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Leading from the front

A conference hall resonating with drum beats is an unusual spectacle for an Information Technology (IT) conference. Day 3 of the NASSCOM Technology and Leadership Forum 2019 (NTLF 2019) began with exactly that: the pulsing beats of drums.

As the rhythm subsides, it paves the way for a candid conversation with Jeff Immelt, Executive Chairman, Athenahealth. Hosting Immelt was former colleague Pramod Bhasin, now Founder, Clix Capital.

This isn’t Immelt’s first time in India and thus he offers far more useful commentary on leadership.

On leadership

Jeff Immelt took reins of General Electric (GE) four days before 9/11 that not just changed the geopolitics of the world, but also cost GE’s insurance business $600 million, and directly affected the company’s Aircraft Engines sector. Unenviably, Immelt also has had front row seats to the 2008 market crash and the Fukushima meltdown.

To that effect, Immelt knows crises closely and has sage counsel for business leaders. His mantra is simple to follow: during hard times keep your team together, think long-term, and compartmentalize the good from the bad.

However, he’s demanding of what leaders must do in a crisis. According to Immelt, leaders must ‘own the narrative’. A crisis is brutal for a company, especially in media and the public eye. For leaders, it is important to tell their side of the story and embrace transparency and accountability. “Leadership is an intense journey,’ notes Immelt.

Every day is a crisis and it is important for a leader to be able to dust off troubles at night and wake up to fight again each morning.

 On the risk of failing

“You can’t be an email signature,” Immelt warns. Businesses face more difficulties today because business models are more differentiated and diverse. Failure is imminent and the only way to pre-empt is to spot it early. Headquarters are ivory towers and business leaders need to be in the trenches where the risks are close, and so is opportunity.

The roadmap for IT

Immelt offers only observation when questioned on the future of Indian IT by ex-colleague Bhasin. For him, the 1st wave of Internet didn’t help the industrial technology to the scale that it changed personal technology. Digital Transformation, Internet of Things, and data analytics needs to step up to help industrial technology push the manufacturing sector.

For this to happen, Immelt says, users in manufacturing have to pick up the tools they want. In the decade to follow, Chief Information Officers (CIO) must stop being gatekeepers and evolve to becoming facilitators of digital transformation.

Data needs to work

How do businesses avoid inertia that slow down the propulsion of IT and digital transformation? In Immlet’s opinion it can happen when businesses use data as a competitive tool. When such technology capabilities are limited, organizations can look to insource and invest in technology capabilities.

But knowing when and what to invest is important. He circles back to the importance of value and vision for businesses. Legacy organizations aren’t as nimble as lean start-ups or smaller organizations. To traverse the digital landscape, they must carry the internal stakeholders first. “The best clients are inside the company,”, Immlet observes. That’s important because unless digital transformation in not embraced internally and embedded in the fabric of the organization culture and values, it serves poor.

On POTUS and China

When it comes to conversation on leadership, it is hard to not mention the 45th President of the United States of Amercia (USA), Donald J Trump.

What Immelt sees in POTUS is a reflection of the mood of the country painted in nationalistic fervour. The doctrine of nationalism is spread everywhere, yet it is more relevant and profound when it comes from the United States (US).

In Immelt’s opinion, businesses must stay flexible and continue to work in the US, or with the US. Despite the clamour of trade wars and market protectionism, there is need, especially for Indian businesses, to know and realise where the markets are. The US-China trade war has alarming consequences on the world economy, but India stands as a good counterbalance. For Immelt, India is not an either-or for China, it is an independent opportunity.

Immelt’s counsel extends to the local, the unit for globalisation. “Businesses must stitch indigenous markets together with technology,” weighs Immelt empathically.

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