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A Lively Discourse: Jack Welch Visits HBS , Student Reactions Mixed

It wasn’t your ordinary pre-book-signing pep rally. Nor was it your typical Leadership and Values Forum inspirational speaker event. In Burden Auditorium last Tuesday, April 12th, over 600 students gathered to hear former GE Chairman and CEO Jack Welch share his thoughts on the evolution of the general manager replica watches uk, leadership, and his new book, Winning.

What ensued was more fiery debate than speaking tour evangelism. The discussion between Mr. Welch and Associate Professor Rakesh Khurana erupted into charged exchanges, provoking a wide variety of reactions from students after the event. There were those who felt that Professor Khurana pushed too hard with an aggressive line of questioning and others left with an impression of Jack Welch as an arrogant, condescending thug replica breitling.

“I didn’t have any expectations going in,” said Jay Klug (OE), “but I was very surprised by wide range of reactions”. The debate surrounding Mr. Welch’s visit continued throughout the week.

The event began innocuously enough. Leadership and Ethics Forum Co-President Bill Krause (OF) made the introductions, lauding Mr. Welch’s accomplishments at GE (which included increasing the company’s market capitalization to $400 Billion, making GE the most valuable company in the world) and noting Professor Khurana’s research into the CEO labor market and his recently published HBR article, “The Curse of the Superstar CEO”. The audience applauded heartily as the two men took the stage.

“Its really a pleasure to be here with you today, and in some ways ironic,” Professor Khurana began, rolling up his sleeves. “As Bill just mentioned, a lot of my work has been talking about some of the downside of the superstar CEO.”

“That’s why I’m here,” quipped Jack.

Consistent with mission of the Leadership and Values Forum, “to challenge the HBS Community to confront, consider, and debate leadership and ethical issues”, Khurana expressed his desire to make the interview a learning opportunity. He observed that learning about leadership is often difficult because, “either we make them [leaders] heroes or we make them out to be flawed individuals and we dismiss everything they’ve done.” In either case, Khurana believes that learning is impeded.

He continued, “Business is too important an institution for us not to pay attention to its leaders.”

“No, it’s THE most important institution,” Jack interjected. “It all revolves around that.”

“Government generates no revenues. Government lives off taxes, generated by business and people that work in business. Don’t ever forget that,” added Welch in his trademark, straight-talking style, to the crowd’s delight.

Shifting topics, Khurana inquired about Jack’s 1981 transition to the CEO role at GE, asking “How did you create change when things seemed to be going so well in the organization?”

“I had grown up in the company, and when you grow up in a company…you see all its warts, ” Jack began. To illustrate his point, Welch offered, “We had 147 people in strategic planning [long pause] – do you want to react to that?”

“In the end, it all revolves around people…you don’t do this alone. I had a team of really great people who wanted to change this staid, old beauracracy.”

In this transition, GE laid off thousands of workers, earning Welch the nickname “Neutron Jack”. Khurana next asked about what loyalty students should expected from their future employers, to which Mr. Welch responded, “None. Absolutely none.”

“You should expect to go to work for a company where its primary obligation is satisfied customers.” Jack continued, “Only satisfied customers can guarantee job security. Companies can’t.”

Khurana further pursued this point, pressing on the role of employees in the corporate structure and the obligations that companies and managers owe to their employees. Mr. Welch stuck to his initial statement, hammering on the importance of satisfied customers and at one point exclaiming, “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation at Harvard!”
Professor Khurana kept on with his questions, probing Jack on outsourcing (and its consequences for the U.S., such as wealth and income inequality), elevated CEO pay, and the growing cynicism towards business and business leaders. Though Jack earned the lion’s share of the crowd’s applause with his rhetorical questions (“Do you know of a better system? Would you rather be in France?”), Professor Khurana calmly and resolutely stayed the course, aptly articulating his view that even a great system can be improved, much like Jack Welch improved GE when it was widely regarded as a great company.

Thirty minutes into the interview, Jack turned to the audience for some “fresh questions,” and responded to inquires from students on planning a career, the role of faith in management, work life balance, and the future of business education, among others.

In closing, he also offered this advice, “You have the chance to build great enterprises wherever you go, You have a chance to get in the skin of people. You have a chance to raise their line of sight, higher than it’s ever been. You have an obligation to let people dream, to reach and grow. You really take on that responsibility as leaders. You’ve got to have fun, you’ve got to celebrate victories, and you’ve got to enjoy every minute of what you do. Don’t do anything that you don’t like and you’ll never work again.”

Divergent Expectations?
Interestingly, when Professor Khurana was first approached by students about the event, he was hesitant to accept. While his research (which focuses on corporate governance, including CEO compensation and the CEO labor market) is very popular with shareholders, in his own words, “CEOs hate it.” Before Mr. Welch accepted the interview, Khurana’s CV and several articles he has written were sent to his publicist and assistant, as well as details of the event format.

In Burden, however, where only a poster-sized reproduction of the cover of Winning sat on display behind the two men, the setting of the stage seemed to indicate that Jack would promote his new book rather than engage in a serious debate on leadership.

Ty Schultz (OH) commented, “It just didn’t seem as though Prof.Khurana and Mr. Welch had any sort of understanding on format or line of questioning prior to the event.”

Schultz added, “Usually HBS guest speaking events are moderated in minimalist fashion and are not intended to question the speaker as much as to give him or her forum to evangelize a point of view. I think this is what Mr. Welch had in mind and was caught off guard by the argumentative style of the questioning.”

From Jonathon Fitzhugh’s (OB) assessment, “I am definitely a Jack Welch admirer, but he was much less diplomatic and even-tempered in person than I would have imagined from reading his earlier books.”

Elli Kaplan (OC) was less generous, remarking, “I was stunned by what I saw – Jack Welch was clearly not interested in answering the questions and was condescending, disrespectful and appallingly rude to Professor Khurana.”

For his part, after the interview Khurana said he hoped that, “if students take away just one thing from the event, it would be that there are lots of models of leadership, from Anne Mulcahy at Xerox to a different model like Jack Welch’s. My hope is that they choose the one that is most reflective of each student’s personal values and the school’s mission.”

As a key organizer, Krause was pleased with the event overall. “I received positive feedback from Mr. Welch as well as from our classmates, and I think it’s a good sign when a speaker can generate the kind of buzz that provokes discussions of the issues long after conclusion of the event itself,” Krause said.

He added, “As I’ve heard repeatedly from classmates, it was certainly a lively interview!”

Whether or not students were impressed with Jack Welch, they flocked to the basement of Spangler to purchase Winning and to
have it signed by the famous author.

Krause noted “I was surprised by his degree of commitment to meeting and engaging with the students. The book signing line seemed like it would never end, but Mr. Welch pulled me aside to say that he was happy to stay for everyone, regardless of the time.”

In that regard, it seems Mr. Welch’s publicist was clear with him on at least one item on the day’s agenda: sell books.

Editor’s Note: If you missed Jack Welch’s visit, you can view the video of the event at //video.hbs.edu/videotools/portal/showcase.

April 19, 2005
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