29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
29 Leadership Secrets
from Jack Welch
Get Better or Get Beaten,
New York Chicago San Francisco Lisbon London Madrid
Mexico City Milan New Delhi San Juan Seoul
Singapore Sydney Toronto
Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved. Manufactured in the
United States of America. Except as permitted under the United States Copyright Act of 1976, no part
of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a database
or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
The material in this eBook also appears in the print version of this title: 0-07-140937-8
All trademarks are trademarks of their respective owners. Rather than put a trademark symbol after
every occurrence of a trademarked name, we use names in an editorial fashion only, and to the benefit
of the trademark owner, with no intention of infringement of the trademark. Where such designations
appear in this book, they have been printed with initial caps.
McGraw-Hill eBooks are available at special quantity discounts to use as premiums and sales promotions,
or for use in corporate training programs. For more information, please contact George
Hoare, Special Sales, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (212) 904-4069.
This is a copyrighted work and The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. (“McGraw-Hill”) and its licensors
reserve all rights in and to the work. Use of this work is subject to these terms. Except as permitted
under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the right to store and retrieve one copy of the work, you may not
decompile, disassemble, reverse engineer, reproduce, modify, create derivative works based upon,
transmit, distribute, disseminate, sell, publish or sublicense the work or any part of it without
McGraw-Hill’s prior consent. You may use the work for your own noncommercial and personal use;
any other use of the work is strictly prohibited. Your right to use the work may be terminated if you
fail to comply with these terms.
THE WORK IS PROVIDED “AS IS”. McGRAW-HILL AND ITS LICENSORS MAKE NO GUARANTEES
OR WARRANTIES AS TO THE ACCURACY, ADEQUACY OR COMPLETENESS OF
OR RESULTS TO BE OBTAINED FROM USING THE WORK, INCLUDING ANY INFORMATION
THAT CAN BE ACCESSED THROUGH THE WORK VIA HYPERLINK OR OTHERWISE,
AND EXPRESSLY DISCLAIM ANY WARRANTY, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING BUT
NOT LIMITED TO IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY OR FITNESS FOR A
PARTICULAR PURPOSE. McGraw-Hill and its licensors do not warrant or guarantee that the functions
contained in the work will meet your requirements or that its operation will be uninterrupted or
error free. Neither McGraw-Hill nor its licensors shall be liable to you or anyone else for any inaccuracy,
error or omission, regardless of cause, in the work or for any damages resulting therefrom.
McGraw-Hill has no responsibility for the content of any information accessed through the work.
Under no circumstances shall McGraw-Hill and/or its licensors be liable for any indirect, incidental,
special, punitive, consequential or similar damages that result from the use of or inability to use the
work, even if any of them has been advised of the possibility of such damages. This limitation of liability
shall apply to any claim or cause whatsoever whether such claim or cause arises in contract, tort
THE VISIONARY LEADER: MANAGEMENT TACTICS FOR
GAINING THE COMPETITIVE EDGE
LEADERSHIP SECRET 1 Harness the Power of Change 3
LEADERSHIP SECRET 2 Face Reality! 8
LEADERSHIP SECRET 3 Managing Less Is Managing
LEADERSHIP SECRET 4 Create a Vision and Then Get
Out of the Way 15
LEADERSHIP SECRET 5 Don’t Pursue a Central Idea;
Instead, Set Only a Few Clear,
General Goals as Business
LEADERSHIP SECRET 6 Nurture Employees Who
Share the Company’s Values 23
IGNITING A REVOLUTION: STRATEGIES FOR DEALING
LEADERSHIP SECRET 7 Keep Watch for Ways to Create
Opportunities and to Become
More Competitive 29
LEADERSHIP SECRET 8 Be Number One or Number
Two and Keep Redefining Your
For more information about this title, click here.
