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Jeff Immelt, Not so General Electric

Jeff Immelt, Former General Electric Chairman and CEO provided an assortment of lessons, perspectives, and inside views for the innovators of the world. His view wasn’t from a disruptive start-up that stole a trainload of market share from legacy organizations. On the contrary, his perspective from atop a large legacy organization was actually highly valuable for those of us who live and interact with these large legacy organizations on a day-to-day basis.

Here are some of the lessons that my two rather large ears picked up.

Have a point of view.

In order to have a reason for being, you need to have place where you stand. It doesn’t mean you’re not flexible and able to see other points of the world. As we sit in basketball championship season, consider your point of view as the foot you keep planted, which also allows you to pivot. If you don’t plant yourself, it’s hard to view you as a person and leader. If you’re unable to pivot, then you’ll likely face the slow decline of many aged legacy organizations. Jeff brought his point of view to everything he did, including a view on digital, China, and teams.

See the system.

The complexity of an organization, marketplace, or micro-economy requires an ability to see the system. His immediate connection in this area was business model innovation vs other types of innovation. Jeff likened the ability to bring about business model innovation inside a large business model to trying to fight your way out of a whale’s belly. First you have to recognize you’re inside a whale and you have to get out it without killing the whale. Being able to step back and see the system of which you are operating in, is an essential trait to success in the world of innovation.

Face failure.

Failure is the only certainty. You can count on failure, it will happen to everyone at some point. Being able to face it, learn and come back from it is where the great leaders chip their way out of the egg of their own heads. Jeff spoke to Quirky, a GE Investment he made. I know this venture as we did a research project for them on the Quirky GE window air conditioner. We saw the challenges of selling a “Quirky” air conditioner against a “FrigidAire” during the coolest summer in decades. If you have trouble facing failure, it should be noted, if Jeff does it, anyone can face their failures.

Growth takes courage.

Jeff started by comparing times when he led restructuring (ie: cost cutting) and has certainly led innovation focused on growth. “Leading growth is harder, far harder to do” — Jeff. So, when we see large legacy organizations like InBev, Kraft, and a variety of others acquiring and taking a cost-cutting approach to making a “lean” organization — we all know. It isn’t going to be those organizations taking on the challenging work of innovation. We also are aware that those organizations don’t contain much courage to face a future dramatically different from their own.

Start a company.

As a part of the discussion after, Jeff was asked to advise his 20 yr old self coming out of Dartmouth graduate school and heading into an industry. To give some perspective on his timeline he stated that 18 of his graduating class went to work for Atari (if you’re unaware, look it up on wiki and enjoy). Then, his advice was this to his young self, start a company. It is easier than ever today and your risk profile is ideally matched at a young age to start something. We agree, starting something is a great way to face your own truth and take on one of the largest career challenges in life. Why not do it in your twenties?

Finally, a thank you.

Jeff, we would like to thank you for giving us a perspective inside General Electric as one of the few surviving Fortune 50 companies from the last 20 years of change. It was a great balance of pragmatism and hard lessons.

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