Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

As part of its case method of teaching, Harvard Business School (HBS)  strives to get global leaders to address its Advanced Management Programme (AMP) participants.  Recently, it was my pleasure as a current HBS AMP participant (AMP185) to engage the CEO and Chairman of General Electric (GE), Jeff Immelt on the topic of leadership.

In his speech, Immelt said “I have learnt that nothing is certain except for the need to have strong risk management, a lot of cash, the willingness to invest, even when the future is unclear and great people.” Immelt who began his tenure as CEO and Chairman of GE four days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks spoke of the double challenge of succeeding Jack Welch with his unmatched track record of success and of  leading GE in a changed post 9/11 world. Immelt noted that after 9/11, when commercial aviation was a disaster, GE ploughed ahead. Already a market leader in jet engines and aircraft leasing, GE continued to invest in new products and customer relationships. The result: GE’s market share grew, which “is going to help us whenever this downturn goes,” he said.

“We have the biggest backlog of new business in the company’s history. We are in industries that are growing much  faster than local economies. We have the best exposure to emerging markets of any company in the world,” Immelt told us.

Immelt spoke about an “industrial internet” where the machines it makes, such as jet engines, power plant turbines and MRIs, constantly gather data through sensors and send it along over the internet for analysis. The data might alert people to take action, like replace a part that’s close to wearing out, or tell a machine to automatically take an action, like slow down a turbine that isn’t needed. He contrasted this data analytics approach driving GE’s growth to GE’s historical  attitude of “if the product breaks, we fix it.” Immelt also spoke about “no unplanned downtime” due to GE equipment failures. He said whilst industrial internet is the big vision,  “no unplanned downtime is what counts for customers.” Immelt was quick to point out that  “we’re not there yet” on delivering zero downtime – it’s a goal for the industrial internet.

“Reducing complexity is incredibly powerful and is key to being more productive at GE”, said Immelt. But it’s hard to do.  If left to its own, any big, complicated company will get more complicated – this is exactly what has happened to GE, Immelt explained.

Immelt shared the following advice for leaders:

  • Make decisions. Immelt said he often has “to act without perfect knowledge.”
  • Be accountable
  • Pick talent carefully
  • Commit yourself to developing your people at a very rapid pace.
  • Set clear performance standards and rigorously evaluate your people.
  • Be accessible
  • Drive change
  • Don’t forget the context of your business in the world and of your leadership role.
  • Say “I don’t know” more often.
  • Have an economic view – you can’t run a business from reading what’s written in the papers.

Leadership, Immelt said, is “an intense journey into yourself. It’s 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 everyday.”