Leading Through a Black Swan Event

Last week, participants from around the globe participated in a Webinar sponsored by the World Business Forum featuring Jeff Immelt, Venture Partner, New Enterprise Associates (NEA) and former Chairman & CEO of General Electric (GE). Mr. Immelt led a global team of 300,000 people at GE for more than 16 years and led the organization through the disruption and change of at least three “black swan” events. Today, business leaders are navigating the unchartered waters presented by the COVID-19 challenge and Mr. Immelt offered the following ideas to business leaders:

  • Crisis reveals character: Challenges and difficulties will come in waves; be mentally and physically prepared for this reality; endurance and resilience are key traits; know that there will be days when you go to bed feeling like a failure and will need to awake the next morning as a new person; these collective experiences will make you better
  • Aligned teams require frequent communication: Communicate frequently with customers, vendors, but most importantly, with your employees to keep them aligned; ensure workplace safety, understand your liquidity and reduce cash flow consumption, and stay on top of government assistance programs
  • Consult your inner circle of leaders: Ask what decisions will we have to make and when will we have to make them; discuss the two truths – what actions to take in a worst-case scenario and what actions to take in a best-case scenario; Mr. Immelt reminded us that after the events of 9/11, many people thought the airline industry would never be the same; however, the industry rebounded and subsequently enjoyed its most prosperous era
  • How do you want to emerge: Create time to think about how to create vibrancy in the long-term; what entity you would like to emerge once the crisis is over; during the Great Recession, Mr. Immelt prepared GE to emerge as a more global company, which greatly contributed to its success once the Great Recession was over

For leaders that don’t have all the answers – don’t worry. Mr. Immelt acknowledged that these times can be humbling and he admitted that he wished he had said “I don’t know” more frequently.