Earlier this month, I delivered the commencement address at the University of Connecticut’s Graduate School. I also received an honorary degree – which really wasn’t fair. The graduates worked their butts off. Me? I just had to show up and voila: Dr. Immelt.
Still, it was a tremendous privilege. UConn is a great school and its graduates are poised to do great things. Here is part of what I told them.
Thomas Edison said that he looked at what the world needed and then proceeded to invent it. He was always on the lookout… the lookout for what was next… the lookout for ways in which we could make the world better.
That spirit still drives us. At GE, we consider constant learning a cultural cornerstone. It defines not just our founding but also our future.
I hope the same is true for today’s graduates.
The world is volatile, uncertain, global and complicated. Growth is slow. But that should not be discouraging. Instead, it’s a challenge. I want to summon determination. Graduates should be optimistic; believe in better. The world awaits your leadership.
Success in the 21 century will come to those that that can get in front of the trends, move quickly, innovate, and work together to deliver results. And our ability to contribute to the century in which we live will come down to our willingness and ability to do five things.
First, accept and lead change
We can’t wait for the economy to stabilize. We can’t wait for a time when there is more certainty. It used to be that you only had to manage momentum. Today, you have to create your own future. And that means change.
Just a few years ago, I never thought GE would be a software company. That was the domain of startups and “cool companies,” not 19th century companies like GE. Today, we see analytics and software as an imperative. We can connect big iron and big data to create brilliant machines. Think cleaner and more efficient jet engines, power plants, and hospital systems.
We are hiring the next generation of leaders to help us. But the “old dogs” – people like me – really are learning new tricks. And we have to.
Continuously innovate in your lifetime, regardless of your profession and regardless of past performance. You must choose change.
But to change, you need to learn
Somebody once asked Edison about a failure. He famously replied: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
That perspective remains a great lesson in constant learning. While I wouldn’t recommend making a habit out of failure, we can never allow ourselves to become paralyzed by the fear of not reaching our intended outcome. If anything, perfection only tells us our goals aren’t bold enough.
So, be humbled by what you don’t know.
In 1989, I led GE’s Appliance Service business. We had a catastrophic failure of our refrigerators and had to replace over three million compressors – one of the major components in the appliance that keep things cold. To understand what went wrong, I knew I had to get my hands dirty.
So I did. I went into people’s homes to fix the refrigerators. And let me tell you, there’s no better way to learn from failure or to be humbled than for a math major to sit on someone’s kitchen floor while the ice cream melts.
Every failure only brings you that much closer to truth. To invention. To success. To an outcome that matters.
Learning builds confidence. If you are confident, you will take risks. The best leaders I have ever met are risk takers
Today, GE is the country’s second largest exporter behind Boeing. I can tell you firsthand – it’s a big risk starting businesses around the world.
You have to overcome both the cultural and trust challenges that often exist abroad and the resistance and fear at home.
I understand the fear, especially at a time when unemployment remains higher than any of us would like. But we can’t close our eyes and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist or can’t compete. We can’t assume today’s solutions will work tomorrow. And we can never afford to say: “It’s too risky; I’m afraid to fail.”
For inspiration, look to entrepreneurs, look at start-ups. They often put everything on the line for one idea, something they pursue with passion and focus.
In your lifetime, you will learn that sitting still is failure. We must move forward … we must drive change. So be comfortable with risk.
If you accept the ideas of risk and change you must also be resilient
When you take a risk, you might not succeed. Get up, dust yourself off and keep going. American manufacturing is a great example.
For too long, our country bought into a notion that said we could more or less abandon manufacturing and become a services only economy, and we could do that without second-thought or any consequences. We learned an important lesson: manufacturing – our ability and willingness to make things — is critical to our competitiveness.
Today, we are seeing confidence and competitiveness in much of our workforce. American workers are flexible, and most of them love to compete. We can win anywhere. But only because we persist. Only because of resiliency.
Expect obstacles. Prepare for setbacks. Your determination will make you better.
But getting better takes leadership
Today, in the era of 24-hour news and social media, it is easy to blame everyone for everything. But leadership is not about blame, it is about optimism and creating the way forward.
In tough times, people don’t want someone who will say: “We’re doomed. Might as well give up.” Instead, they want someone who can draw a play in the dirt and say, “Let’s go do it.” Someone willing to make a bold decision even and especially in the face of uncertainty.
Understand that leadership is not a chore; it’s a choice. It’s an honor. It’s about bringing people together and getting the job done. It’s about getting in the arena, getting your hands dirty. It’s about being true to yourself and lifting up others. It’s about being authentic and transparent.
I have not had a perfect career. Rather, my life has been about self-renewal, learning from failure, and a powerful optimism that the future will be better than the past.
We could all look around and accept today’s challenges as insurmountable. Or we can use them to inspire action. See the word “lookout” not as a warning but as an invitation to make a difference on something that matters. Be on the lookout for the opportunity to change. To learn. To take risk. To persist. And to lead.
Always strive to be better… that way, I know, you will make the world better.