This is how Jeffrey Immelt revolutionised the established company into a 125-year-old start-up.
“The leadership turnover that we are already seeing in the market will only accelerate,” says Barry Libert, CEO and founder at OpenMatters. “If you want to build a platform with a network that is running at exponential speeds, you need leaders that enjoy warp-speed.”
Former General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt knows all about speed of adoption and turning a classic conglomerate into a relevant, future-forward competitor in the market. Immelt led GE’s digital transformation through organic growth, scale-based innovation and dominant global distribution.
At 61, he isn’t the digital native you’d think is needed for this sort of overhaul, but he helped GE become a major force in the technologies that will drive productivity in this era: The industrial Internet and additive manufacturing (3D printing).
“Today many of these leaders are deemed too young, or too tech-focused to lead incumbent organisations, but tomorrow we will see that these are exactly the leaders we need in the digital age.” – Barry Libert, CEO and founder at OpenMatters.
These are some of the tactics Immelt implemented to successfully transition the over a century-old company into a global digital competitor:
1. Understand progress versus perfection
In the face of political and economic change, the decisions you make today will impact the transformation of the company for years to come. This is where a vital trade-off needs to be made.
“The task of the CEO has never been as difficult as it is today. In that vein, my story is one of progress versus perfection,” says Immelt. “The outcomes of my decisions will play out over decades, but we never feared taking big steps to create long-term value.”
2. Practice discipline and focus
It’s the leader’s job to connect the dots for everyone in the company, so your point of view and approach to transformation sets the precedence for everyone else in the business.
“Be disciplined about nesting initiatives within one another – showing how each one fits with the rest – and staying away from new ideas that don’t fit,” advised Immelt. “Your initiatives should be interconnected. All the major initiatives we implemented during my tenure as CEO were aimed at making GE one of the 21st century’s most valuable technology-driven industrial companies.”
Focus on balanced growth and generating greater productivity within the business and for your customers.
3. Listen and act simultaneously
“During the transformation you have to listen and act at the same time,” advises Immelt. “This enables the constant flow of new thoughts and opens your business up to the reality that you will have to pivot.”
Learning something new is always a challenge for a company with deeply-entrenched legacy systems, and an even deeper embedded way of thinking. When it comes to learning something new, you need to still have the courage to push people forward.
If you’re not listening, you’re not learning, and if you don’t act upon what you’re absorbing, you’re not doing your transformation efforts any justice.
4. Be in it to win it
As the head of your business, your brain is the first that needs to undergo its own transformation before you can really implement any viable and sustainable changes.
“You have to be all in,” says Immelt. “You must make a bold, sustained commitment to the transformation. You have to go through a period of rewiring your brain and get yourself to the point of profoundly believing that the world is changing.”
Once you realise that the survival of your company depends on either anticipating the change or being at the forefront of those reacting to it, you’ll better engage your resources towards the change.
5. Be resilient
“I subscribe to the words of the great philosopher Mike Tyson, who said, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’” says Immelt.
“Because it’s so difficult to predict events. It is difficult to sustain transformation, but it’s the only way to create a better future.”
The bonus point when it comes to successfully digitally transforming your company, is to sustain it during tough times.
“Every time we drove a big change, I treated it as if it were life or death. If you can instil that psychology in your management group, you can get transformation.” – Former General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt.