Q&A with Jack
In your last few years at GE, the press dubbed you "E-Jack". What kinds of benefits did GE gain from digitization?
In the span of my 20+ years as CEO I've earned quite a few monikers. "E-Jack" was just a simple way for the media to define GE's commitment to e-Business (similar to "Services Jack" and "Quality Jack"). The fact is that digitization brought a whole new level of energy and excitement to GE. It made the slow, fast and the old, young - it was truly an elixir to the company. Since we first made it an initiative in 1999 (one of just four in my tenure as CEO) we've gone from a near standstill to over $1.6 billion in cost savings from our digitization efforts. In 1999 we had basically no online sales, yet this year we expect to sell over $15 billion worth of goods and services online. The point to remember is that e- Business is not a new business. It's a new technology that will forever change business.
With the accessibility to companies and choices that the Internet has put directly into the hands of consumers, we've all been given a larger amount of power now. Should businesses view this as an opportunity, a threat, or a combination of the two and tread carefully?
It's an opportunity, absolutely. The Internet is the great equalizer of information. Companies, managers, and employees - everyone has the access to the same information. It's no longer possible for one individual to horde information or leverage knowledge for control. The Internet provides the same amount of information to everyone, everywhere. The challenge for everyone is to couple this increased information with good judgment.
You coined the term "boundaryless", an idea that "makes heroes out of people who recognized and developed a good idea, not just those who came up with one." What were the results of boundaryless behavior at GE?
It completely changed the way we worked, the way we behaved, and it stripped out a whole level of bureaucracy within GE. The basic premise of a boundaryless organization was to remove all the barriers among different functions (engineering, manufacturing, marketing and the rest). Boundaryless behavior meant you recognized no distinctions between "domestic" and "foreign" operations. We knocked down external walls with our suppliers just as we knocked out the less visible walls of race and gender internally. Simply put, boundaryless thinking meant we were open to the best ideas and practices from anywhere - another colleague, another department, another country or even another company. It changed our thinking and broadened our awareness. Boundaryless behavior increased the organization's intellect and, thus, its effectiveness.
How might boundaryless behavior be applicable to everyday life for those not engaged in the activities of a Fortune 500 company?
It's as simple as knowing you're never too old to learn something new or to recognize the fact that no one person ever has all the answers. There's always a better way! Imagine having a great dinner party with eight bright guests all knowing something different. Think of how much better everyone at the dinner would be if there was a way to transfer the best ideas of each into every guest at the table. That's really the essence of boundaryless behavior. We can all learn something new, something better from someone else.
Can leadership be taught or must it first be inherent and then developed?
My experience is that the foundations of leadership begin in childhood and are reinforced through a series of experiences that build self-confidence. There's a fine line between arrogance and self-confidence. Arrogance can be a killer. The difference between self-confidence and arrogance is the courage to be open - to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source. Even with all the self-confidence in the world, the "essence" of leadership comes from inside.
In determining the morals and ethics of leading a multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporation, what compass did you use to define GE's principles and practices?
The simple answer is this: by maintaining integrity. Establishing it and never wavering from it supported everything I did throughout good and bad times. People may not have agreed with me on every issue - and I may not have always been right - but they always knew they were getting it straight and honest. I never had two agendas. There was only one way - the straight way.
What is your advice to anyone who wants a career in the corporate world or is looking to jumpstart a business of his or her own? Are basic tenets and rules the same for the "big guys" and the "little guys"?
It's all about passion. For me, intensity covers a lot of sins. If there's one characteristic all winners share, it's that they care more than anyone else. No detail is too small to sweat or too large to dream. It doesn't mean loud or flamboyant. Passion for what you do is something that comes from deep inside. When passion is combined with self-confidence and integrity, it's a winning combination no matter what you do or where you work.
Will you tell us a bit about GE's "most important factory" - Crotonville?
Crotonville is a 52-acre campus in Ossining, New York that, since the late-1950s, has served as a management training center for GE. In the 1980s we breathed new life into the center, creating new classes and an informal atmosphere designed to spread ideas in an open give-and-take environment. It's a place where our top talent, mid- and upper-level executives from across the company, come for extensive management, business and executive development. All the GE business leadership teaches at Crotonville, myself included. The faces of the students are young and diverse; the questions are smart and challenging - for us and for them. For GE, Crotonville is now an energy center, powering the exchange of ideas within the company.
How important has the game of golf been to your success at GE and in life? What are the lessons to be learned from the game?
It's a sport that, very much like business, combines what I love most: people and competition. Being CEO of GE was the greatest thrill of my life. If I had another preference, I would've loved to have been a professional golfer. The most enduring friendships of my life have been formed on and around the golf course. It's fun, it's relaxing, and it's a game that teaches you how to win and how to lose. Golf is a game where you constantly seek the illusion of perfection. If you enjoy the give-and- take of a match - and I certainly do - the game is a real high.
What's next for you?
I'm going to coach a little, teach a little and play golf a lot. I'm looking forward to working with a diverse group of companies and their CEOs on a variety of subjects: management practices, boundaryless behavior, people - leadership in general. And, of course, I'll golf. I'm still hoping to get better. The future's not set in stone but I know this: I'll continue to have fun and love what I do.