Jeffrey Immelt, CEO, General Electric Co.
Speech at Dartmouth College | April 24, 2004
"Everyone in the world will meet with me — at least once. A great part of this job is that I get to go places to pick up that next best idea."
Gosh! Jeff Immelt runs the most valuable company on earth. But at Dartmouth (his alma mater), in an unscripted talk and in a Q&A with B-school students, Immelt exuded bubbly wonderment: Gee, I'm running a company with 300,000 employees, and my simple little job is just to keep it growing!
Of course, in close to three years at the helm of GE, Immelt has learned that his job is anything but simple. GE and other companies, he admitted, face a period of slow growth and intense price competition. "This will be a very discerning, very differentiated era," with clear winners and losers, he said.
So while Immelt enthused infectiously on the future, he also offered a grounded playbook for leadership in the tough present. Like his predecessor, Jack Welch, Immelt is a voracious reader. "Good leaders," he said, "are very curious, and they spend a lot of time trying to learn things." Immelt tries to set aside 20% of his time for thinking and reconceptualizing.
And like Welch, known for deep dives into operating details, Immelt said he is involved with 40 projects at GE that represent "imagination breakthroughs." He has developed his own guidelines to judge new opportunities, favoring those that are technically based, have multiple revenue streams, and allow GE to own the customer interface. "You want a business that's tough?" he asked. "Try selling lightbulbs to Wal-Mart."
Maybe it was the absence of TV cameras, but Immelt came across as surprisingly laid-back and candid. He didn't have his captain-of-industry costume on, and he wasn't more-powerful-than-thou. He seemed human — and, if bubbly, still serious.
— Scott Kirsner
Jack Welch, former CEO, General Electric Co.
Speech at the World Business Forum | May 10, 2004
Gotta say, the tie was magnificent. Brilliant purple on a white shirt — breathtaking. (Kudos to Suzy!) This man, clearly, was on his game.
But, wait. Brown wing tips? Jack! This man was . . . retired.
It was Jack Welch, elder statesman, who packed 'em in at the World Business Forum 2004. (Other high-octane has-beens on the roster: Giuliani, Gerstner, and Clinton.) His face was wrinkled, his tone mellowed — so much so that, at times, it seemed hard to believe this was the guy who had, in two decades, transformed the practice of management.
Welch said not much new or provocative — but the masses were ready to believe. As he recalled lessons from his tenure, folks murmured, "That's right!" "Yes!" Could I hear an "Amen"? Welch's messy affair and divorce, the retirement-package flap — all was forgiven. This crowd wanted a true-life business hero.
Welch's appeal is obvious. He is still a guy without pretensions, still unfailingly direct. "Is offshoring a sin?" asked Fortune's Geoff Colvin, the appointed interrogator. "That's the dumbest argument ever put out," Welch snapped. Stock options for all?
"I hate it. Terrible idea."
He understands, as ever, that business is all about people. A great leader "gets under the skin of every person who works for the company." A leader obsesses about evaluating talent. When employees underperform, a leader tells them so. ("Yes!" from behind me.) And great leaders pick great successors.
This man, clearly, was comfortable with himself. Comfortable, but perhaps not satisfied. When asked about a news report that he had considered another CEO job, Welch uncharacteristically waffled. "It's sort of true, but not all true."
"Uh-huh!" Colvin replied. Uh-huh, indeed.
— Keith H. Hammonds
A version of this article appeared in the July 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.