Larry Bossidy was never the CEO of a Connecticut-based company, but he’s been a big force in business here and elsewhere for decades at General Electric, Allied Signal, Honeywell International and lately, as a board member at Berkshire Bank, which owns the former CBT franchise .
On Friday, Bossidy brought a combination of homespun advice and hardnosed pragmatism to an economic conference of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, at the Sheraton Hartford South in Rocky Hill.
The precepts he offered are basic but the execution of them is not so easy, and Bossidy has the track record to back it up. Know yourself, be humble, reward doers, anticipate change, create systems that root out errors and, mostly, be flexible, not rigid.
“People who have their minds made up are the ones who end up falling by the wayside,” Bossidy said.
Bossidy started his career at General Electric in 1957, where he rose to be chief operating officer of GE Credit, now GE Capital, and vice chairman of the company, the right-hand man to chairman and CEO Jack Welch. Bossidy later turned Allied Signal into a top-performing company and sold it to Honeywell, which he ran in two stints, before and after Honeywell was nearly acquired by United Technologies, then General Electric, in 2001.
“I always discouraged a lot of philosophers around my place,” said Bossidy, 78. “You want good ideas but you want to get things done.”
That’s the theme of one of the two books Bossidy co-authored after retiring from Honeywell in 2002, “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done.” He later co-wrote “Confronting Reality: Doing What Matters to Get Things Right.”
It’s the smart, tough, results-based management style that’s at the heart of GE culture. Bossidy was close to Harry Gray, who converted the old United Aircraft Co. into United Technologies, and who greatly admired Bossidy. Like a lot of people, I assumed Gray had tried to recruit Bossidy in the tumultuous last years of Gray’s tenure at UTC in the mid-’80s.
Not true, Bossidy told me Friday. “We were friends, but wouldn’t have gone to a GE competitor. I woudn’t have gone to UTC.”
He’s a Red Sox fan and UTC, he said, was “the Yankees.” That was a different era, of course, and nowadays Red Sox and Yankees players jump ship for the Benjamins all the time.
“The quality and performance of U.S. companies is a lot better than it was ten years ago,” Bossidy said.
He sees more difficulty in the economy this year and no great boom in 2014 — in contrast to Ryan Sweet, an economist at Moody’s Analytics, who told the audience that U.S. GDP growth could reach 5 percent next year. But Bosssidy said he’s “an optimist for the country,” and that we’ll solve the problems of long-term liabilities and other major structural worries over the economy. Yolanda Kodrzycki, a vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and director of the New England Public Policy Center, had said earlier that those concerns could hamper economic growth for years.
But Bossidy’s main message transcended business, to the realm of leadership and more broadly, humanity. It’s very hard to promote innovation and teamwork at the same time, and it’s important to remember there are no cookie-cutter solutions to tough problems.
Bossidy was in some ways very much in the mold of typical speakers at business conferences — an accomplished CEO, still with a hand in the game. But he was broader than most, something CBIA appreciated, said Peter Gioia, the association’s vice president and head of research.
For example: As the more gregarious brother of a pair of twins, Bossidy said he learned humility from his mother. She told him, “It’s not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.