Keep your company safe but keep building the future. GE CEO Jeff Immelt imparted that advice to his top 175 managers at a recent gathering. I couldn't agree more. With financial markets in turmoil and the economy slumping, the natural tendency is to retreat into the bunker, but that's the antithesis of leadership.
Immelt told me about his speech to his top managers during an interview for an upcoming Harvard Business Review article about how GE teaches its management teams to lead change (look for it in the January issue). Organic growth is the particular change that Immelt has been pushing for five or six years. I was wondering how the current troubles would affect his agenda.
Immelt acknowledged there had to be an adjustment, but that didn't mean putting growth on the back burner. So while cost-cutting would be the priority for financial services, GE planned to, in Immelt's words, "pour it on" in areas such as renewable energy, clean water technologies, and fuel-efficient jet engines and locomotives.
In the interview and in a roundtable discussion this month at Harvard Business School, Immelt noted that after 9/11, when commercial aviation was a disaster, GE plowed ahead. Already a force in jet engines and aircraft leasing, GE continued to invest in new products and customer relationships. The result: Its market share grew, which "is going to help us wherever this downturn goes," Immelt said.
Another crucial reason to keep investing in the future, according to Immelt, is to keep employees motivated. At a time when it's easy to feel hopeless, working on such projects gives people a sense that they can help secure a solid, brighter future for their companies and themselves. Indeed, now more than ever, companies need their employees' hard work and ideas. Look at what happened in the Great Depression!
Amid cries that government intervention in banking is socialism, it was refreshing to hear Immelt, a self-described lifelong Republican, ridicule that simplistic view. (See my blog on the topic.) At Harvard, he said: "This notion that the free market solves everything has never been true. ... The government always has been a catalyst for change...and can be a positive catalyst for change."
Immelt had some final advice for leaders, which struck me as especially valuable in tough times:
Be decisive: Make decisions, including some occasions when you don't have perfect information.
Be accountable: Stand by your decisions, admit when you've made a mistake, and make sure you and your team are accountable.
Be transparent: Don't just tell the truth, share the intent behind your decisions.
Be a unifier: Make people feel like they're part of something that will last.
Be willing to change yourself: Embrace personal growth.
Leadership, Immelt said, is "an intense journey into yourself. It's about how much you want to learn. It's about how much you want to give. It's about personal change and just being ready to renew yourself every day." Amen!
6 months ago