Jack Welch: A Graduate's Take

On a gorgeous afternoon in which the sun gently descended upon, and yet still burned, the exposed skin of the cheerful spectators gathered south of the Charles River in front of Baker Library, legendary CEO of General Electric Jack Welch also attempted to both float and yet sear his words of wisdom into the exposed souls of both the graduates and their families of the Harvard Business School class of 2001. Mr. Welch suggested to those congregated that life, and its subsequent success, are based much more on human qualities than complicated quantitative models or any x-dimensioned matrix.

Taking an innovative approach to addressing a graduating class, Mr. Welch did not give or prepare any specific remarks. Instead, Nigel Killick, a member of the class of 2001, interviewed him, and, occasionally, even dared to enter into friendly banter with the sagacious business leader who, though never one to be known as a humanitarian, spoke repeatedly of the Thoreauesque side of business and gave us a glimpse of the paradox that is Jack Welch.

Mr. Welch began his remarks by stating that throughout his career he has been lucky enough simply to “be himself,” giving the analogy that GE today has become much more like the grocery store around his old Salem neighborhood than he has become like GE (that must have been some grocery store!).

He next gave a bit of humorous, yet insightful, advice to those graduating admonishing them to remember, “that the distance between a horse’s brain and his backend is not that far. Know where you are at.”

When Nigel asked the business guru what advice he could give to those graduating as they went forward in life Mr. Welch apparently transformed into the Dali Lama and stated, “Always build self-confidence in those around you. Inspire don’t manage. With fertilization in one hand and water in the other, build a garden – the most beautiful one that you can.”

When pressed with respect to his own pruning record Mr. Welch simply reminded the audience that in every garden there are weeds and there are dead flowers. When asked how he emotionally dealt with some of the tough decisions that a gardener of his stature must face, he simply stated that the ends, a beautiful, profitable garden, justified the means, pruning, weeding, and sacrificing certain flowers.

Mr. Welch also talked about the importance of creating role models, both positive and negative, in order to influence and police a large organization such as GE.

Then, returning to his feel-good, hippie theme he preached to all those that had gathered that business in not “rocket science, it’s not a finite strategy. This is not theoretical, this is human.”

When Nigel, tongue-in-cheek, then questioned the worth of his recently received MBA degree from HBS, Mr. Welch quickly credited the HBS experience with teaching future leaders the ability “to learn how to try new ideas, learn when you are wrong,” and learn how to interact with others.

Mr. Welch then feigned disbelief and incredulity toward the vociferous criticism that some have given GE concerning the company’s strict evaluation standard. He confidently claimed that since individuals are graded their whole lives, the process of measuring performance should not stop at employment.

Finally he offered his four E’s when evaluating others. Do they have Energy? Do they Energize others? Do they have an Edge? and do they Execute?

Mr. Welch concluded by divulging that he is in the process of writing a book which he claimed “is the hardest thing that I have ever done.”

Hopefully the end will justify the means.

June 4, 2001
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