Practicing More Than Jack Preached

John A. Byrne, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, recalls his first meetings with GE CEO Jeff Immelt -- and considers the leadership style, skills, and strategy of Jack Welch's successor.

One of the unexpected highlights of working with GE chief Jack Welch on his best-selling biography often occurred in the early to late evenings. Jack and I would be holed up in the conference room of his office at GE's Fairfield, Connecticut, headquarters, weary from 10-12 hours of grueling work on a manuscript. Suddenly, Jeff Immelt would wander in, sit down, and plop his feet up on the table.

Jeff had been publicly named as Jack's successor but was still months away from assuming the job. He spent every day back then -- in the winter and spring of 2001 -- familiarizing himself with GE's vast operations and its people. At day's end, Jeff often checked in with Jack for an informal chat on what he had discovered.

Before Jeff was picked as the person to fill those very large shoes worn by the boss, I hadn't met him. Jack protected each of the three finalists for his job, trying to minimize the pressure on each candidate and the inevitable competition among them.

So my earliest impressions of Jeff were formed during these impromptu meetings between the current and the future leaders of one of the world's most powerful corporations. What most impressed me during these late visits was the ease and informality that Jeff brought into the room. Jeff was, to use a phrase by Jack, completely "comfortable in his own skin." He showed remarkable self-confidence and poise, not arrogance or cockiness.

These two very different men -- nearly 20 years apart by age -- could have been a pair of teammates on the bench, exchanging opinions of the pitcher out on the mound. The conversation was that easy and that honest. And Jeff never hesitated to disagree with the boss on any number of issues, even firmly.

Sometimes, Jack would joke that he had a "confession" to make to Jeff. Jack then would tell Jeff how he had taken one of his "deep dives" during the day, involving himself directly in something many layers down in the trenches where most CEOs would simply be accused of micro-managing.

The two would chuckle and move on from there. The trust, respect, and admiration they shared with each other were obvious. As the casual listener in the room, the proverbial fly on the wall, I came away profoundly impressed by Jeff's intelligence, his ability to quickly size up a situation or a person, and his skill clearly articulating the options on every new challenge he had discovered only hours earlier. Just as impressive, however, was his leadership style. Open, direct, and informal, he brought a calm and reasoned voice to whatever problem the two discussed.

I was reminded of these attributes when I recently interviewed Jeff for Fast Company on the 10 traits he considers essential to any leader. There's much insight and wisdom in this simple list, which Jeff now teaches to all of GE's up-and-coming leaders at the company's management development center every month.

Yet as I questioned Jeff on his top 10 list, I couldn't help but notice how some were informed by the man who picked him for this job. Like a son shaped by a loving father, Jeff learned from one of the most effective leaders business has ever known. So it should come as no surprise that Jeff practices -- with his own very different style -- some of the things Jack often preached.

Jack often described GE as a grocery store, a metaphor that seemed odd for a company as large and as amorphous as GE, but it helped him to minimize the inherent disadvantages of size. At a recent conference for entrepreneurs at Dartmouth College, Jeff said he tries to foster the sense among GE's employees that, whether you are Katie Couric or an assembly-line employee, he might materialize at any moment to talk to you about your job.

"News, knowledge, and information has to move through the system with great rapidity," he said, "and there are severe consequences when that doesn't happen." He displayed Welch-like toughness in his comment, "If I ask a question and someone says, 'Why did you ask that question?' they get fired."

Like Jack, Jeff is a naturally curious leader, a voracious reader of newspapers and magazines. He reads several dozen journals a week, from Modern Railroads to Chemical Week to Entertainment Weekly. I take special pride in knowing that he is a reader of Fast Company and has been for many years. As Jeff said, "Good leaders are very curious, and they spend a lot of time trying to learn things." Jeff said he tries to set aside 20% of his time for thinking and reconceptualizing, trying to grapple with future opportunities, rather than day-to-day business.

And like Jack, whose deep dives involved him in every detail of issues many layers below, Jeff said that he personally is involved with 40 projects inside GE that represent what he called "imagination breakthroughs," working with the teams and overseeing their budgets.

Like Jack, too, he has developed his own guidelines to evaluate new business opportunities and acquisitions. They make for a smart and sensible checklist on their own. Jeff said he likes businesses that:

  • Are technically based, because these can guarantee healthy profit margins
  • Have multiple revenue streams, from product sales and service to financing
  • Allow GE to own the customer interface

He cited GE's jet engine business as an example of this, in which the company sells directly to airlines. Lightbulbs, on the other hand, tend to get sold through intermediaries. "You want a business that's tough?" Jeff asked the audience at Dartmouth. "Try selling light bulbs to Wal-Mart."

Since taking over GE just days before Sept. 11, 2001, it's been a tough haul. Jeff has been confronted with terrorism, war, recession, and an economy in a long malaise. But I'm betting on this remarkable leader, not merely because of how well he's performed against these major challenges. But because of the confidence, the intelligence, and the open leadership style that I saw close up in the conference room that once belonged to Jack.

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