Every strategy has a sell-by date, and the costs of ignoring that reality are steep.  Recently General Electric took the radical step of terminating CEO and Chairman John Flannery after 13 months on the job (prior to this action GE had had a total of 11 CEOs and 10 Chairmen in its 126-year history) and replacing him with the company’s first outside CEO, Lawrence Culp.  The break with history was certainly necessary, as General Electric had seen its market capitalization decline by $100 billion in the past year, and $500 billion in the past 18 years.

GE Stock Performance
Value Destruction at GE

GE rose to prominence by constructing a set of self-reinforcing advantages that were largely industry agnostic. Under the leadership of Jack Welch the potential cacophony of multiple lines of business became a sublime orchestra, with GE Capital as the engine that powered the whole.  But the global financial crisis changed the outlook for massive financial businesses, and Welch’s successor, Jeff Immelt, spent much of his tenure untangling the byzantine, and formerly massively profitable, conglomerate.

What happened?

Strategy, a high-level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty, is the answer to a question.  That question: what set of actions, utilizing what resources, will produce the best outcome.  A company’s strategy is its theory of self, its reason for being.  Unfortunately, few organizations, or the people leading them, can adjust to the cognitive dissonance of an ever-changing answer and all that that implies.

Since at least the Jack Welch era General Electric’s strategy was to compete only in sectors in which it could be a dominant player and rely on what was seen as an advantage in leadership training and internal capital allocation to drive efficiencies that would beat the market.  The strategy worked both long and well (the company first had to attain a market capitalization above $500 billion in order to lose that value), but over time challenges that were long apparent took on increasing importance.

  • Pace of Change.  As the pace of change across industries has ramped up, being a major player in disparate industries became a tax on leadership attention, making it impossible to focus or marshal the resources necessary to make sound strategic adjustments.
  • Leadership Training.  It may have been the case once upon a time that GE had an inherent advantage in leadership training, but with the workforce investing heavily in education and training, this one-time advantage has been negated.
  • Capital Allocation.  Jack Welch took the helm at General Electric after a period of flat equity returns, when many U.S. companies were bloated and inefficient.  In 1981, perhaps a case could have been made that GE could more efficiently allocate capital within the company than the capital markets were able to.  Increased competition, new classes of investor (private equity, activist, etc.), and heightened shareholder expectations have changed that state of affairs.

There is a strong case to be made that complexity killed GE, but the wonder is the extreme longevity that an outmoded strategy enjoyed.  Much like the wooly mammoths (or, for a separate example, the dodo) that lived as recently as four thousand years ago on a small island off the cost of Siberia, General Electric had been a living anachronism for years.  With new leadership, GE is making a break from its past and speeding the dissolution of its current, anachronistic form.

About the Author:

David Johnson is founder and Managing Partner of Abraxas Group, a boutique advisory firm focused on providing transformational leadership to middle market companies in transition.  Over the course of his career David has served as financial advisor and interim executive to dozens of middle market companies. 

David can be contacted at: david@abraxasgp.com.