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.
January 24, 2011; 9:54 AM ET |
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