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General Electric Chairman and CEO Speaks at Harvard Business School
Class Day Exercises

Alumnus Jeffrey R. Immelt offers words of advice to MBA Class of 2005

BOSTON, June 8, 2005 ­ Jeff Immelt (MBA 1982), chairman and chief executive officer of General Electric, returned to Harvard Business School today to offer his advice to graduating students from his perspective as leader of one of the world’s most well known and highly regarded companies. He spoke at Class Day festivities on the day before Commencement.

Jeff Immelt,
GE Chairman and CEO
Photo: Stuart Cahill

Addressing the nearly 900 members of the MBA Class of 2005, along with their families and friends, in front of Baker Library, Immelt offered four lessons rooted in his own HBS experience to help the new graduates successfully compete in a world where companies have to move faster than ever before on a global scale. “There will be real differentiation in the years ahead ­ real winners and losers,” he said, “and your desire to compete and do so in the right way will be incredibly important.”

Immelt began by emphasizing the importance of maintaining focus and self-discipline “in both time and thought” in order to “get things done.” He learned that lesson as a student in the MBA program, he said, and has continued to see the importance of those qualities in every job he’s had during his 22 years at GE ­ from working as a sales manager in the plastics division in 1984 to picking up the reins of the company from his mentor, Jack Welch, in 2001.

What became clear to him only after he graduated from HBS, however, was the impact his organizational behavior courses would have on his success in the workplace. As essential as subjects like marketing and finance may be, he advised, the ability to work well with others is also a requirement for every executive. “My job today is 30 to 40 percent about people…and while we like great people who can perform, we believe in building teams, not stars. The totality of the system has to supersede any one individual.”

Immelt also underscored the need for highly-tuned listening skills. By listening carefully to what others were saying during class discussions at HBS, he recalled, he learned to differentiate between knowledge and intelligence, between the comment that simply repeated the facts of the case and the one that cracked it with new ideas. And figuring out what’s new is what running a great company is all about, he pointed out. He urged U.S. companies to do better in that regard. “The crisis in [corporate America] today,” he warned, “is a little bit about governance and a lot about a rampant lack of innovation.”

Finally, Immelt urged the Class of 2005 to “take personal risks” rather than blindly follow the road most popular at the moment. “You have to find your own path,” he advised. “And with a Harvard MBA, you can live your dreams, live your passion by doing what you really want to do.”

But no matter where the journey leads, Immelt reminded the graduates, there is no substitute for integrity. “From the moment I walked onto this campus,” he concluded, “I wanted to be both great and good. Great in the sense of competing to win, but never losing sight of the type of person I wanted to be, never losing sight of the importance of the connection to the world, never losing sight of the importance of values and giving back. The challenge of this generation’s leaders is to show that we can compete on a global stage, but that values and ideas are the standards that we carry to really make a difference.”

The Traits of Successful Businesspeople

According to Immelt and his colleagues at GE, there are five qualities that are always part of the profile of successful businesspeople:

Externally focused and able to read markets and situations

Decisive

Imaginative, courageous, and willing to take informed risks

Inclusive and eager to build diverse teams with talent from around the globe

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