By now, the story of Jeffrey Immelt, former GE CEO, traveling with, not one, but two corporate jets so that he always had back-up has made the rounds. The Board is outraged and sent out an explanation befitting of a coach for the 5-year-olds’ soccer team in their end-of-the-year ‘Everyone gets a trophy because everyone is a winner” celebration. The GE spokeswoman lauded Mr. Immelt’s 30 years of “dedicated service.” Worse was Mr. Immelt’s letter in which he explained the need for the second jet because he worked “100-hour weeks with more than 60 percent of my time of the road.” He also added that “GE had a difficult time keeping its planes flying.” The Barometer will keep that warm and fuzzy thought the next time she boards a jet with GE engines, which will be the next flight because GE supplies engines to all the airlines! The Barometer has not seen a chase plane at-the-ready for us in coach.
However, what is missing from the justifications, explanations, excuses, and platitudes is why internal audit missed the practice or said nothing about it. No one in corporate travel said a word until there was a change in the HR VP spot (the officer in charge of corporate travel). The head of HR and general counsel questioned the use of the second plane. So, they did what all bureaucratic messes do — they formed a committee and came up with the brave recommendation to stop the stupid chase plane. The recommendation or order or whatever it was, was ignored. Then came the whistleblower report. Neither VPs, nor corporate committees, nor boards, nor rain, nor sleet nor dark of night can stop a whistleblower. So, the new CEO stopped all private jets, is selling the fleet, and everyone will use commercial flights. Remember, they have GE engines!
GE is investigating so that we on the outside, including investors, can fill in the gaps beyond the “dog ate my homework” justifications being tossed about. GE might have a look at the Bathsheba Syndrome. The name comes from the story of David and…., perhaps the raciest story in the Bible. When the king gets too comfy, hanging around the palace, not fighting battles any longer, and taking advice from no one, you get adultery, a child on the way, the death of Uriah, or, in this case, a chase plane for the CEO’s private jet. There were a few in the palace who saw that something was awry, but no one listened because of an apparent fear of King Jeffrey. He might be doing something stupid and harmful, but he is, after all, the king.
If employees and leaders were willing to let this one slide, imagine all the strategic, production, marketing, and other cost issues they let go unaddressed for fear of the king. The corporate chase jet and the failure of anyone to stop it is symbolic. The events reflect a fearful culture at GE. With no resistance, Immelt took GE down a path of near self-destruction. Imagine, one of the good-to-great, great-to-excellent, built-to-last, Six-Sigma companies that everyone once studied going down in flames. Oh, the symbolism in that sentence. We continue to study GE now, but for a different reason. How is it possible for such a company to destroy itself? The Bathsheba Syndrome was no doubt a big part of it. And the chase plane events tell us it was in play.