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Former GE CEO Jeff Immelt on His Controversial Legacy: ‘I Don't Want to Hide'

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This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

Jeff Immelt admits his 16-year run as CEO at General Electric was at best "controversial" after he left the storied company in 2017 drowning in debt with a crumbling stock value.

But instead of taking his more than $200 million in retirement pay and laying low, Immelt wrote a book. "Hot Seat: What I Learned Leading a Great American Company," available Tuesday, details his mistakes running GE.

"I want to be reflective about it," says Immelt, who now lectures at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. "I don't want to hide."

In 2001, Immelt, who had previously held executive positions at GE for 19 years, was picked to succeed Jack Welch, one of the most famous CEOs in U.S. history. Under Welch, GE's market value soared from $14 billion to more than $410 billion.

Immelt's run wasn't so fruitful.

He took the helm on Sept. 7, 2001, four days before 9/11. The impact of the terrorist attacks battered several of GE's businesses, causing shares to plunge 20%, Immelt writes in "Hot Seat." Seven years later, the 2008 financial crisis hit GE's financial services division, GE Capital, which nearly collapsed.

During Immelt's tenure, GE's stock fell about 30%, wiping out over $150 billion in market value, which many analysts, investors and even fellow CEOs blame on Immelt's missteps. The year after his departure, GE was dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In December, GE agreed to pay $200 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission for misleading investors and disclosure failures in its power and insurance businesses from 2015 to 2017.

"I know that there will be more criticism coming with the book as we relive it," Immelt says. But "I really love the company. I really love the people, and I really feel like a different context needs to be painted around GE."

Here, Immelt talks to CNBC Make It about his biggest mistakes, how he handles extreme stress, and whether money and power actually make you happier.

On whether he'd do it all again with GE: 'The good days are really good'

I think the answer is yes. The good days are really good and the things that we had a chance to do and work on, like globalizing the company or launching products or developing people, that's extremely rewarding.

And the bad things really stink.

What I try to tell entrepreneurs or MBA students [who I work with] is that without a few bad days, you never appreciate the good days. I have a unique perspective on appreciating good days having been through some bad ones.

It was an honor to lead, and I will always feel that way.

General Electric executives Jack Welch and Jeffrey Immelt attend a press conference in New York City. The conference is to announce that Immelt has been named President and Chairman elect of GE, succeeding Welch.
mark peterson | Corbis Historical | Getty Images
General Electric executives Jack Welch and Jeffrey Immelt attend a press conference in New York City. The conference is to announce that Immelt has been named President and Chairman elect of GE, succeeding Welch.

On dealing with extreme stress: 'I would go home at 7 p.m. and go to bed'

Go to bed at night and don't worry about the things you can't control. Just do your best. People have to learn how to grade themselves on progress, not perfection. Perfection is impossible today.

You also have to take care of yourself. You can't drink too much. You can't do things that are going to impair your judgment.

During the financial crisis, when I wasn't at work, I went home and went to bed. Some nights that was at 2 a.m. and some nights it was at 7 p.m. I would go home at 7 p.m. and I would go to bed because you never knew when you would get the next amount of sleep.

On his biggest mistakes: I should have taken a 'more holistic look' at the company

Very early on after 9/11, I should have taken a much more long-term and holistic look at [GE], and done it from a standpoint of caution.

The choice I made at that moment was to let GE Capital continue to grow while we were fixing the industrial set of businesses. By the time 2007 and 2008 [and the financial crisis] came around, that didn't look very smart. There was just so much momentum around GE at the time, it would have been a herculean task.

But what I tell young leaders is to take a look at your company over a very long time period. Don't do it every day. I do think history might have been different if I had done that.

On finding support: 'Everyone likes you when you're on top'

My family and close friends have helped me get through the last three years and the last 20 years.

Everyone likes you when you're on top, but you need a few people that really like you when you're on the bottom, because almost everybody ends up there sometime.

The fact that I maintained close friendships and maintained an amazing wife and daughter, that's what helped me get through.

On money buying happiness: I was 'so happy' as a GE plastics salesman

When I was a [GE] plastics salesman in 1982, I was so happy. I was happy when I was running the medical business [GE Medical Systems from 1996 to 2000].

I think people need to be achievement-oriented and need to have a vision for themselves and what they want to get done that is both meaningful to them and others. That to me is happiness, and money kind of comes with it.

I didn't get a chance to spend as much time with my daughter as I would like. But what compensates is that she got to do a lot of really neat things. I would be insincere if I didn't say there were benefits [to money], but I always marveled in simple things.

When I was CEO, I would go to Walmart and shop to see how our lighting products were on the shelves. I would call [former Walmart CEO] Lee Scott or [current Walmart CEO] Doug McMillian and say, 'Here's what I saw today.' I never lost sight of the fact that that's what I really like most about my job.

On reinventing himself after GE: 'I had to go heal'

I had to kind of retire. I had to go heal and reinvent myself.

Put yourself in my shoes, where the people who you loved, a company you loved, it just didn't end the way they wanted it to end. And yet, I didn't want to quit. I didn't want to hide.

I convinced my wife to move to California. I started teaching students and I went to work with some old friends at a venture capital firm [New Enterprise Associates].

I took what I thought I could do and had to go out and win the respect of new companies and new friends.

It's been humbling. It's been rewarding. On any given day, I can go from being sad to being happy. But I didn't stop, I didn't give up.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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