John Rice, one of four vice chairs of GE and President and CEO of GE Global Growth and Operations, was back in town today. John and I worked together for a couple years on the Atlanta Education Fund Board where I came to know him as a great leader and a good man. His promotion a year ago took him and his wife Cammie to Hong Kong. At least that’s John’s base from which he has travelled to 40 countries this year. The only other guy I know who has a job like this is Coke’s CEO, Muhtar Kent, and I wrote a couple weeks ago about Dr. Kent’s views of the world. John’s talk today was reminiscent of Muhtar’s in many regards. If I had to guess, I think John lies a little left of Muhtar in his personal political views, but I would trust either of them to run our country in a heartbeat. One thing is for certain: neither would allow his business to become stalemated the way our country has. The worst thing, according to John, is the political paralysis we are seeing now. “I hate to pay taxes as much as the next guy”, John tells us, “but I know my taxes are going to go up and I can live with that. Just do it already, make the deep and serious cuts to spending we have to make, and let’s get on with it”. That’s a paraphrase, not a direct quote, but I don’t think he’d quibble with what I have written. John, like Muhtar (and unlike so many of our elected officials), lives in the real world. Every day he is making decisions that balance the short run with the long run and it always is a balance.
Most of his speech was about global trade and the futility of creating barriers to the movement of capital, ideas, or people. “It’s not a zero sum game,” he tells us. “Not a single innovation from GE in the last decade can be attributed to one country and so much of everything GE makes, here or abroad, has its roots if not its components in two or more countries.” Can American compete on the global stage? Absolutely, he shares with us. “Competency trumps costs (within reason), every time. Our focus has to be on producing competent workers with a serious work ethic. Working half-speed at twice the cost will never cut it, but working full-speed at twice the cost will as long as the work is being performed at a high level.”
And finally, John makes a few comments on Occupy Wall Street, noting it has become a global phenomena. These days, every leader is asked to offer his or her views of what they think about these protests. I know that Muhtar was and his remarks and John’s were quite similar. First, neither looked down their nose at “these people”. I suspect neither is a big fan of how these protests have been organized or executed, but that’s not the point. They each believe that the movement means something and we need to be listening for that meaning. They spoke about the unsustainable growth in income inequality and the potential for that increasing disparity to unravel the social order. These guys are real businessmen, as real as it gets, but they get it. They are disgusted (my word, not theirs) at our political system. They know that virtually everyone has lost faith in it, on the left, center and right. And they know that it takes action, through compromise, to solve anything. They have my vote. I just wish they were running for something.