On June 11, at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., an icon of global business and an icon of the struggle for economic justice and civil rights addressed a predominantly Black audience of GE executives, managers and ordinary employees, and business, nonprofit and academic leaders. The occasion was the annual gathering of GE’s African American Forum, the company’s oldest affinity network, established in 1991 as a diversity initiative.
Each icon spoke, from the heart and off the cuff, on the most pressing issue today. For Jeffrey “Jeff” R. Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric Corp., that issue was leadership — the kind it takes to drive success in the global marketplace. “This is my thirtieth year in GE and I can never remember a time of so much uncertainty, of as much opportunity and risk at the same time. We’re in unprecedented territory in fiscal issues in the U.S. and Europe. So it calls for a different kind of leadership,” he said. “To a certain extent, we’re all students of leadership. We all have to keep growing and learning.”
For the Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network, it was the ultimate measure of today’s successful African-American, the measure of the life signified by the “dash” that appears on a tombstone between the date of birth and the date of death. “How you define yourself confines you,” he said. “We’re in an era of singular success. But that singular success did not come about without collective support and protection. You weren’t invited in. People fought, people died, people sacrificed their careers so that you could get the chance to show how smart you are … Have you ever written a check to a civil rights organization? Imagine what it would be like for your grandchild to hold a cancelled check that you wrote to a civil rights organization.” With his inimitable straight face, he lambasted those who “get position” and then “jump off” the Black struggle. “If I’m on a plane to Washington and we hit bad weather, I’m not going to jump off the plane as soon as we get through the bad weather, because we haven’t arrived in Washington,” he said. “[African-Americans] haven’t arrived. We’re still fighting the battle for equality.”
Wrapping up the forum’s Customer and Strategic Partner Summit, Immelt described five things every leader today must do or know:
1. Every leader has to have his or her own point of view, has to be his or her own economist [and] cannot stray based on what newspapers say”;
2. A leader must have “steely eyed commitment to keep investing in growth through good times and bad — support customers and take a long-term perspective in investing in research and development”;
3. Everything will revolve around productivity and how you can be more efficient and how you drive cost out. That means “owning your supply chain, working on low-price-point products, less layers of management, more rapid response”;
4. Risk reward. “There have to be more robust debates to say what’s the risk worth taking. You may lose some money, but if you time it right you can be in one of the big growth regions for the world for the next generation”;
5. Have a plan. “People in the world just want a plan. People are kind of leaderless right now. They don’t expect you to be perfect, but they want to hear a plan. Be proactive, be forward leaning.”
Two visions, one aim: winning for America.