Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman and CEO of General Electric Company, visited University of Virginia a couple of days ago to set the foundations of a partnership between his company and the University, specifically with Darden, and the schools of medicine, engineering, and commerce. GE appears on so many “best of…” lists that the company merits attention by anyone. And its successful rate of organic growth, well in advance of the growth of the U.S. economy lands it in several halls of fame. What can we tell of the style and direction of this person? I had a few long conversations with him from which I drew some impressions:

  • Immelt is tall, articulate, kinetic, shakes hands with a bone-crunching grip, and laughs heartily. His shaggy mane of gray hair contrasts with the conservative coiffure of many big-company CEOs. He is an outstanding on-stage speaker who can establish warm rapport with large and small audiences. His enthusiasm is infectious: he says he has the best job in the world.
  • He said that the job of the MBA is simply “to figure out what is next.” In other words, it is not sufficient to do today’s work competently—one needs to look around corners to see the challenges and opportunities that are coming.
  • In Immelt’s view “the era of the professional manager is over. Growth leadership is taking its place.” To be a growth leader is to stimulate organic growth of a firm through close acquaintance with the needs of the customer. Thus, “domain knowledge” is important—the knowledge that can help you decide what to sell, to whom, and where to make it. Jack Welch believed in the theory of the “best available athlete,” the generalist who could be transferred successfully from turbines, to medical devices, and to TV production. Immelt believes that higher competition requires a closer knowledge of the customer than the best athlete model allows. The original field research on organic growth at the Batten Institute can illuminate the drivers of success in this area.
  • Immelt sees GE’s size as an advantage to be leveraged. His job, is to find ways to use size effectively, for instance, through purchasing power, transfer of skills and resources, and market power. And he believes he must continue to command higher performance: “there’s a danger that when you’re on top that you stop developing a feel for what’s next.”

    The challenge of running one of the world’s largest companies is to sustain a track record of growth uninterrupted by business cycles, technological glitches, and upstart competitors. His emphasis on domain knowledge is an important hint at where corporate recruiting will turn in the coming years.

    Posted by Robert Bruner at 11/02/2006 10:10:56 PM