Right out of college I went to work for GE and spent the next seventeen years there, learning what life in the world of business/industrial marketing/strategic business planning was all about. It was an exciting time for me, and a somewhat different business world than exists today. I grew a lot during those GE years, and learned a great deal about the world of big business and a little bit about myself. When I opted to leave GE for an opportunity to become a part-owner of a small manufacturing company, I doubted whether I would ever again be surrounded by so many capable people. Twelve years later we sold that company, and I became a full-time coach for owners of small businesses, a profession in which I remain involved.
As a small business coach, I preach the value of peer advice, having learned that a small business owner values the advice of another business owner above all other sources of business information or advice.
Back to GE. Those of us paying attention have witnessed this business icon stumble. As a result, the company’s stock has been the worst-performing in the Dow Jones Industrial average for more than a year. Many are asking, “What in the world went wrong at GE?” I won’t take your time here to repeat the details of this saga since they can easily be found in various business media. Rather, I believe there are powerful lessons here for any CEO of any size company, and I want to share them.
First, you need to be brutally honest with yourself regarding your numbers. The financial performance of any company, as portrayed by periodic numbers reporting, contains both positive and negative messages. As the owner, you know what’s really going on behind your numbers, and you need to face the negatives, the warnings, the hidden truths, as well as the confidence-building interpretation designed to cause majestic music to swell in your mind, or your employees’ minds, or your lenders’ minds.
Second, while continuously on the lookout for new opportunities, maintain an objective decision framework to guide you – and stick with it! Avoid becoming emotionally involved when deciding whether to commit company assets in pursuit of a new adventure.
Finally, discipline yourself to do contingency thinking, if not full-scale contingency planning, to prepare your mind for abrupt changes in the business, changes such as the loss of a major account, the resignation of a key manager, or the unexpected interruption of your operations due to a natural disaster.
There are significant differences between leading a giant organization and leading a small business. However, the successes and failures experienced by huge companies sometimes offer universal reminders of key basics of private enterprise.