iv 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
LEADERSHIP SECRET 9 Downsize, Before It’s Too Late! 37
LEADERSHIP SECRET 10 Use Acquisitions to Make the
Quantum Leap! 41
LEADERSHIP SECRET 11 Learning Culture I: Use
Empowerment to Nurture a
Learning Culture 46
LEADERSHIP SECRET 12 Learning Culture II: Inculcate the
Best Ideas into the Business, No
Matter Where They Come From 50
LEADERSHIP SECRET 13 The Big Winners in the
Twenty-first Century Will
Be Global 54
REMOVING THE BOSS ELEMENT: PRODUCTIVITY SECRETS
FOR CREATING THE BOUNDARYLESS ORGANIZATION
LEADERSHIP SECRET 14 De-Layer: Get Rid of the Fat! 61
LEADERSHIP SECRET 15 Spark Productivity Through the
‘‘S’’ Secrets (Speed, Simplicity,
and Self-Confidence) 65
LEADERSHIP SECRET 16 Act Like a Small Company 69
LEADERSHIP SECRET 17 Remove the Boundaries! 73
LEADERSHIP SECRET 18 Unleash the Energy of Your
LEADERSHIP SECRET 19 Listen to the People Who
Actually Do the Work 81
LEADERSHIP SECRET 20 Go Before Your Workers and
Answer All Their Questions 86
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch v
NEXT GENERATION LEADERSHIP: INITIATIVES FOR
DRIVING AND SUSTAINING DOUBLE-DIGIT GROWTH
LEADERSHIP SECRET 21 Stretch: Exceed Your Goals as
Often as You Can 93
LEADERSHIP SECRET 22 Make Quality a Top Priority 97
LEADERSHIP SECRET 23 Make Quality the Job of Every
LEADERSHIP SECRET 24 Make Sure Everyone Understands
How Six Sigma Works 105
LEADERSHIP SECRET 25 Make Sure the Customer Feels
LEADERSHIP SECRET 26 Grow Your Service Business:
It’s the Wave of the Future 115
LEADERSHIP SECRET 27 Take Advantage of
E-Business Opportunities 119
LEADERSHIP SECRET 28 Make Existing Businesses
That New Business Models Are
the Answer 123
LEADERSHIP SECRET 29 Use E-Business to Put the Final
Nail in Bureaucracy 127
Jack Welch, the long-time Chairman and CEO of General Electric,
has been hailed as the greatest business leader of our era
and deservedly so. It was Welch who headed GE from April 1981
to September 2001 and who pioneered some of the most important
business strategies of the past two decades. We now take
these strategies for granted as part of the way American business
is done: restructuring, the emphasis on being number one or
number two, making quality a top priority (through his Six
Sigma initiative), and so on. Moreover, Welch, unlike most other
business leaders, created a tightly woven, carefully scripted business
philosophy that provided brief, crisp guidelines for every
aspect of business.
Welch’s main leadership secrets, spelled out in this book, continue
to resonate throughout the business world. Few other business
leaders have articulated how to achieve maximum performance
with such clarity and forthrightness.
Before Welch took over at GE, the business world had revered
large bureaucracies as critical for close monitoring of personnel;
it had placed great faith in a command-and-control management
system, encouraging senior management to overmanage; it had
allowed the employee to attain a protected status by being assured
of a job for life. Jack Welch punctured holes in each of
these notions. His legacy is that he has forever altered these
myths and has inspired managers of corporations around the
world to behave far differently: Bureaucracies are much smaller,
with fewer management layers; managers manage much less, delegating
far greater authority to empowered employees; the right
to a job for life is no longer guaranteed as management runs
much tighter, more productive ships.
Welch’s performance at General Electric lent mighty credence
to his ideas: When he assumed the post of Chairman and CEO
of GE, the company had annual sales of $25 billion and earnings
of $1.5 billion, with a $12 billion market value, tenth best among
viii 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
American public companies. In 2000, the year before Welch retired,
GE had $129.9 billion in revenues; and $12.7 billion in
earnings. In 2001, GE’s revenues stood at $125.9 billion; and
earnings rose to $14.1 billion.
From 1993 until the summer of 1998, GE was America’s market
cap leader. Under Welch, the company reached a high of
$598 billion in market cap (but settled in at about $400 billion
during Welch’s final years as CEO). Fortune magazine selected
GE as ‘‘America’s Greatest Wealth Creator’’ from 1998 to 2000.
Anyone in business, from the most powerful corporate managers
to the hourly factory worker, has much to learn from Jack
Welch and his ideas. Studying his leadership secrets tells us what
American business was once like, and outlines how the tactics
he pioneered have changed business for the better in so many
THE VISIONARY LEADER:
MANAGEMENT TACTICS FOR GAINING
THE COMPETITIVE EDGE
This page intentionally left blank.
HARNESS THE POWER OF
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
The mindset of yesterday’s manager—accepting
compromise, keeping things tidy—bred
complacency. Tomorrow’s leaders must raise
issues, debate them, and resolve them. They
must rally around a vision of what a business
Is there a secret formula for succeeding in business? Probably
not. But it makes sense to study a master—the man widely
regarded as the ablest business leader of the modern era. And
that person is Jack Welch, the recently retired CEO and chairman
of General Electric.
