culture at GE that offers exceptionally talented teams of people and all the necessary resources to succeed.
The event took the form of a Q&A sponsored by the Kellogg Business Leadership Club, a student-run initiative whose mission is to inspire and facilitate lifelong learning about leadership. Harry Kraemer '79, Kellogg School adjunct professor and former CEO of Baxter International Inc., moderated the session.
Mr. Kraemer introduced the evening's guest, describing him as someone who embodies a leadership ideal that balances self-confidence and humility. Self-confidence means knowing you can lead a team while still cultivating the humility that you are “no better than other team members,” said Mr. Kraemer.
“Jeff Immelt doesn't forget where he comes from and he demonstrates an open interest in understanding others' perspectives,” he said.
Mr. Immelt stated that the Kellogg School is doing an excellent job preparing its students for post-graduation life. He even noted that Kellogg, because of its excellent faculty, is the only business school to persuade GE off its own company site and onto a university campus for executive education training.
Such continued education plays an important role at GE, said Mr. Immelt, who regards management science as having a “limited shelf life” of perhaps four years before requiring an injection of new insights and strategies.
“You've got to keep learning, keep changing … and reinvent yourself,” said the CEO. “And be yourself — I can't stress that enough.”
He warned students to understand that big changes were ahead for them once they graduate. The biggest change? “You're not going to be CEO anymore once you leave business school. You're going to be the perfume product manager in Dallas … and you only get out of this grunt job by crushing it and doing it extraordinarily well. It's a tough transition, but you just got to do it.”
Those who navigate these early stages well may be rewarded with more senior roles, and Mr. Immelt described this process as a rigorous one.
“Leadership is a one-act play, an intense journey into yourself,” he said. He described his own job as “being able to see around corners,” deploy new strategies, motivate people and drive change.
“That's really why CEOs exist, to set boundaries and define what comes next,” said Mr. Immelt. “I don't sit around complaining about $50-a-barrel-oil; I need to understand what that means. … I got to find a way to win.”