GE CEO shares leadership challenges with Board of Regents

General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt told University of Wisconsin leaders today that the two enterprises share similar challenges: making large, complex operations run more efficiently and inexpensively.

“That, I think, is the big leadership challenge of the 21st century,” Immelt said at the UW Board of Regents meeting this morning in Madison.

To that end, Immelt — who has led the conglomerate since 2001 — said that over the past 18 months, GE has made efforts to run “more like a startup” while maintaining the company’s advantages of scale. That includes cutting down on the company’s layers and emphasizing moving at the speed of markets.

Similarly, he said UW needs to show it is the best-run university system in the country before asking for more money from lawmakers and the governor.

Immelt said although doubling down on education is likely the best way to produce long-term growth in the economy, politicians generally don’t have the luxury of waiting decades for results.

He also said UW leaders should focus on creating “clusters” in various industries to help spur economic development, noting the wide range of startups stemming from UW-Madison’s medical research.

Immelt, who chairs the Obama administration’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, said GE and other large companies need more startups in the marketplace, not only for investment, but to fuel growth in the economy overall — and that universities should play a critical role in developing those companies.

He said the current slow growth in the national economy isn’t enough to keep the U.S. ahead of the rest of the world economically, or to return to a lower level of domestic unemployment and under-employment.

Immelt, who met with regents and Gov. Scott Walker for breakfast prior to the board meeting, lauded UW as a top source of GE employees — jokingly repeating his affection after protesters twice interrupted the beginning of his presentation.

Immelt also noted he sits in the regents’ seats as a member of the board of Dartmouth College, his alma mater. He called it “as hard as my day job,” but that higher education leaders are essential because universities are “one of the most stunning advantages that the United States has.”

“We can’t afford to let it flounder,” Immelt said.