Jeff Immelt has seen it all.
As the former Chairman and CEO of General Electric (GE), Jeff took over the helm from the legendary Jack Welch just days before 9/11. He led GE through the financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession and all the challenges that presented. After 16 years leading one of the most iconic companies in the world, Jeff reconnected with his entrepreneurial roots and took on a role as a Venture Partner with New Enterprise Associates, which allows him to share his expertise with a new generation of entrepreneurs.
Through it all, Jeff has learned countless leadership lessons. He shared those lessons during a webinar hosted by Cresset for other CEO Founders.
See below as Jeff delves into his evolution as a leader and what he views as the essential qualities of leaders today and in the future.
You’ve been a leader for many years. How does successful leadership look different today than in decades past?
I grew up in a generation that viewed leaders as general managers. Essentially, leaders were measured by their effectiveness in managing day-to-day operations. That has changed enormously over time. Today, leadership is much more about seeing what’s coming next, anticipating that, and adapting and thriving through volatility. Leadership today is less about management, and more about identifying the next trend. It’s about being a visionary and capitalizing on what’s to come.
What qualities do you look for in aspiring leaders? What is non-negotiable if you want to lead others going forward?
Good leaders can answer these three questions: How fast can you learn? How much are you willing to give to others? How much can you take? If you can answer those questions well, and act on them every day, that’s what it takes to be a leader today.
I believe it’s much harder to be a leader today. Twenty years ago, investors weren’t so aggressive. Journalists weren’t as pushy. C-suite jobs have never been harder than they are right now. The other side is you have the chance to do some amazing things with some amazing people when you are leading organizations into the future. The reward is greater than ever before when you keep focused on what’s to come.
What leadership lessons have you learned the hard way? What would you have done differently if you had to do it over again?
Every leader should take the time to look at themselves and their businesses very fundamentally. That can be hard to do when you are leading hundreds or thousands of employees and there never seems to be time to slow down, step back and take that 30,000-foot view. Leaders must be diligent about making the space to do that. It’s hard to step back and be dispassionate and take a systemic look at things, but it’s incredibly important. That’s something I wish I had done more of.
You famously took over the helm at GE from Jack Welch … and just four days before 9/11. What did you take away from that experience on how to lead an organization through times of tumult and change?
In a crisis, leaders have to absorb fear. You have to show people the way forward. You can’t be so brutally honest that you terrify your people; you have to be steady and reassuring. In a crisis you have countless decisions you need to make, continuously. People want to hear your voice, and you need to do so with both honesty and a feeling of hope. Times of crisis are also an opportunity to keep your eyes open and watch the people around you — they will show their true character during those times. You will see who can cut it and who can’t.
Talk about your transition from GE to your current role as a venture partner at New Enterprise Associates. What was your process, both emotionally and intellectually, to move on from GE and take on a new challenge?
Intellectually, I had spent 35 years in a big company. I knew I wanted to think small again. By that I mean I wanted to surround myself with entrepreneurs and focus on more specific problems and opportunities. Venture capital seemed like the way to do that, and I was right. It’s nice to tackle problems you can get your arms around.
Emotionally, I needed space and time to decompress and make this major shift in my life. That was no small thing. You can’t deny it. You can’t rush it. No one can. It’s really important to give yourself that time and space. No leader should shortchange that need or think it doesn’t apply to his or her situation.
How do you balance it all? Work, family, self? What safeguards have you used over the years to ensure no part of your life is neglected?
You need to have personal “shock absorbers.” For me, that is my family. You have to take care of yourself physically, too, of course. Exercise. Get enough sleep. Most importantly, you have to keep your confidence level up. I can’t tell you how many times I went to bed thinking I was a failure, but by the next day I was telling myself I could tackle the challenges in front of me again. It’s about harnessing your reserves of resiliency. I used to call myself a tough-minded optimist. It’s not that I was blowing smoke or being pollyannish. Rather, I was determined to focus on solutions, to leave every meeting as a problem solver and to show the path forward.
What do you see as the primary challenges that will face CEO founders in the years to come? What are the issues / dynamics on the horizon that leaders should prepare themselves for today?
First, the government is going to continue to be more present in every business and every industry, regardless of whether we have a Republican or Democratic administration. Business leaders need to recognize that. China is also a very real factor that we need to continue to consider, because their influence is not going to go away. Finally, many investors want a very singular focus on the core competencies of a business. That’s short sighted. The best companies I know are always searching out and nurturing the “and” – to expand on what they offer and how they offer it. That requires the ability to focus on more than one thing at a time. It requires dedicated time and resources to search out and explore what’s to come. Leaders of today and tomorrow need to be the “disruptors” they are often so fearful of.