Jeffrey Immelt on Leadership, Mistakes and Crises

Jeffrey Immelt’s first day as chief executive officer of General Electric Co. was Sept. 10, 2001. The following day, as he describes it, was a baptism by fire, as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon upended financial markets and the economy. Immelt, who led the conglomerate until 2017 and is this week’s guest on the Masters in Business podcast, said he was forced to learn how to make decisions quickly and decisively, revisit those decisions when new information surfaced and to rely on the company’s employees. 

That day in 2011 was just the first crisis Immelt experienced on the job. It was followed by the 2008-09 financial crisis, which had an enormous impact on the company’s finance unit, GE Capital. Next came the earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, as four of the 1960s-era reactors were made by GE. His leadership lessons? Absorb fear, have contingency plans, iterate variations and stay flexible in order to succeed in a crisis. Robust risk management is essential for any company to survive. He discusses these strategies in his new book “Hot Seat: What I Learned Leading a Great American Company.”

Despite having navigated multiple crises, Immelt advocates for optimism. Leaders, he said, must plan for the future, make high-risk bets and implement new initiatives to press a company’s strengths while thinking about what its clients are going to need.

A list of his favorite books are here. A transcript of our conversation is available here.

You can stream and download our full conversation, including the podcast extras on iTunesSpotifyStitcherGoogleBloomberg, and Acast. All of our earlier podcasts on your favorite pod hosts can be found here.

Be sure to check out our Masters in Business next week with Bill Gurley, the legendary venture capital investor at Benchmark Capital. His investments include GrubHub, Nextdoor.com, OpenTable, Zillow and Uber. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Santa Fe Institute, and is widely considered one of most influential dealmakers in the technology space. He was named TechCrunch’s VC of the Year in 2016.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Barry Ritholtz is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is chairman and chief investment officer of Ritholtz Wealth Management, and was previously chief market strategist at Maxim Group. He is the author of “Bailout Nation.”

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