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Jeff Immelt: Relentless Visionary

In every generation, there are people who have the ability to see ahead, to imagine what’s next. There is a small group of people who choose to act on that knowledge, and who can inspire others to come along with them. Jeff Immelt is in that second group. His visionary leadership has transformed individual lives and careers, including my own. It has also transformed GE and the world.

Take GE’s 2005 launch of Ecomagination. At the time, there was a lot of resistance to the thought that a large company (with a complicated track record in this space) could use its global reach to scale up green technologies. Where other leaders might have given in to the pressure not to get too far ahead of their customers and the business world, Jeff was steadfast. He knew Ecomagination was the right thing to do, and he knew we had to try it. That’s how we ended up proving, long before major retailers or consumer companies, that green tech could lead to green profits. Thanks to Ecomagination, we’ve reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 42% since 2004 and our freshwater use by 53% since 2006. And since 2005, GE has invested $20B in Ecomagination solutions that have returned $270B in revenues.

Ecomagination’s launch was also a turning point for me professionally. It was a project my team and I were passionate about and GE had never tried anything like it. But because Jeff made it possible for us to take a risk, we were able to create something that mattered to the world.

Right after the 2008 financial crisis, many companies slashed their R&D budgets in favor of short-term savings. But not GE. Jeff saw farther than everybody else, even in that moment of crisis. Over his tenure as CEO, he tripled R&D from $2.2B to the $5.5B, in 2016. The payoff has been huge. In that time, GE has created the world’s most efficient gas turbine, the first hand held ultrasound, the world’s first operating platform for the Industrial Internet, the most advanced CT and most efficient locomotive. Perhaps the most recent example of Jeff investing in the future, was seen just last week at the Paris Airshow. GE Aviation booked more than $31B in orders and commitments at the show. Half of those orders and commitments were for the LEAP aircraft engine. The LEAP engine brings double-digit improvements in fuel efficiency, emissions and noise. It has become a platform for advancing manufacturing with breakthrough capabilities like 3D printing of metals. The LEAP’s successful development is the direct result of Jeff doubling our investment in commercial engine technology between 2009 and 2012—right after the financial crisis—when our competitors did not.

When Jeff became CEO in 2001, GE was a conglomerate of disparate companies. But Jeff saw clearly that the future belonged to companies who could operate as an integrated global network with a singular focus. So he transformed the company moving it from only 41% of GE’s sales coming from outside the U.S. in 2001 to 60% today. And from only 37% of our earnings coming from our industrial businesses in 2001 to a whopping 90% today. While he transformed the company, he also unified it with a clear focus.

Jeff is good at seeing big, sweeping change ahead. But he also knows that change is a grind that you work at every day. There is no such thing as an overnight sensation in the industrial world. For Jeff, laying the groundwork for innovation has meant a steadfast, relentless dedication to sweating it out, no matter what. Time and again, I’ve seen him forging ahead long after anyone else would’ve folded, given up, and gone home. And in the many times when being so dedicated meant taking heat from others or being ahead of the market, I’ve never seen Jeff flinch. Ever.

In this and so much else, he has not only been a model of how to drive change, but also a champion for individual changemakers. He understands that new ideas, and the people who have them, need protected spaces in which to grow. As someone who has launched a few new things in my career, Jeff has often uttered two of the most meaningful words I know: just try. When I’ve presented him with what seemed like a crazy idea (I had some weird ideas for drones when they were new, connected home health before it was possible), whenever I’ve mis-stepped, and whenever things didn’t turn out as spectacularly as our brilliant business plans said they would, Jeff didn’t waste time asking “What went wrong?” But asked instead, “What did you learn?” And no matter what happened, he always added: “You know what? We have to try things.”

A company, like GE, doesn’t live to be 125 years old without some kind of cultural memory that helps it heed the call to change. And its leader doesn’t stay in the CEO spot for 16 years without vision. Jeff has a way of framing tough issues within the arc of a grand strategy, and of understanding what needs to get done today to move toward tomorrow and beyond.  As a student of change, I’ve come to believe that you can best evaluate the impact of visionaries on an organization with the benefit of time and reflection. I do know that today, thanks to Jeff, GE is more global and that innovating for the future is now just how we operate.

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