On his first day as the new chief executive of GE, John Flannery sent an internal letter to the company’s 300,000 employees. It’s been 16 years since GE has had a new CEO, so Flannery made sure the direction was clear.
“I have a relentless focus on three things,” Flannery stated in the letter. Those three things are: “Customers, team, and execution/accountability.” Flannery said every employee should focus on the customer as their “guiding principle.” He said a great team is one that welcomes transparency and candor. And finally, Flannery said he met with 100 investors who expect “better execution on cash, margins, and…costs.”
Why didn’t Flannery focus on eighteen initiatives…or ten, or even five? Flannery understands an essential rule of business communication — people can only carry about three or four key messages in short term memory. Offering too many action items at once will result in what researchers call ‘cognitive backlog.’ It means we’re simply not that great at processing too many ideas at once. Three goals are easy to remember. Three goals are perceived to be more achievable than say, ten or twelve.
Flannery is a fan of using the rule of three. In a 2015 conference, Flannery—then CEO of GE Healthcare— took to the stage and said, “I can talk about a number of different aspects, but I’d say there are three basic things that keep coming back to me from my customer interactions…passion, rate of change, and trusted partners.”
In the press conference when Flannery was named the new CEO to replace Jeffery Immelt, he was asked to talk for a few minutes. Flannery stood up and spoke briefly about the “three reasons” he felt humbled to accept the position:
1. Humbled to follow in Immelt’s footsteps.
2. Humbled to lead a company that has transformed life around the world.
3. Humbled and proud to have worked for the company for thirty years.
Flannery is a skilled communicator. He has to be. Nobody makes the short list for GE CEO unless that person is an excellent communicator. Bill Lane spent twenty years as the former speechwriter to legendary GE chief executive, Jack Welch. In his book, Lane wrote: “You simply cannot get a job at this level [senior leadership] if you can’t stand up and teach, and persuade, excite, and lead.” Lane was still at GE when Jeffrey Immelt was chosen as the CEO. Lane said that every one of the final 23 candidates were considered “good to great presenters.”
It should come as no surprise that Flannery is also considered a strong and memorable communicator. In a Wall Street Journal article shortly after the announcement, a GE insider says Flannery “stunned the crowd” at a leadership meeting in 2015 when he abandoned the standard PowerPoint. “That takes guts because there are 600 people in the room,” the source said.
Flannery said he’ll provide a more detailed business plan in November. While we don’t know his exact plans to move GE into the future, we can expect Flannery to articulate the plan clearly and simply, using the communication skills he’s learned to climb the ladder.