How to Drive Change with a Leadership Point of View

Posted 12.06.2010

Every so often, The New York Times will run a long feature on the CEO of a large business.  I love those articles because they’re great opportunities for data mining on leadership.  One of my favorites was one they ran a few years ago on Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer.  This weekend, they ran a feature on Ballmer’s early days colleague from Proctor and Gamble, General Electric CEO, Jeff Immelt.

Immelt The article, “G.E. Goes With What It Knows: Making Stuff,” centers on how Immelt is leading the company away from financial services and “soft services” like broadcasting and back to its historical roots of technology driven manufacturing. There’s a lot to learn from the article about how Immelt is doing that, but one quote from him in particular stood out for me:

Any executive who wants to change things, he says, should be guided by “a point of view about what’s going on in the world, and you invest around that point of view.” 

It sounds like Immelt may have been one of the star pupils of Noel Tichy (who was quoted in the article) and others who ran G.E.’s Crotonville leadership center back in the 1980’s and 1990’s when Immelt was on his way up.  As Tichy argues in his book, Leadership Engine, effective leaders have a teachable point of view that they share as a platform for action.

For Immelt, a big component of his teachable point of view has been G.E.’s ecomagination campaign to promote energy efficient products.  Seeing that clean energy was going to be a growth market, Immelt launched ecomagination in 2005.  The campaign was seen as a gimmick when it started and internal surveys found that employees weren’t really buying it.  Immelt stuck with it and today, G.E. sells $20 billion a year in products that qualify for the ecomagination label.

Clearly, Immelt having a point of view mattered for G.E.  If you’re a leader, how do you develop, share and lead change with a point of view? Here are some thoughts based on the Immelt article, Noel Tichy’s work and my own observations in coaching leaders:

A strong leadership point of view is reality based.  It’s different than having a vision, which is often a vague, fuzzy idea of the future.  A point of view is grounded in observable facts and trends that can be projected into the future.  Developing ecomagination is a good example of that.

A strong leadership point of view is memorable.  Look at ecomagination.  When you first heard it, you might have thought it was a little clunky but you knew what it meant.  It was the intersection of ecology and imagination.  It begs the question, “If we applied our imagination to ecological issues, what would we come up with?”  That’s a pretty good place to start from if you want to change the thinking and behavior of an organization.

A strong leadership point of view needs disciples.  On the cover of his book,  Leading Change, James O’Toole has a picture of a James Ensor painting called Christ’s Entry into Brussels, 1889.  When you look at the picture, you see a chaotic swirl of people in a town square all doing their own thing.  Talking, giving speeches, leading a parade.  You have to look really closely to see that in the upper center of the picture is the tiny figure of Christ riding on a donkey. O’Toole asks the question, “If you were Jesus, how would you get the crowd’s attention?”  One answer that is available to leaders who don’t possess miraculous powers is to recruit some disciples to help spread the point of view.  That’s what Immelt did at G.E.  In the Times article, he says “Ecomagination had a favorability rating of like one when it started, maybe two, me and (Chief Marketing Officer) Beth (Comstock). So it was like two against 300,000 the first day.”  That was a start.

A strong leadership point of view spreads through visible action.  One of the classic tactics of any change management campaign is to set some early demonstration projects that illustrate what the future looks like after the change.  Immelt has done that repeatedly since 2005.  He’s making calls on investing G.E.’s capital in businesses that have ecomagination potential.  He occasionally mandates investments to reinforce the point in visible ways.

A strong leadership point of view requires persistent focus on the part of the leader.  Immelt has not let up on ecomagination.  Through his investments of the company’s capital, his own time, the metrics by which he manages the business and what and how he communicates, he has demonstrated over the past five years that his point of view on ecomagination is not the flavor of the month.  It’s an organizing framework for the company.  The performance of G.E. in this space bears that out.

What’s your experience with leadership points of view?  Do you have one?  What have you done to develop it and share it?  What difference has that made?  Have you worked with leaders who’ve had a clear point of view?  What was the impact on their effectiveness and the health of the organization?