The legendary Jack Welch, the former Chairman and CEO of General Electric (GE) 1981–2001, died two weeks ago.
Welch was the most prominent business leader of the post-war era. Under his leadership, GE metamorphosed into one of the world’s largest, most profitable, and best-admired companies. He expanded GE’s market capitalization from $12 billion to $410 billion on the back of the steady economic expansion of the 1990s. Welch also became the poster child for “new globalization,” and GE led American companies in gaining access to new markets and lower-cost labor. (Note: GE Medical Systems was one of my first consulting clients out of college.)
For nearly three decades, until his star faded away in about 2008, Welch was the talk of corporate America—he was lionized for streamlining the industrial giant’s top-heavy bureaucracy and empowering managers to spot problems and make changes promptly.
Welch became the font of all sorts of pearls of management wisdom. He was the exemplar after whom American managers patterned themselves—“What Would Jack Do?” became a familiar business mantra. Companies borrowed six-sigma, rank-and-yank, stretch goals, and his other managerial innovations. In 1999, Fortune magazine designated Welch as the “manager of the century.”
The Messy and Embarrassing $180 Million-Divorce
In 2002, Welch’s reputation took a first big hit when his wife Jane Welch exposed his extramarital affair with Harvard Business Review editor Suzy Wetlufer (later his third wife.) The affair started when she was interviewing him for her publication. Jane, a sharp corporate lawyer whom Jack had extolled as “the perfect partner” in part for taking up golf and playing with his business associates, had even confronted Wetlufer over the phone and cast doubt on her journalistic objectivity.
Welch’s private life became fodder for gossip, and he became a regular feature in New York’s supermarket tabloids. The proceedings of the divorce divulged the extravagant pension benefits that Welch had gotten for himself. Among other lavish allowances, he had kept a company plane and an apartment in New York’s Central Park West—just these cost GE some $1.7 million a year. GE would supply Welch with fresh flowers, wine, dry cleaning, and even vitamins. After a public outcry, Welch was forced to forfeit many of these retirement benefits.
The Aura of Jack Welch Deflated
Welch transformed GE into a super-conglomerate and a Wall Street-darling during his 21-year tenure as CEO. Sadly, Welch’s business model became overly complicated, and many of the mistakes of his strategic deals manifested years later. The most consequential case in point was GE Capital, the finance division that delivered the parent company a near-fatal blow during the 2008 financial crisis. Welch had overconfidently let GE Capital grow unchecked during his tenure, and its easy profits had masked problems at GE’s core industrial divisions.
After a much-publicized “Super Bowl of CEO succession planning,” Welch bequeathed his successor Jeffrey Immelt with a puffed-up corporation. Welch retired in September 2001, and the “house that Jack built” started to crumble right away in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. After failing to curb GE’s sagging profits, Immelt was fired in 2017 following his ill-timed deals for GE’s power division.
All told, Welch’s undoing was his exceptional obsession with shareholder value. He made countless deals—many unrelated to GE’s traditional core competencies—and championed corporate efficiency to the detriment of initiatives that may have sustained GE’s long-term competitiveness.
GE is now a derelict shadow of its former self. Its market capitalization has fallen from a peak of $600 billion in 2000 to $82 billion today.
The “GE Man” Turned out a Dud
Welch’s other legacy was going to be the “GE Man.” Trained at the knee of Welch, GE’s vast managerial talent was commonly recognized as one of the world’s best. Its leadership development program, headquartered at the famed Leadership Center in Crotonville, New York, was the best training ground for future executives. In April 2005, Fortune magazine noted,
When a company needs a loan, it goes to a bank. When a company needs a CEO, it goes to General Electric, which mints business leaders the way West Point mints generals. … One headhunter estimates the company harbors another dozen execs of FORTUNE 500 caliber.
Alas, Welch’s protégés were mostly disappointments. Much of the long line of managers whom he had mentored at GE has failed to achieve runaway success in running big firms—3M, Boeing, Chrysler, Home Depot, Honeywell, Pentair, ABB, and, undeniably, GE itself.
“Jack’s Rules” for Management Success
Welch and his management style earned much criticism for insensitiveness and abrasiveness. Yet, some of his leadership techniques are worth emulating.
- Nurture a “boundaryless” culture. Cultivate an open organization by removing the barriers that inhibit people and organizations working together. Foster an informal culture that expedites the free flow of ideas, people, and decisions.
- Involve everybody to enhance productivity. Welch instituted a brainstorming process called “Work-Out” that enabled frontline employees and workers to propose improvement ideas to the bosses who are required to take action “on the spot.”
- Empower people. Delegate and get out of the way. “We now know where productivity-real and limitless productivity-comes from. It comes from challenged, empowered, excited, rewarded teams of people.”
- Embrace meritocracy. Let ideas and intellect rule over hierarchy and tradition. “The quality of the idea is determined by the idea, and not the stripes on your shoulder.”
- Eliminate bureaucracy. “Anything that you can do to simplify, remove complexity and formality, and make the organization more responsive and agile, will reduce bureaucracy.” Welch once called bureaucracy “the Dracula of institutional behavior,” since red tape and rules and regulations tend to rise from the dead every few years.
- Simplify. Drop unnecessary work. Work with colleagues to streamline decision-making. “The way to harness the power of these people is not to protect them … but to turn them loose, and get the management layers off their backs, the bureaucratic shackles off their feet and the functional barriers out of their way.”
- Focus on continuous improvement. “Don’t sit still. Anybody sitting still, you can guarantee they’re going to get their legs knocked out from under them.”
- Act with speed. “Speed is everything. It is the indispensable ingredient in competitiveness.”
- Get good ideas from everywhere. Study competitors. Abandon the “not invented here” mindset and embrace best practices that are “proudly found elsewhere.”
Welch’s playbook has been studied in dozens of management books, including the three best-sellers he wrote: Jack: Straight from the Gut (2001,) Winning (2005; with wife Suzy Welch,) and The Real-Life MBA (2015; also with Suzy.)
Jack Welch: Captain of Capitalism Whose Star Faded Away
Welch’s most significant legacy will be the Wall Street-orientation of business corporations. He promoted an obsessive focus on creating shareholder value, and in so doing, helped incite the current fixation on quarterly earnings. That, and the burn out of the General Electric that Welch left behind, is testimony to the potential after-effects of sacrificing the long-term well-being of corporations to meet short-term targets.