spent most of the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving 2000 waiting for the "New Guy." That was the secret code for my successor, the future chairman and CEO of General Electric.
On Friday night, the board had unanimously approved Jeff Immelt to succeed me. I called him right away.
"I have some good news. Can you and your family come to Florida tomorrow and spend the weekend?"
Obviously, he knew what was going on. But we left it at that and went quickly to the arrangements to get him to Florida.
On Saturday morning, I could hardly wait to see him. The long CEO succession process was over. I was already outside when Jeff pulled into my driveway. He had a big smile on his face and was barely out of the car before I had my arms around him, saying exactly what Reg Jones said to me 20 years earlier:
"Congratulations, Mr. Chairman!"
As we hugged, I felt we were closing the loop.
In that moment, my memories took me straight back to the day when Reg walked into my Fairfield, Connecticut, office and embraced me, in just the same way.
Bear hugs, or any hugs, were not natural gestures for Reg. Yet here he was with a smile on his face and his arms wrapped tightly around me. On that December day in 1980,1 was the happiest man
in America and certainly the luckiest. If I could pick a job in business, this one would be it. It gave me an unbelievable array of businesses, from aircraft engines and power generators to plastics, medical, and financial services. What GE makes and does touches virtually everyone.
Most important, it is a job that's close to 75 percent about people and 25 percent about other stuff. I worked with some of the smartest, most creative, and competitive people in the world— many a lot smarter than I was.
When I joined GE in 1960, my horizons were modest. As a 24-year-old junior engineer fresh from a Ph.D. program, I was getting paid $10,500 a year and wanted to make $30,000 by the time I was 30. That was my objective, if I had one. I was pouring everything I had into what I was doing and having a helluva good time doing it. The promotions started coming, enough of them to raise my sights so that by the mid-1970s I began to think that maybe I could run the place one day.
The odds were against me. Many of my peers regarded me as the round peg in a square hole, too different for GE. I was brutally honest and outspoken. I was impatient and, to many, abrasive. My behavior wasn't the norm, especially the frequent parties at local bars to celebrate business victories, large or small.
Fortunately, a lot of people at GE had the guts to like me. Reg Jones was one of them.
On the surface, we could not have been more different. Trim and dignified, he was born in Britain and had the bearing of a statesman. I had grown up just 16 miles north of Boston, in Salem, Massachusetts, the only son of an Irish American railroad conductor. Reg was reserved and formal. I was earthy, loud, and excitable, with a heavy Boston accent and an awkward stutter. At the time, Reg was the most admired businessman in America, an influential figure in Washington, I was unknown outside of GE, and inexperienced in policy issues.
Still, I always felt a vibration with Reg. He rarely revealed his
feelings, never providing even a hint. Yet I had a feeling that he understood me. In some ways, we were kindred spirits. We respected each other's differences and shared some important things. We both liked analysis and numbers and did our homework. We both loved GE. He knew it had to change, and he thought I had the passion and the smarts to do it.
I'm not sure he knew how much I wanted GE to change—but his support for all I did over 20 years never wavered.
The competition to succeed Reg had been brutal, complicated by heavy politics and big egos, my own included. It was awful. At first, there were seven of us from various parts of the company who were put in the spotlight by the very public contest for Reg's job. He hadn't intended it to be the divisive and highly politicized process that it turned out to be.
I made a few mistakes in those years, none fatal. When Reg got the board to approve me as his successor on December 19, 1980,1 still wasn't the most obvious choice. Not long after the announcement was made, one of my GE friends walked into the Hi-Ho, the local watering hole near headquarters, and overheard one of the oldtime staffers repeating glumly into a martini, "I'll give him two years—then it's Bellevue."
He missed by more than 20!
Over all the years that I was chairman, I received widespread attention in the media—both good and bad. But a lengthy cover story in Business Week magazine in early June 1998 prompted a flood of mail that inspired me to write this book.
Why? Because of the magazine article, literally hundreds of total strangers wrote me moving and inspirational letters about their careers. They described the organizational pressures they felt to change as individuals, to conform to something or become someone they weren't, in order to be successful. They liked the story's contention that I never changed who I was. The story implied that I was able to get one of the world's largest companies to come closer to acting like the crowd I grew up with.
