I worked at General Electric for about three years under Jack Welch. A long way under to be fair, but close enough to get a sense of who he was.
When I met him the first time at a CNBC event, I was surprised by the person I encountered: short, friendly and with a stutter. Certainly not the man who the media spoke of in hushed tones, given G.E.’s performance under his leadership (from $14BB to $410BB in revenue growth under his reign).
Two character traits stuck out for me:
- How much he believed people could grow (particularly his executives), and how much of his own time he spent developing them.
- How clear he was about the unviability of being anything less than the best or second-best business in the sector.
Though I was young at the time, both of the above character traits stood out for me, and many other CEOs have benefited a great deal from his leadership approach.
For me his legacy is this: as popular and vaunted as he was, it wasn’t long into his retirement when his way of leading a business was loudly criticized as being outdated.
From my perspective, the lesson for the CEOs is to never get too attached to any particular way of doing things and to constantly evolve ourselves and our skills set. The speed with which external circumstances change means we must force ourselves away from the dogma that might make sense at the time, but which might not be the best way for us to drive Optimal System Performance from our businesses.
The key is not to be devoid of any belief system so that we are left floating in the wind, but to be appropriately vested in a particular way that lets us move on when the time comes.
Net/net my take is that Jack Welch was a solid person, a good leader and is worthy of our attention. His way was neither evergreen nor for everyone, which is surely a leadership learning for all of us as we seek to find our own particular leadership ‘genius’.