Developing A Leadership Point Of View

Every so often, THE NEW YORK TIMES will run a feature on the CEO of a large company, and these articles almost always offer insights into leadership effectiveness (or, in some cases, ineffectiveness). Last December there was a particularly good feature on Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric. http://nyti.ms/hfWlv3

The article, "G.E. Goes With What It Knows: Making Stuff," focused on how Immelt is leading the company away from financial services and "soft services" such as broadcasting and back to its historical roots of technology-driven manufacturing. There's a lot to learn from the article about how Immelt is driving this change, but one quotation particularly stood out.

Mr. Immelt claims that his broadest responsibility at G.E. is to "drive change and develop people." Any executive who wants to change things, he says, should be guided by "a point of view about what's going on in the world" and should "invest around that point of view."

It sounds like Immelt must have been one of the star pupils of Noel Tichy (who was quoted in the article), who taught at G.E.'s Crotonville leadership center back in the 1980's and 1990's when Immelt was on his way up. As Tichy argues in his book THE LEADERSHIP ENGINE, effective leaders develop a teachable point of view that they communicate and share as a catalyst for action.

For Immelt, a big component of his teachable point of view has been G.E.'s "ecomagination" campaign to promote energy efficient products. Recognizing that clean energy was going to be a growth market, Immelt and his team launched ecomagination in 2005. The campaign was seen as a gimmick when it started and internal surveys found that employees weren't really getting behind it. Immelt stuck with the idea, however, and today, G.E. sells $20 billion a year in products that qualify for the ecomagination label.

Clearly, Immelt's having a point of view has made a difference for G.E. If you're a leader, how do you develop, share, and lead change through your own point of view? Following are some thoughts based on the Immelt article, Noel Tichy's book, and our own work coaching and consulting with senior executives:

A STRONG LEADERSHIP POINT OF VIEW IS REALITY-BASED. It's different from having a vision, which can often come across to others as a fuzzy idea of the future. A point of view is grounded in observable facts and trends that can be projected into the future, and includes clear steps on how to get there.

A STRONG LEADERSHIP POINT OF VIEW IS MEMORABLE. Look at ecomagination. When most people first hear it, they may think it's a little clunky but you know what it means: the intersection of ecology and imagination. It projects an implicit question: "If we applied our imagination to ecological issues, what could we come up with?" Engaging and empowering people with that kind of thinking is a good place to start if you want to change the thinking and behavior of an organization.

A STRONG LEADERSHIP POINT OF VIEW DEPENDS ON DISCIPLES. On the cover of James O'Toole's book LEADING CHANGE, there is a reproduction of a painting by James Ensor painting titled “Christ's Entry into Brussels, 1889.” If you look at the picture, you will see a chaotic swirl of people gathered in a town square all energetically doing their own things. Talking to each other, giving speeches, taking part in a party or parade. You have to look very closely to find, hidden in the center of the picture, the tiny figure of Christ riding on a donkey. O'Toole asks the question, "If you were Jesus, how would you get the crowd's attention?" The only answer available to leaders who don't possess miraculous powers is to recruit disciples to help spread the point of view. That's what Immelt did at G.E. In the Times article, he asserts that "ecomagination had a favorability rating of like one when it started, maybe two, me and (Chief Marketing Officer) Beth (Comstock). So it was like two against 300,000 the first day." That was a start.

A STRONG LEADERSHIP POINT OF VIEW SPREADS THROUGH THE VISIBLE BEHAVIORS OF THE LEADER. One of the classic tactics of any change campaign is to set some early demonstration projects that illustrate what the future will look like. Immelt has done so repeatedly since 2005, by making call to invest G.E.'s capital in businesses that have ecomagination potential. He mandates specific investments to reinforce the point in visible ways.

A STRONG LEADERSHIP POINT OF VIEW REQUIRES PERSISTENT FOCUS ON THE PART OF THE LEADER. Immelt has never let up on ecomagination. Through G.E.'s investments of the capital, where he directs his own time and energy, the metrics by which he manages the business, and what and how he communicates, Immelt has demonstrated over the past six years that his point of view on ecomagination is not just "flavor of the month." Rather, it has become an organizing framework for the company's strategy, and G.E's performance bears out the success of the initiative.

How about you? What is your leadership point of view? Do you have one? What have you done to develop and share it? What difference has it made? Have you worked with leaders who've had a clear point of view? What was the impact on their effectiveness and the results of the organization? We'd love to hear your thoughts: please send us a note at info@nevinsconsulting.com

"The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can't blow an uncertain trumpet." -Theodore M. Hesburgh