Together with thousands of others, I tried to create the informality of a corner neighborhood grocery store in the soul of a big company.
The truth, of course, is more complex. In my early years, I tried desperately to be honest with myself, to fight the bureaucratic pomposity, even if it meant that I wouldn't succeed at GE. I also remember the tremendous pressure to be someone I wasn't. I sometimes played the game.
At one of my earliest board meetings in San Francisco shortly after being named vice chairman, I showed up in a perfectly pressed blue suit, with a starched white shirt and a crisp red tie. I chose my words carefully. I wanted to show the board members that I was older and more mature than either my 43 years or my reputation. I guess I wanted to look and act like a typical GE vice chairman.
Paul Austin, a longtime GE director and chairman of the Coca-Cola Co., came up to me at the cocktail party after the meeting.
"Jack," he said, touching my suit, "this isn't you. You looked a lot better when you were just being yourself."
Thank God Austin realized I was playing a role—and cared enough to tell me. Trying to be somebody I wasn't could have been a disaster for me.
Throughout my 41 years at GE, I've had many ups and downs. In the media, I've gone from prince to pig and back again. And I've been called many things.
In the early days, when I worked in our fledging plastics group, some called me a crazy, wild man. When I became CEO two decades ago, Wall Street asked, "Jack who?"
When I tried to make GE more competitive by cutting back our workforce in the early 1980s, the media dubbed me "Neutron Jack." When they learned we were focused on values and culture at GE, people asked if "Jack has gone soft." I've been No. 1 or No. 2 Jack, Services Jack, Global Jack, and, in more recent years, Six Sigma Jack and e-Business Jack.
When we made an effort to acquire Honeywell in October 2000, and I agreed to stay on through the transition, some thought of me as the Long-in-the-Tooth Jack hanging on by his fingertips to his CEO job.
Those characterizations said less about me and a lot more about the phases our company went through. Truth is, down deep, I've never really changed much from the boy my mother raised in Salem, Massachusetts.
When I started on this journey in 1981, standing before Wall Street analysts for the first time at New York's Pierre Hotel, I said I wanted GE to become "the most competitive enterprise on earth." My objective was to put a small-company spirit in a big-company body, to build an organization out of an old-line industrial company that would be more high-spirited, more adaptable, and more agile than companies that are one-fiftieth our size. I said then that I wanted to create a company "where people dare to try new things—where people feel assured in knowing that only the limits of their creativity and drive, their own standards of personal excellence, will be the ceiling on how far and how fast they move."
I've put my mind, my heart, and my gut into that journey every day of the 40-plus years I've been lucky enough to be a part of GE. This book is an effort to bring you along on that trip. In the end, I believe we created the greatest people factory in the world, a learning enterprise, with a boundaryless culture.
But you judge for yourself whether we ever reached the destination I described in my "vision" speech at the Pierre in 1981.
This is no perfect business story. I believe that business is a lot like a world-class restaurant. When you peek behind the kitchen doors, the food never looks as good as when it comes to your table on fine china perfectly garnished. Business is messy and chaotic. In our kitchen, I hope you'll find something that might be helpful to you in reaching your own dreams.
There's no gospel or management handbook here. There is a philosophy that came out of my journey. I stuck to some pretty
basic ideas that worked for me, integrity being the biggest one. I've always believed in a simple and direct approach. This book attempts to show what an organization, and each of us, can learn from opening the mind to ideas from anywhere.
I've learned that mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success.
There is no straight line to anyone's vision or dream. I'm living proof of that. This is the story of a lucky man, an unscripted, uncorporate type who managed to stumble and still move forward, to survive and even thrive in one of the world's most celebrated corporations. Yet it's also a small-town American story. I've never stopped being aware of my roots even as my eyes opened to see a world I never knew existed.
Mostly, though, this is a story of what others have done— thousands of smart, self-confident, and energized employees who taught each other how to break the molds of the old industrial world and work toward a new hybrid of manufacturing, services, and technology.
Their efforts and their success are what have made my journey so rewarding. I was lucky to play a part because Reg Jones came into my office 21 years ago and gave me the hug of a lifetime.