Positioning Your Organization for the Future

Today I am continuing with my impressions of presentations from the 2014 Global Leadership Summit (GLS), which I attended last week.

Jeffrey Immelt is Chairman of the Board and CEO of US powerhouse General Electric (GE). You could say he joined the family business when he was young and has never left – his father also worked for GE. Jeffrey Immelt started at the bottom and has worked his way to the top of the multi-billion dollar organization with 300,000 employees. His plan, he said, was to work for GE for 5-10 years, learn to be a manager and then see where his career would take him. His GLS presentation was “Positioning Your Organization for the Future” – which, when you think of it, is something only a leader can do. A good leader needs lots of input, but someone has to make the ultimate decisions, and in major organizations that is what the leader is for. As Immelt told us, sometimes the leader can’t delegate. The deal is so important you have to be hands-on. I suspect a good leader is one who can recognize those situations.

Immelt obviously believes leadership is important: under his direction GE invests a billion dollars annually in leadership development for its employees. That’s a pretty impressive figure, but I am sure it more than pays for itself, not only from employees working better but also feeling better about themselves and their employer.

One piece of advice I have given to young people I know (whether they want my advice or not) is to find a job that they enjoy, that is fun and do that, rather than doing what is expected of them. I have known too many people with high-paying jobs who were miserable because they didn’t like what they did to earn a living. It can be challenging to find such a job, but they are out there. Immelt I think would agree with that sentiment: he says he wants people to come to work because they love what they do.

General Electric is more than 125 years old and has grown from humble beginnings to be one of the biggest corporations in the world. The bigger you get, the more intricate the organization. Immelt realizes this, commenting that you can’t run a big company without rules, but saying he also wants employees who will question authority and drive change (I assume that is within proper boundaries, as opposed to questioning authority just to be difficult). “We don’t expect people to have perfect careers. We expect people to learn from their mistakes and get better.”

One of the things that stood out most to me as he made his presentation is that “we can guarantee the process, but not the outcome.” So much of what happens in an organization is outside the power of the leader to determine. There are always external factors over which a leader has no control. What is important is how you handle those factors when they appear. The man whose company made coal oil lamps may have been a great leader, but when the electric light bulb came along, the same light bulb that Thomas Edison used to launch General Electric, good leadership was could not halt the progress of such technical innovation. The market for coal oil lamps was going to become almost non-existent as the world electrified.

Maybe that’s when good leadership became most important. Maybe that leader eased his company out of coal oil lamp production into something new and viable, rather than see his company die and his workers lose their jobs. True leaders are always looking ahead.

There were several more sessions from the 2014 GLS that I would like to comment on, but for the next few days I will be giving my perspective on a musical milestone. We’ll get back to leadership later in the month.

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