Former GE CEO Jeff Immelt talks about his controversial career

This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning and their daily routines.

Jeff Immelt admits that his 16-year career as CEO of General Electric was, at best, “controversial” after he left the famous company in 2017, drowning in debt with a crumbling stock value.

But instead of taking his more than $ 200 million in retirement pay and staying low, Immelt wrote a book. “Hot Seat: What I Learned Leading a Great American Company,” available Tuesday, details his mistakes in running GE.

“I want to be thoughtful about it,” says Immelt, who now teaches at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. “I don’t want to hide.”

In 2001, Immelt, who had previously held executive positions at GE for 19 years, was chosen to succeed Jack Welch, one of the most famous CEOs in American history. Under Welch, GE’s market value soared from $ 14 billion to more than $ 410 billion.

Immelt’s career was not so fruitful.

He took command on September 7, 2001, four days before September 11. The impact of the terrorist attacks hit several of GE’s companies, causing shares to drop 20%, Immelt writes in “Hot Seat.” Seven years later, the 2008 financial crisis hit GE’s financial services division GE Capital, which nearly collapsed.

During Immelt’s tenure, GE shares fell about 30%, wiping out more than $ 150 billion in market value, which many analysts, investors, and even fellow CEOs blame Immelt’s mistakes. The year after his departure, GE was removed from the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In December, GE agreed to pay $ 200 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission for misleading investors and failure to disclose its energy and insurance businesses from 2015 to 2017.

“I know there will be more criticism of the book as we relive it,” says Immelt. But “I really love the company. I really love the people, and I really feel like a different context needs to be painted around GE.”

Here, Immelt talks to CNBC Make It about his biggest mistakes, how he handles extreme stress, and whether money and power really make you happier.

On whether he would do it all with GE again: ‘Good morning is really good’

I think the answer is yes. Good morning is really good and the things that we had the opportunity to do and work on, like globalizing the company or launching products or developing people, are very rewarding.

And bad things really suck.

What I try to tell entrepreneurs or MBA students [who I work with] is that without a few bad days, good days are never appreciated. I have a unique perspective of appreciating good days after having been through some bad ones.

It was an honor to lead and I will always feel that way.

General Electric executives Jack Welch and Jeffrey Immelt attend a press conference in New York City. The conference is to announce that Immelt has been named president and president-elect of GE, succeeding Welch.

mark peterson | Corbis Historical | fake images

On dealing with extreme stress: ‘I would go home at 7pm and go to bed’

Go to bed at night and don’t worry about the things you can’t control. Just do your best. People have to learn to evaluate themselves for their progress, not their perfection. Perfection is impossible today.

You also have to take care of yourself. You can’t drink too much. You cannot do things that affect your judgment.

During the financial crisis, when I was not at work, I would go home and go to bed. Some nights it was 2 am and some nights it was 7 pm I would go home at 7 pm and go to bed because you never knew when you would get the next amount of sleep.

On his biggest mistakes: he should have taken a ‘more holistic look’ at the company

Very early after 9/11, I should have taken a much more long-term and holistic look at [GE], and he did it from a precautionary point of view.

The decision I made at the time was to let GE Capital continue to grow while we were fixing the industrial set of businesses. For the moment 2007 and 2008 [and the financial crisis] arrived, that didn’t look very smart. There was so much momentum surrounding GE at the time that it would have been a Herculean task.

But what I tell young leaders is to look at their company over a very long period of time. Don’t do it every day. I think the story could have been different if I had done that.

On seeking support: ‘everyone likes you when you’re on top’

My family and close friends have helped me get through the last three years and the last 20 years.

Everybody likes you when you’re upstairs, but you need some people who really like you when you’re downstairs, because almost everyone ends up there at some point.

The fact that I had close friendships and had an amazing wife and daughter, that’s what helped me get through.

On money buying happiness: I was ‘so happy’ as a GE plastics salesman

When I was a [GE] Plastics seller in 1982, I was so happy. I was happy when I was running the medical business. [GE Medical Systems from 1996 to 2000].

I believe that people must be achievement-oriented and have a vision for themselves and what they want to achieve that is meaningful to them and to others. That to me is happiness, and money comes with it.

I did not have the opportunity to spend as much time with my daughter as I would like. But what it makes up for is that he managed to do a lot of really cool things. I would be disingenuous if I didn’t say there are benefits [to money]but I always marveled at the simple things.

When I was CEO, I would go to Walmart and shop to see how our lighting products were on the shelves. I would call [former Walmart CEO] Lee Scott or [current Walmart CEO] Doug McMillian and say, ‘This is what I saw today.’ I never lost sight of the fact that this is what I like best about my job.

On reinventing himself after GE: ‘had to go heal’


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