No matter how you feel about his tenure leading the industrial conglomerate, former GE CEO Jeff Immelt helped shape medtech by filling the industry’s corner offices with former employees.
The right leader at the right company, at the right time, can have an effect that last decades – not only through their own actions but through those they’ve trained and the industry they’ve affected.
Last summer, GE’s corner office passed from 16-year veteran Jeff Immelt to former GE Healthcare head John Flannery, ending an era that saw drastic changes at the massive conglomerate and helped spawn a generation of leading executives in the medical device industry.
“There’s a great alumni in medtech,” Abiomed CEO Mike Minogue told Medical Design & Outsourcing last year. “Folks joke that there’s a secret GE handshake.”
Good or bad — GE shares are off more than 50% since late 2016 — Immelt’s nearly 20-year tenure at GE had a lasting effect on the medtech industry.
The list of GE alumni now leading medtech companies includes Minogue, Medtronic’s Omar Ishrak, Boston Scientific’s Mike Mahoney, NuVasive’s Greg Lucier, ConforMIS CEO Mark Augusti and Smiths Medical’s Jeff McCaulley, to name just a few.
“GE, I think, taught us a lot of great fundamental aspects of running a business that are true to this day,” Lucier told us during an interview at MassDevice.com’s DeviceTalks event in 2015. “One of the ones that I always hold dear is ‘face reality.’ Don’t, in any way, look through rose-colored glasses of how the world is, but better understand just how it really is and you’ll make better decisions – and you should do that with people as well.”
Under Immelt, the company sold off most of its GE Capital business, spun out legacy operations including lighting and appliances and dealt the NBC television network to Comcast. After cutting the fat, Immelt turned his attention to streamlining the divisions that remained, investing in high-tech businesses and information systems. The company re-upped its investment in healthcare, giving what’s now known as GE Healthcare a much bigger role. Immelt also pushed GE into the Internet of Things, creating divisions around information technology and its integration into other industries.
“I was with Jeff in the late ‘90s up until the year 2003 up until I moved to San Diego,” Lucier said. “It’s an interesting phenomenon, but that company, GE and specifically GE Medical as it was called back then, in that era, had some remarkable people in it. It was the glory days of that business for GE, and we grew rapidly, both organically and through acquisitions. It spawned a lot of folks that went to a lot of corners in the healthcare industry. Big corners.”
“It was a really special time. I think it was a neat time within the industry, and I think it was a special time within GE. The leadership there was really strong, there were great role models and great mentors to learn business and leadership from, and how to operationalize the business,” McCaulley recalled during another past DeviceTalks interview.
McCaulley credited Immelt with creating a culture that fostered personal and professional growth.
“I had seen great cultures in my career, and not-so-great cultures, so you just understand where it works well and why it’s important,” he said. “There was incredible alignment at the top, which I think was one of the most impressive aspects of GE, and I think there was an incredible commitment to developing people.”
Boston Scientific CEO Mike Mahoney said Immelt’s influence came into play as soon as he took up the reins at the then-Natick, Mass.–based firm in 2012, helping him in his efforts to turn around the company (including a move to nearby Marlborough). Culture played a huge role in his plans, he said.
“The first few meetings I went to [at Boston Scientific] were very, very heavy in bureaucracy. We would do a business review and the binders were 2 feet thick – I’ve got a lot of ADD and I couldn’t get through, maybe four pages at max. Things were slow, so we added ‘The Winning Spirit,’ a phrase I learned from Immelt years ago at GE,” Mahoney said. “It’s a way to see opportunities and have the courage to make decisions and move faster as a company.”
Other leaders who came up under Immelt took away different lessons to apply to their own endeavors.
“The most important thing was there was just this winning spirit about GE. You hear people talk about culture as this idea of the beliefs and mindsets that really drive people’s behaviors, and there was just a belief within GE that anything was possible, that the organization could accomplish great things and ultimately would accomplish great things,” McCaulley said. “And wherever you were in the company, you owned your little piece of the enterprise, depending on where you were. When I started, I had a very little piece of the enterprise – but you believed it was yours, and you had the ability to do great things with it. And if you did, you’d get more, and you’d get a chance to grow. I think that was just so pervasive within the culture.”
For Abiomed’s Minogue, culture was a key factor, but not as key as how it was married to a laser focus on efficiency and streamlining internal structures within GE.
“He is a great leader and really brought a certain level of leadership into medical, creating medical as a premiere organization inside of GE,” Minogue explained. “What I took away from GE were the processes and the culture. I came to a company like Abiomed, which was focused around innovation and the patients, and I merged the two together.”
On his last day at the office last year, Immelt dropped a few last pearls of wisdom for his soon-to-be-former colleagues. Learning itself, he wrote, is “part of the DNA for all good leaders.”
“Every minute I was with the GE team … they were the most important thing in the world to me. I have never met someone more dedicated to what they do than an engineer who works on an aircraft engine or a piece of healthcare equipment. You must build personal relationships. Top performers – in any field – want to do work that matters, and they want to be part of something bigger. Leading GE requires an ability to focus on each person, helping them do their best work together,” Immelt wrote in a parting note.