“Perhaps the most admired CEO of his generation,” Fortune
magazine said of Welch in its May 1, 2000, edition.
How did Welch earn this kind of praise?
4 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
BRINGING IN BIG NUMBERS
When he took over at General Electric in 1981, the company
had sales of “only” $25 billion. In 1999, GE’s sales reached nearly
$112 billion. Its profits in 1981 were $1.5 billion; Welch grew
the bottom line to nearly $11 billion in 1999.
Welch wasn’t just “doing something right.” To hit those kinds
of numbers, he did many things right. He had great ideas, and
he implemented them.
In the balance of this book, we spell out those ideas in detail.
Yes, Welch led a huge enterprise with 340,000 employees, but we
believe that his ideas can be put to work in organizations of all
Of all of Jack Welch’s ideas, none carries more weight than
this: Change, before it’s too late!
Change is easy, right? The boss makes a decision, and employees
If you’re in business, you know that change almost never
works like that. In fact, it can be the most difficult thing in the
world. Welch understood this fact, and yet he pushed for change
almost from the minute he took over at GE in the spring of
CHANGE WAS EVERYWHERE
Change was rampant in the early 1980s. Inflation was raging,
and global competitors were capturing unprecedented market
Welch understood the challenges his company faced:
It was a reminder that we’d better get a lot better, faster.
So I guess my message in our company was, “The game is
going to change, and change drastically.” And we had to get
a plan, a program together, to deal with a decade that was
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 5
What did this mean for GE?
New products, a different business environment every day,
and a company within which every employee had to embrace
MAKE EACH DAY YOUR FIRST DAY ON THE JOB
Welch loved to tell GE executives to start their day as if it were
their first day on the job.
In other words, always think fresh thoughts. Make it a habit
to think about your business. Don’t rest on your laurels.
Make whatever changes are necessary to improve things. Reexamine
your agenda, and rewrite what needs to be rewritten.
To many both inside and outside the company, it appeared
that Welch could have left well enough alone. After all, GE was
a model corporation, right?
Welch knew better:
I could see a lot of [GE] businesses becoming . . . lethargic.
American business was inwardly focused on the bureaucracy.
[That bureaucracy] was right for its time, but the times
were changing rapidly. Change was occurring at a much faster
pace than business was reacting to it.
THE GENESIS OF “NUMBER ONE, NUMBER TWO”
Welch responded by coming up with a new strategy for GE’s
businesses. From then on, he announced, those businesses would
have to be either number one or number two in their market.
If they couldn’t hit that high standard, they’d be shut down or
So Welch wasn’t just asking for changes at the margins. The
6 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
“number one, number two” standard entailed many risks. But if
successful, it would position GE for double-digit growth for years
This was only a hint of things to come. Throughout Welch’s
tenure at GE, he continued to embrace change.
For instance, on December 12, 1985, GE announced plans to
purchase communications giant RCA for $6.28 billion.
It was the largest nonoil merger ever. General Electric then
ranked ninth on the list of America’s largest industrial firms.
RCA ranked second among the nation’s service firms. Together,
they formed a corporate powerhouse with sales of $40 billion,
placing it seventh on the Fortune 500.
The purchase represented a sea change for GE. Throughout
much of its history, the company had a tradition of growing
from within. Welch ignored that tradition. He intended to push
General Electric’s highest growth businesses and do whatever it
took to win.
EMPLOYEES HAVE GOOD IDEAS TOO
At the same time, Welch knew that there were good ideas inside
the shop as well. In 1989, he launched an initiative that he called
Work-Out, which was an ambitious 10-year program to harness
the brains of his employees.
In Welch’s words, Work-Out was intended to help people
wrestling with the boundaries, the absurdities, that grow in
large organizations. We’re all familiar with those absurdities:
too many approvals, duplication, pomposity, waste.
Change worked. By the 1990s, GE had emerged as the strongest
company in America. Yet even that record of achievement
did not keep Welch from exploring the next wave of change. In
1995, he took a bold new step and launched a companywide
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 7
initiative to improve the quality of General Electric’s products
Why? Welch had grown convinced that GE’s quality standards
simply weren’t high enough, even though GE had always been,
in his words, a “quality company.” So why not stand pat? His
We want to be more than that. We want to change the
competitive landscape by being not just better than our competitors,
but by taking quality to a whole new level. We want
to make our quality so special, so valuable to our customers,
so important to their success, that our products become their
only real value choice.
