Everyone realizes now that we live in an age of celebrity, but not simply celebrity. It’s an age of extreme omnipresence, with individuals emerging into notoriety and then remaining there, fixed at the center of attention regardless of their relevance to any past circumstance or future expectation. There are reality TV and Internet personalities, of course, which are easy enough to ignore. But now athletes and entertainers, intellectuals, and public officials in and out of office are exhibiting this sort of personal immanence. They are just there, always, and it matters not at all whether they are doing something worth watching, or may be expected to say or do something significant. They may be admirable or notorious, or amusing or annoying, or clever or dull, but these persons are supposed to matter to your personal interests and decisions, and mine.
I pondered some of this strangeness during the brewing observation about the tenure of now-departing General Electric chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt. After 16 years atop what surely has been the most influential industrial company of the past century, Immelt will take what appears to be a slightly early retirement. The business media coverage of this was frenzied.
This change was no surprise. The hints from analysts started late last year and recently had become open demands from investors. But, in an organization like GE the demands of investors (or customers) are not nearly as important as they would be in a more traditional manufacturing firm, like Boeing or General Motors. No, this is a change dictated by GE directors, and what they are indicating is they want a more dynamic, more celebrated, more immanent organization.
Don’t forget, the chairman of General Electric is the nominal successor to Thomas Edison. Immelt was the direct successor to Jack Welch, whose record for shaping and expanding GE in the 1980s and 90s loomed over everything that happened there in the current century. The expectations of Immelt were high.
And for almost 17 years Immelt’s performance sufficed. He bore the criticism for GE’s overexposure to financial markets, and endured reproach for ill-timed investments and divestments from various industries (oil and gas, broadcasting, appliances.) The company he’s leaving behind is not above criticism, but it is a solid investment. Yet, it does not have the ‘celebrity’ that GE had two decades ago — the sort of enterprise-scale cachet now attached to other companies.
GE aspires to have the omnipresence of Google, the admiration of Apple, the inevitability of Amazon, or the ‘coolness’ of Tesla. These are companies that never go away, and strive to make everyone feel they cannot function without their product or service. They collect fees and data from us, and make us grateful for that. They have consumers hankering for, and investors buzzing about what they will do next. They are global, and universal. Criticism has no effect or influence on their decisions. Yet, no one can easily explain what it is about Google or the rest that is so compelling. It just is.
Now, GE defines itself as “the world’s Digital Industrial Company, transforming industry with software-defined machines and solutions … organized around a global exchange of knowledge, … Each invention further fuels innovation and application across our industrial sectors.”
Is that clear? You cannot buy a GE-built light bulb or refrigerator, but you must be aware of how important, how necessary GE is to you. General Electric’s transformation is a parable for our age, in which the work and achievements of individuals are only credited if they are celebrated. Building a great jet engine is fine, but what will we see next? They don’t need a new executive to lead this project. They need a personality.