THE CEO OF CEOS: FORMER CEO, GE
My biggest mistake was explosive—literally. In 1963, three years into my GE career, I was a chemical engineer, eager and ambitious and trying like hell to build a plastics business in an electrical company. In the process, my pilot plant blew up. Yes, blew up—roof collapsed, windows shattered, clouds of smoke, the works. I thank God no one was hurt, to this day. But I was certain my career was over, especially when my boss in Pittsfield suddenly didn’t know me, and I got a call to go see the big boss in New York. His name was Charlie Reed, and I didn’t know him at all. What I did know was that I was terrified—i was sure I was going to be yelled at, humiliated and then unceremoniously fired. After all, it was my plant and my fault.
But Charlie Reed taught me a huge lesson about leadership and life that day. He was calm. He was kind. He was thoughtful. He spent several hours with me, employing the Socratic method of questioning, to help me understand why the explosion occurred and what I could have—and should have—done differently. And then, after it was all over, he gave me a second chance.
I learned to never kick someone when they’re down. Everyone makes mistakes, and some are real whoppers. But that makes them whopping opportunities, too—for growth. In the years after my encounter with Charlie, I followed his example with my own employees, and saw it help more people for the better. I also learned that the time to “kick” people—and by kick I mean “challenge”—is when they’re on the way up, to remind them that when you’re growing, make sure your head isn’t swelling, too!