An openness to change.
This is Jack Welch’s key business strategy:
Change, before it’s too late!
➤ Accept change. Business leaders who treat change like
the enemy will fail at their jobs. Change is the one
constant, and successful business leaders must be able
to read the ever-changing business environment.
➤ Let your employees know that change never ends.
Teach your colleagues to see change as an opportunity—
a challenge that can be met through hard work
➤ Be ready to rewrite your agenda. Welch always encouraged
his managers and employees to be prepared
to reexamine their agenda and to make changes when
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
The art of leading comes down to one thing:
facing reality, and then acting decisively and
quickly on that reality.
Jack Welch’s goal was to transform GE’s businesses into the
best in the world. To get there, he devised a strategy called
Welch just couldn’t get enough of “facing reality”:
It may sound simple, but getting any organization or group
of people to see the world the way it is and not the way they
wish it were or hope it will be is not as easy as it sounds.
We have to permeate every mind in the company with an attitude,
with an atmosphere that allows people—in fact, encourages
people—to see things as they are, to deal with the
way it is now, not the way they wish it would be.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 9
Facing reality in the early 1980s meant taking an entirely new
look at GE’s businesses and deciding what to do with them.
Welch called this process “restructuring.”
Restructuring wasn’t about change at the margins. It was
about scrutinizing the whole company and changing things.
IT’S OKAY TO CHANGE A COMPANY
At the core of restructuring was the assumption that it was okay,
sometimes even necessary, to change the company.
In October 1981, just 6 months after he took over as CEO,
Welch addressed 120 corporate officers and spelled out his
agenda. It was nothing short of a revolution.
Bureaucratic waste would come to an end, he said. No longer
could anyone write deceptive plans or propose unrealistic budgets.
Henceforth, the tough decisions that had to be made would
Reading between the lines, Welch was really saying:
Check your old excuses at the door.
Stop insisting that life has been unfair to you. Stop seeing
conspiracies. Deal with situations as they are. In Welch’s words:
Most of the mistakes you’ve made have been through not
being willing to face into it, straight in the mirror that reality
you find, then taking action right on it.
That’s all managing is, defining and acting. Not hoping,
not waiting for the next plan. Not rethinking it. Getting on
In his later years as CEO at GE, Welch admitted that he himself
had not always faced up to reality. Nor had he moved quickly
enough to implement major changes at GE:
10 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
I would have liked to have done things a lot faster. I’ve
been here for 17 years. Imagine if I’d taken 4, 3, or even 1
year too long in making my decisions. I would have had a
On balance, though, Welch made bold decisions that indicated
he was (a) facing reality, (b) adjusting to that reality, and (c)
In the early 1980s, when he realized that GE would have to
restructure, he was facing reality: GE needed to devote all of its
resources to its strongest businesses.
In the mid-1980s, when he authorized GE’s purchase of RCA,
he was facing reality: GE needed the acquisition to push hightech
In the late 1980s, when he began the Work-Out program, he
was facing reality: Employees needed a voice in running the company.
In the mid-1990s, when Welch started his now-legendary Six
Sigma quality program, he was facing reality: GE’s quality programs
were just not working.
And in the late 1990s, when the Internet came into its own,
Welch faced a new reality. At first, like so many other CEOs, he
avoided the Internet. But as new models for doing business in
cyberspace emerged, Welch set out to revamp the entire enterprise.
He talked about the Internet, and facing reality, when he addressed
GE shareholders in April 2000:
Seeing reality for GE in the ’80s meant a hard look at a
century-old portfolio of business . . . Seeing reality today
means accepting the fact that e-business is here. It’s not
coming. It’s not the thing of the future. It’s here . . .
To Jack Welch, facing reality was of supreme importance.
Stick your head in the sand, and your business will stay stuck
in the past.
If you face reality and move quickly, you have a chance to
compete and win in a changing business environment.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 11
➤ Face reality. Business leaders who avoid reality are
doomed to failure.
➤ Act on reality quickly! Those who truly face reality
can’t stop there. They must adapt their business strategies
to reflect that reality, and they must do so
➤ Turn your business around. Stick your head in the
sand, says Welch, and you will fail. Face reality, and
you may turn a bad situation into a great one.
MANAGING LESS IS MANAGING
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
As we became leaner, we found ourselves
communicating better, with fewer interpreters
and fewer filters. We found that with
fewer layers we had wider spans of management.
