Jeff Immelt spent 16 years as the CEO of General Electric, and he reflected on his tenure a couple weeks after stepping down with a recent retrospective in the Harvard Business Review.
“Every time we drove a big change, I treated it as if it were life or death,” he wrote. “If you can instill that psychology in your management group, you can get transformation.”
By the time he stepped down as CEO in August 2017, Immelt may not have delivered in terms of GE’s stock performance, but he had breathed new life into the company and tripled earnings by aggressively pushing it into developing cutting edge industrial technologies.
He explained that “forging personal relationships” was key to his mission of transforming GE. He developed a ritual:
On a monthly basis, Immelt invited a GE executive and his or her spouse to his Connecticut mansion (and later, his Boston home) to have dinner with him and his wife. He’d get to know them on a personal level, and then would follow up with a four-hour-long phone call the next morning to talk business.
“I’d say, ‘Tell me what’s important in your business. What do you think we should do at GE? What are you working on? What else do you want to do?'” he wrote.
It’s an approach similar to the one Arby’s CEO Paul Brown told Business Insider he took before turning the fast food brand from a relic to one of the fastest growing and most innovative companies in its industry. Brown spent most of his first six months in the role travelling the country meeting franchisees and corporate employees. He would get to know them a bit and ask each of them, “What would you do differently if you ran this company?”
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is another executive familiar with upending his company. While his moves have been internally controversial at certain points in the online retailer’s history, he’s made himself accessible to his employees. He’s even lived in a trailer park (owned by his Downtown Project collective) in downtown Las Vegas since 2014 so that he could live among and party with Zappos employees and entrepreneurs he’s invested in.
In his HBR essay, Immelt wrote about his ritual: “Those weekends were a way to hear perspectives I might not get otherwise. In addition, they gave me a chance, person by person, to build deep connections, which are important in driving change.”
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