Case | HBS Case Collection | December 2005 (Revised April 2011)

General Electric's 20th Century CEOs

by Nitin Nohria, Anthony Mayo and Mark Benson


General Electric thrived in every decade of the 20th century. Since its founding in 1892, GE has placed a high value on picking and training the best people. Staff members worked with other scientists in the company's research lab to design and manufacture new and better products to satisfy the growing American consumer demand for lighting, appliances, and consumer electronics in the 1910s to 1920s as well as in the 1950s and 1960s. GE's top executives have shown a clear understanding of the leadership and managerial styles that were appropriate for the years in which they worked. In the first decade of the 20th century, Charles Coffin demonstrated that he was an adept negotiator who amassed great wealth for GE in building generators and power equipment for local utilities in which GE also had a financial stake through bond issues. In the final decades of the 20th century, Jack Welch emphasized that GE should support only the most profitable businesses in the company's portfolio, a logic that led Welch and GE to phase out GE's consumer electronics division while bolstering the financial position of GE capital. Profiles all of GE's top executives.

Keywords: Business History; Leadership Style; Growth and Development Strategy; Management Style;


Nohria, Nitin, Anthony Mayo, and Mark Benson. "General Electric's 20th Century CEOs." Harvard Business School Case 406-048, December 2005. (Revised April 2011.)