I have had tons of experiences working with Fortune 100 companies over the years. On capital projects ranging from $50 to $500 million, we are usually collaborating with the C-suite team members. Looking back over 35 years of doing business, I found that I could tell from these encounters, or should’ve been able to, whether a company was going to excel or deteriorate.
Some of the great companies I worked with include Centene, Express Scripts, Microsoft, and Amazon. The planning, the energy, and the professionalism were evident throughout our exchanges and collaborations. A couple of companies I worked with that didn’t do so well were Venture and a large brewer, and you could see the handwriting on the wall.
Back in the day, trying to do business with General Electric left an indication for me that this was a place spinning out of control. Honestly, even reading Jack Welch’s early books, while inspiring, left me feeling doubtful of all the hubris. Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electric is a scary tale. It could’ve been renamed the “Crash of GE-ego, Arrogance and Don’t Forget to Turn the Lights Off if you’re the Last One Out the Door.”
It’s a riveting read about a corporation led by someone prior to Jeff Immelt who would conveniently round out the “rough edges” with processes and distortions that would land people in jail today.
Inheriting a mess is not an excuse for the company’s misdirection and not taking steps to pragmatically turn it around, especially given multiple opportunities to reset the deck, like the shock of 9/11 and many other missed opportunities where other smart leaders would have pounced.
It’s truly a lesson for every business leader and decision-maker in a major company and offers clues on what to look for and what not to do.
This book led me to read Beth Comstock’s book about her time at GE, titled Imagine it Forward: Courage, Creativity and the Power of Change. Comstock uses a lot of clichés to explain how she practically remade General Electric, at least in image, while shareholders, past employees, and pension holders lost billions of dollars and experienced much of the same kind of havoc that Enron bestowed on the people that really believed in that company.
Taken together, they are a sad and bewildering testament to all the worthy people who founded General Electric and gave their best efforts to the company for more than a century. These two books left me shaking my head, and they are cautionary tales for our times.