Leadership is tough. Some things work out, and some don’t. Other things end up epic failures. But no company gets anywhere without trying.
In the fullness of time, when the company does well, as suggested by its stock price, such leadership attributes as optimism and foresight are heralded as brilliant. But when things go wrong, these very attributes are the first to get the blame.
“More complete telling of the truth”
Hot Seat: What I Learned Leading a Great American Company (2021) is former General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt’s response to the allegations that his ineffectiveness led to the collapse of the once-mighty company. It’s an engaging book that must be studied after Wall Street Journal reporters Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann’s worthwhile postmortem, Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electric (2020; my summary.)
My legacy was, at best, controversial. GE won in the marketplace but not in the stock market. I made thousands of decisions impacting millions of people, often in the midst of blinding uncertainty and second-guessed by countless critics. I was proud of my team and what we’d accomplished, but as CEO, I’d been about as brilliant as I was lucky, by which I mean: too often I was neither.
Confluence of bad luck, bad timing, leadership mistakes
I’ve previously written a dissertation on what happened at General Electric (GE.) Immelt had a tough act to follow. Under the previous CEO, the exceptional Jack Welch, GE got spoiled by greed and got away with a lack of transparency.
Over the years Jack Welch had collected a group of idol worshippers and sycophants around and outside the company who fostered an unrealistic view of GE and of Jack himself.
Immelt was saddled with Welch’s doomed legacy, but Immelt failed to right-track it in his 16 years at the helm.
Early in his tenure as CEO, Immelt realized the scope of a potential disaster in GE Capital but couldn’t break its bad habits swiftly. In fact, Immelt went about pivoting the company around slow-growth industrial products. Still, as he did so, his strategy entailed relying on GE Capital to deliver easy profits. It was a hard addiction to break, and Immelt couldn’t discard GE Capital easily.
In the short term, GE Capital was our strategy. We had no other engines of growth. We had to keep our heads down and weather the scrutiny. … We would let the rest of GE Capital grow so that we could keep earnings on a steady path, while the industrial businesses could catch up.
On top, Immelt overpaid for acquisitions, most prominently for the French power generating equipment company Alstom. At the same time, his bet on fossil-fuel-based power equipment was spectacularly mistimed because market conditions deteriorated quickly.
In the final years, Immelt’s misfortunes, even in such previously thriving businesses as healthcare and transportation, piled on. When Immelt called Jack Welch after stepping down, Welch told him supportively, “We both know you never caught a break.”
Jeff Immelt Admits He Let Everybody Down.
Immelt’s Hot Seat is a fascinating account of what it takes to lead a significant global business in times of rapid change.
Immelt owns up his many mistakes with a certain self-awareness. He rebukes a few people while acknowledging he should have been more accountable for everything that happened under his watch. But Hot Seat is primarily a then-in-time rationale of his significant decisions.
Interestingly enough, Immelt doesn’t offer insightful misgivings for the lack of transparency in GE’s financial statements, his outsized compensation, and the mischaracterization of insurance charges and pension liabilities.
Be advised, though, there’re so many details in Hot Seat that are unknowable without a first-rate knowledge of GE’s people and business model, starting with the Welch era.
“Every job looks easy (until you’re the one doing it)”
Read Hot Seat: What I Learned Leading a Great American Company (2021.) General Electric’s fall is a complicated story. It deserves to be heard from insiders such as Immelt as it does from journalists and stockholders.
Hot Seat should leave you with a fair-minded assessment of General Electric, Jack Welch, Jeff Immelt, financial engineering, the conglomerate business model, and Wall Street-oriented capitalism itself. These, sadly, many people don’t understand or know completely.