Listen on Apple | Spotify | Soundcloud
In today’s episode, I sit down with world-renowned former GE CEO Jeff Immelt.
Fresh off the release of his book, “Hot Seat: What I Learned Leading a Great American Company,” Jeff came on to discuss his career and legacy, as well as numerous topics ranging from China/US Relations to crisis leadership and new fintech trends.
Jeff joined GE after graduating from Harvard Business School and worked there for the next 35 (with 16 as CEO). Following the iconic tenure of Jack Welch, Jeff had a rocky road as CEO, losing billions in market cap and weathering numerous crises. Jeff’s tenure has been a topic of relentless debate and criticism from academics, execs, pundits, and more over the last decade, as GE’s market cap suffered and GE itself went through serious transformation.
Jeff has decided to share the inside story — the intense negotiations, late nights, world-changing decisions, and global crises— in his book, with a focus on leading through crisis. As he says,
“It’s a complicated story, and I didn’t want to seem defensive. I wanted to let the reader be the judge…I thought it was important for people to see the totality.”
We discuss his tenure in today’s episode, but I highly recommend you pick up Hot Seat as your summer read. Any business-minded person will enjoy his stories about putting together deals in days, navigating 9/11, negotiating with Obama and Putin, and more. Jeff is raw, candid, and vulnerable throughout, detailing the emotional roller coaster of 16 years as a CEO.
In today’s episode, we cover:
His journey to the top of GE
“I went back to HBS…I worked that summer at BCG and had a great experience in consulting. But I found myself identifying more with the client than with my peers and decided to go seek a path in general management. I went to work for GE, and I thought I’d stay maybe five years. But it ended up being 35! I did the classic, multiple businesses, multiple functions, multiple regions, and, you open your eyes one day, 20 years later, and you’re being considered for CEO!”
When he first realized he had the potential to become an exec
“When I was 32 years old…I worked on the biggest product recall in the history of GE. We had 3.3 million compressors that needed to be replaced in refrigerators. And I was in charge of the appliance service business! It landed me in the GE board room once a month for 18 months, where I had to deal not just with Jack Welch, my very famous predecessor, but with all of his staff. What I learned about myself at that moment in time, which is a really important thing for people like you, is that I could take a punch. That I could hold my own with maybe the toughest boss in the world. That gives you a sense of confidence, not that you can go on and be a CEO, but that you can go on and do bigger and better things. And I think that’s, that’s really important early in your career.”
Jeff dives into this saga in his book, detailing the national recall and how he even rolled up his sleeves himself and helped fix refrigerators in people’s homes!
The one thing Jack Welch did better than anyone
“I’ve never seen anybody before or after who could scale better than Jack. And I’ve met presidents, I’ve met generals, I’ve met all kinds of people. He could create an aura about himself. He knew how to hold people accountable. He could communicate to one person and to 300,000 people at the same time…He knew how to create internal teams that weren’t obvious to other people. And when I work with founders today, a lot of his principles work on 100 person companies trying to be 1,000 person companies, and they also work for somebody running a 100,000 person company that wants it to be more nimble.”
Why now was the right time to publish “Hot Seat” and what he learned
“I felt like the context around the company had gone missing in the way it had been covered over the last three or four years. It’s not so much about me or protecting any of my feelings or things like that. But that context also impacted 1,000’s of people who did great work, many of whom were far superior to their competitors, and served their customers. And so I felt like their story had to be told…
I felt like the middle of COVID wouldn’t be a bad time to release the book, because it doesn’t matter where you are in business, you’re going through a lousy time right now. I thought it might be helpful to read about somebody else’s lousy times and how they dealt with it.”
His thoughts on his legacy
“Man, it’s a great question. I’m not sure I can really answer that question yet. You know, it’s going to be complicated no matter what. I have great relationships with the people I worked with. I love the company. And I really worked my ass off every day to help the company do better. But all that being said, I know there are people that hold me responsible, and I wear that to the day I die. It’s an extremely complicated thing that I don’t think is done yet…I think about it every day.”
His second day of work…September 11, 2001
“We were in the aviation industry, the media business, the insurance business, and more! So we were going through what employees were affected, and how many people died. Were our employees even safe? What would happen to our aviation business?
And, you know, what it did for me was, it made me have to make decisions on the very first day about things I didn’t know really about. We had to loan billions of dollars to airlines around the world, and they were financial instruments I didn’t really even understand. There were meetings at 10pm and we would have to make decisions by 6am, the next morning, and I would look to my vice chairman and say, okay, explain to me what this is, and why would this airline go bankrupt? And how much money would keep them afloat? And then the answer had to be yes or no!”
Jeff has amazing passages in his book on the weeks after 9/11, including GE’s decisions to save certain airlines at the expense of their own success.
China / US Relations and his advice for President Biden
“Ryan, one of my biggest fears today is that people like you would be afraid to do business in China. And that you feel like you can live your business career with no interface with China. That’s just dead wrong!”
“The issue politically is that we don’t have relationships with leaders around the world. We don’t really have any contextual relationship in China, or even in the Middle East…So my advice to President Biden is he should meet be meeting personally, with President Xi four times a year. There’s no relationship that shapes humankind more than the relationship between China and the US. He shouldn’t delegate that to anybody. He should be personally engaged. In the middle of the Cold War, President Reagan met with his counterparts in Russia two or three times a year, and we were at war!
“China’s not going to go away. They’re a big force. We don’t understand them. We have no relationships with them. And that’s something that has to be fixed.”
Fintech trends he’s following & advice for bank CEOs
“If I put on the hat of my friend, James Gorman or Jamie Dimon or David Solomon, you need to be investing in as many of those platforms as you can. You need to be transitioning your own consumers and your own commercial customers into digital technologies that lower costs before you get them stolen.
You have incredible incumbency, staying power, and brand. But your old business model ain’t lasting two minutes long, right? So you’ve got to learn which margins to give up on first, and you’ve got to be recruiting like mad in the digital space. I wish I had partnered a digital startup company with GE Digital because we didn’t have currency. It was hard to build the culture. I thought Visa trying to acquire Plaid was the attempt by the company to get some DNA inside that they could use to really grow and leverage and be able to pivot.”
We also cover his new role as a Venture Partner at NEA, a great rapid-fire round covering his exec dream team, his thoughts on 30 Rock, best business books, why he has a tattoo of the GE logo, and more!
Listen on Apple | Spotify | Soundcloud
Jeff Immelt is a Venture Partner at New Enterprise Associates (NEA), a global venture capital and private equity firm. He is the author of HOT SEAT, a memoir of leadership in times of crisis.
Prior to joining NEA in 2018, Jeff was the 9th Chairman of GE and served as CEO for 16 years. He has been named one of the “World’s Best CEOs” three times by Barron’s. During his tenure as CEO, GE was named “America’s Most Admired Company” by Fortune magazine and one of “The World’s Most Respected Companies” in polls by Barron’s and the Financial Times. He has received fifteen honorary degrees and numerous awards for business leadership and chaired the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness under the Obama administration.
Jeff has a B.A. degree in applied mathematics from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Harvard University. He is a member of The American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
*Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity or conciseness.
Previous Episodes You May Enjoy:
Former Vanguard CEO & Chairman Bill McNabb: The Future of Finance, Leading in Crisis, & ESG
Harry Hurst, Co-Founder & CEO of Pipe: Building the NASDAQ for Revenue & Achieving the American Dream!
Y Combinator’s Michael Seibel & Dalton Caldwell — Lessons from 5000 Entrepreneurs
Sallie Krawcheck, Co-founder/CEO of Ellevest — Wall Street Stories, Building Resilience, & Overcoming Bias
Anthony Scaramucci, Founder of SkyBridge — Entrepreneurship, Bitcoin Investing, & Public Service
Mayor Francis Suarez — Bringing Silicon Valley to Miami!
S&P Global CEO, Doug Peterson — The Future of Finance, Power of Data, and Global Business Trends
Upstart CEO Dave Girouard — Revolutionizing Lending & Taking a Fintech Public!
Bessemer Venture Partners’ Charles Birnbaum — Fintech Infrastructure, Wealth Management, & Thesis Investing
SoftBank COO Marcelo Claure — Investing, Dreaming Big, and the Golden Era of Entrepreneurship!
Robinhood’s COO, Gretchen Howard — Democratizing Finance, Navigating a Crisis, & Embracing Change
Public Co-CEO Leif Abraham on FinTech Marketing, Using Values to Scale Decision Making, and Changing the Culture of The Stock Market
Anna Irrera, Reuters Fintech Chief Correspondent — At The Intersection of Wall St & Silicon Valley
Republic Founder Kendrick Nguyen: Empowering 1 Million People with Private Investing!
For more Fintech insights, follow us below:
Twitter | Medium | LinkedIn | Facebook | Instagram
Twitter | LinkedIn
Ryan Zauk is an MBA Candidate at The Wharton School, where he runs the Wharton FinTech Podcast. He currently works with the US International Development Finance Corp looking at technology impact investments in developing markets. He has a passion for music, media, and all things FinTech.
You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.