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The real question to ask GE's Immelt about chairing the jobs council

Ever since President Obama named General Electric CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt to chair his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness on Friday, there has been skepticism raised about the appointment. Union officials have questioned GE's job eliminations and plant closings, asking why that company's CEO would be the best person to run a council charged with fostering more American jobs. Others have raised the issue of potential conflicts of interest, and whether or not the CEO will make decisions that favor the General Electric Company.

Immelt and GE have addressed their critics, with Immelt saying he would manage potential conflicts of interest "with great transparency," and with company spokespersons noting that GE has added jobs back to the U.S., for a net increase. And while those are good questions to address, the one I've been wondering about most is the following: How on earth will he have the time? This is a man who already runs one of the largest corporations on the planet, with some 300,000 employees and operations in more than 160 countries. Not only is he CEO of GE, but he is chairman of its board of directors too. Immelt is also on the board of The New York Federal Reserve Bank.

In a conference call Friday--GE's earnings were released the same day as Immelt's appointment was announced--the CEO assured analysts that his commitment to the company would not change. "All you guys know my commitment to GE and my leadership at GE, and that doesn't change," he told analysts. "This is my passion. I am committed. I am a hard worker. So I am focused on the Company." A company spokesperson says that Immelt consulted with his board and gave a lot of thought to the issue of time, and is confident he can manage the commitment. The plan is for quarterly meetings, which is similar to what Immelt already does for the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board. And he is not the only sitting CEO to take on such roles; Boeing CEO Jim McNerney, for instance, chairs the President's Export Council.

I can understand why Immelt would feel compelled to take on the president's call for service. What leader turns down the president? But what's less easy for me to understand is why the president would pick one of the busiest CEOs in the world to chair a council focused, arguably, on the two most important issues facing our country today: jobs and competitiveness.

There is little doubt that Immelt's perch atop GE gives him a comprehensive view of the breadth of economic challenges facing American business, and that it will surely help him offer some valuable suggestions to the president. His company struggled mightily during the financial crisis, but he deals with many of the issues the council will face, such as expanding exports and seeking opportunities for growth, on a daily basis.

That said, if Obama really wants to put weight behind these issues, I would think a full-time, or even half-time, adviser would be a better choice. A retired CEO, for instance, would give President Obama both the imprimatur of business-world royalty and the hours upon hours of attention these issues deserve. The president could have tried to tap someone like Andy Grove, the visionary former CEO of Intel who has spent a lot of time thinking about these very issues. Or if he could lure him away from his private-equity post, former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley would have been an excellent choice. Lafley, who retired from P&G in early 2010, has nearly universal respect for his focus on innovation at the company.

As GE quotes Immelt as saying in the very first line of his corporate bio, "I'm out talking about this company seven days a week, 24 hours a day." That's how any Fortune 500 CEO operates. How the president thinks he can fit in enough time for another critical undertaking is a question we should be asking.

By Jena McGregor

 |  January 24, 2011; 9:54 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , CEO watch , Corporate leadership , Crisis leadership , Economic crisis , Presidential leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I'd be more interested in asking Immelt about all the conflicts of interest he has, such as the billions of dollars he obtained for GE from the Fed as a member of the Board of the New York Fed. And what role did he play in firing Olbermann from MSNBC just before GE sold the NBC network to Comcast?

Obviously, he has a conservative corporate profit mentality involving borrowing billions of dollars from the Fed at zero percent interest in order to finance exporting as many jobs as possible to emerging markets such as China in order to make GE more competitive with other other huge corporations (who probably also borrow from the Fed).

So if Immelt's appointment as head the new President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness isn't about the biggest joke that I've seen in a long time I don't know what is.

(If Immelt ever gets around to finding ways to improve his companies' competitiveness through improvements to infrastructure it'll probably be the infrastructure serving his companies' plants in China - not the U.S.)

Posted by: billeisen1 | January 24, 2011 10:43 PM

st50taw, you're not really that clueless, are you? Yeah, Obama is a socialist, for the rich. How much money has he given the banks so far? (actually, the FED gave the money away, not Obama, but it was under his watch) 6 trillion so far. Thats more than Bush AND Obama (so far) have spent on the wars. Why hasn't Obama pulled us out of Iraq/Afghanistan yet, clown? Wake up.

Posted by: shred11 | January 24, 2011 9:01 PM

Good artilce, McGregor. However, is there any point to asking the question? I'm not a naive person with false assumptions. I don't vote for either party because I'm no fool. Most Americans are independents now and the bankers are beginning to grow afraid. But they have control of the money-printing machine now and they won't just let it go without a fight. We'll see confiscation of American's guns (and 1st and 2nd Amendment rights) and then declare martial law. The tiger cannot defeat the ants, though. We are heading into the worst storm in American history. By the time its over this will be a small, agrarian society with a very low population. Good luck.

Posted by: shred11 | January 24, 2011 8:58 PM

Are you kidding me? The unions are the cause of the plant closings! But don't get me going on the slimy green Immelt, in the tank for Obama to the detriment of his company and its shareholders. Absolutely pathetic.

Posted by: hammeresq | January 24, 2011 4:12 PM

IMMELT WILL NO LIKELY PERFORM HIS PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION THE WAY ANY HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL BIG BUSINESS LEADER DOES, BY ASTUTELY DELEGATING. SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS LEADERS KNOW THE VALUE OF KEEPING PLENTY OF TOP TALENT AROUND THEM, AND VIGOROUSLY UTILIZING THEM. DO WE KNOW, AS OF YET, THE TEAM THAT WILL BE WORKING WITH IMMELT ON HIS JOBS CREATION ENDEAVORS?
HOW ARE WE TO KNOW THAT ANDY GROVE AND A.G. LAFLEY WERE NOT CONSIDERED, OR EVEN CONTACTED ON THE ISSUE, BUT WITHOUT A POSITIVE OUTCOME REGARDING THEM?
IS NOT THE MOST SALIENT QUESTION ON THIS ISSUE, NOT WHETHER IMMELT HAS TIME TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE ADEQUATELY, BUT RATHER, SINCE HE'S A MASTER OF BIG BUSINESS, IS HE PROPERLY QUALIFIED TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE OF SMALL BUSINESS, WHICH CREATES MOST OF THE JOBS WITHIN THE U.S.?

COMMONSENSEFORCOMMONCAUSE.COM

Posted by: commonsense4commongoodcom | January 24, 2011 3:50 PM

I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion that a retired CEO or respected business person would have been a much better choice for the 'czar' position. I would rather GE head Immelt dedicate 100% of his energies to his corporate responsibilities and shareholders, who have taken a terrible beating under his 10 year tenure as CEO. He should be dedicated to turning this GE ship first and foremost.

Posted by: Stevedoro | January 24, 2011 3:43 PM

Never having worked for a large, bureaucratic organization like GE, it's difficult for me to understand how they can ever be innovative; and we all know most new job creation is by small business. As for GE, the majority of its revenues come from finance, which is neither innovative nor known for job creation (and, yes, GE Capital received a government bailout). On a personal level, my best friend grew up in Pittsfield, MA, the site of a former GE manufacturing facility. I say former because GE closed the facility and left. Not only left, but left behind an enormous environmental mess (PCBs).

Posted by: raylward | January 24, 2011 3:42 PM

One excellent reason for Obama to select Immelt is that it would be hard for the GOP to blow off recommendations from the head of a mega-corporation like GE.

The GOP is always yammering about the lack of business influence in the Obama administration. It will be interesting when Immelt makes suggestions that are realistic and therefore totally at odds with GOP economic "theory".

Posted by: st50taw | January 24, 2011 12:12 PM

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