Jack Welch: Unfiltered


Feisty and opinionated, Jack and Suzy Welch took to the Authors@Wharton stage to tell us what we really need to know to succeed in business. Jack Welch spent twenty years at the helm of GE; his wife Suzy attended a business school slightly to the north, is a Bain alum, and the former editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review. Their latest book, “The Real-Life MBA: Your No-BS Guide to Winning the Game, Building a Team, and Growing Your Career,” just hit the shelves.

Adam Grant moderated a lively conversation that ranged from: what MBAs need to know once they’re a few years out of school, the biggest mistake MBAs make and how to handle “getting whacked,” the power couple left Wharton students with a lot to think about.

Here are a few choice excerpts.

Adam Grant: What do you see from MBAs that drives you up the wall?

Jack Welch: The challenge is when you’re the hiring manager, because then it isn’t about you. It’s about the people under you. I love to see a young MBA talk about the team, talk about who gave them the idea. But some just talk about themselves and their own accomplishments. If they’re still just pumping themselves up when they start advancing it’s not so pretty.

Suzy Welch: The biggest mistake I see MBA’s make is—and I did it—is go into banking or consulting. I started after Harvard at Bain. I thought I’d pay off student debt. They got me with the whitewater rafting. But that’s the two-year view, not the ten-year view. There was a lot of affirmation along the way. But in the book we talk about your area of destiny: what you are uniquely good at, you’re good at many things but uniquely good at only a few. Intersect that with what you like to do and that’s your area of destiny. That’s where you’re ending up.

“You can only get wisdom from people under 7 and over 70. The filters are gone. In the middle there’s spin. Older gentlemen like me let ‘er rip.”

AG: Why should we get your real-life MBA? We’re getting our own.

SW: Some don’t have the time, flexibility or finances. And do you have a class on what to do when you get whacked, because you’re going to get whacked. At some point a competitor is going to come for you, or you’re going to get fired.

AG: Suzy do you have a favorite getting whacked story?

SW: I was fired from Harvard Business Review and it was on the cover of the Wall Street Journal. It was really public, and my first truly big gigantic failure. What it taught me is I should have failed earlier. I should have discovered the experience of failure earlier. So we tell our kids to fail early.

AG: I was excited to read about your belief in the power of generosity. But, I have to wonder, has Neutron Jack gone soft?

JW: People who are stingy with praise, who don’t give raises, who aren’t excited to see you grow—those people are awful. People like that don’t get ahead. If you do have the generosity gene, people will do things for you and you’ll go far. While I was at GE, our performance created 15,000 multi-millionaires based on GE stock options.

SW: “Neutron Jack” was made up by the media. It was made up when he came into the company in the early 80s and had to change the whole company.

AG: And what about the bottom 10% who get fired: how do they grow? [clapping from the audience]

JW: When you have the bottom 10%, let’s take the Phiillies. Every day they wake up knowing they’re the bottom 10, they just look at the scoreboard. In business it’s much harder to see how you’re doing. So in business you have to appraise frequently, quarterly. You better never call yourself a leader if people who work for you don’t know where they stand.  It’s cruel not to constantly tell people where they stand. For the top 20 you give lots of praise. For those in the middle 70 you tell them how to get to the top 20. For the bottom 10 you tell them they have a year to fix it. But the team that fields the best players wins.

SW: But it’s not immediate. You need to give people a long runway; it’s not a midnight execution. They’re constantly being told what they need to do better. It’s very candid.

AG: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received from Suzy to date?

SW: [laughs]

JW: You can only get wisdom from people under 7 and over 70. The filters are gone. In the middle there’s spin. Older gentlemen like me let ‘er rip. Suzy calms me down on that

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