We weren’t managing better. We were
managing less, and that was better.
One reason Jack Welch had an enormous impact on the business
community was that he headed one of the world’s most
respected, and most imitated, companies. Over the decades,
whenever General Electric came up with a new management
style, others in American business sought to emulate that style.
■ In the 1950s: GE decentralized, and decentralization became
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 13
■ In the 1960s and 1970s: GE created enormous bureaucracies,
and largeness became a virtue in the business world.
As these examples suggest, GE managers, in Welch’s view,
managed far too much. Not so under Welch. He threw out the
old rule book and constructed an entirely new set of principles
on how to manage.
Or more accurately, how not to manage.
Welch argued that managing less was managing better.
THE WELCH PARADOX OF MANAGEMENT
Welch made it very clear that he wanted his managers to manage
less. He wanted them to do less monitoring and less supervising
and to give their employees more latitude. Conversely, he wanted
far more decision making at the lower levels of the company.
Obviously, he wasn’t suggesting that managers should knock
off at noon every day and head for the golf course. Far from it!
But he didn’t want his managers interfering with their employees
at every turn. Instead, he wanted them to concentrate on creating
a vision for their employees and to make sure that the vision
was always on the mark and was being acted upon.
This is counterintuitive, right? Aren’t managers supposed to
manage? If they manage less, won’t the overall performance of
the business suffer? Who will make sure employees are working
as hard as they can? Who will monitor inventory levels? Who
will worry about maintaining the quality of the product?
In addition, managers want to manage. They want to keep
their fingers on the pulse of the business and keep close tabs on
Welch responds with one word: Relax.
Stop getting in people’s way. Cut them some slack. Stop looking
over their shoulders. Stop bogging them down in bureaucracy.
Let them perform.
14 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
SHOW RESPECT, INSTILL CONFIDENCE
Behind this prescription lies a key idea: Your employees deserve
respect. You’ve hired the best people and trained them well,
So treat them with respect. Show them you understand that
they are doing something important for the company. Build their
confidence—in you, in the company, and in themselves.
And then get the hell out of their way.
One welcome by-product of this approach is an increased
management focus on the big issues. For Welch, “managing less”
at GE meant that his leaders had more time to think big thoughts
and be more creative. They gained time to look beyond their
own fiefdoms and think about how they might help other GE
As the years wore on, Welch felt that his senior managers were
getting better and better at helping one another out. Had these
leaders spent large amounts of time firing off memos to their
subordinates, checking up on them, or worrying about fine-grain
issues, they wouldn’t have had the time to devote to the biggerpicture
But by managing less, they gained that time and were able to
help GE reach the next level.
➤ Manage less. Teach your managers to manage less,
even though their training may be to manage more.
➤ Instill confidence. Treat employees with respect and
build their confidence.
➤ Get out of the way. Employees do not need constant
supervision. Let them do their jobs. You will be surprised
at the results.
➤ Emphasize vision, not supervision. Managing less lets
managers think big thoughts and come up with new
ideas to benefit the business.
CREATE A VISION AND THEN
GET OUT OF THE WAY
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
People always overestimate how complex
business is. This isn’t rocket science. We’ve
chosen one of the world’s simplest professions.
This is one of Jack Welch’s fundamental beliefs about management.
As he phrases it:
I operate on a very simple belief about business. If there
are six of us in a room and we all get the same facts, in
most cases the six of us will reach roughly the same conclusion.
The problem is, we don’t get the same information. We
each get different pieces. Business isn’t complicated. The
complications arise when people are cut off from information
16 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
To get the critical information, Welch says, a manager must
ask five key questions:
1. What does your global competitive environment look
2. In the last 3 years, what have your competitors done?
3. In the same period, what have you done to them?
4. How might they attack you in the future?
5. What are your plans to leapfrog them?
GE, an enormous enterprise operating on an international
scale, is surely a good test of this philosophy. How did Welch
manage to keep up with all 12 of GE’s businesses? His answer:
There are a series of mechanisms that allow you to keep
in touch. I travel around the world often, so I’m smelling
what people are thinking . . .
None of us runs the businesses. I’m never going to run
them. I don’t run them at all. If I tried to run them, I’d go
crazy. I can smell when someone running [a business] isn’t
doing it right.
So again, Welch is more of a “supermanager” than a manager,
overseeing a dozen huge businesses simultaneously. He is actively
involved but mainly through recruiting talented people, providing
vision, and allocating resources.
My job is to put the best people on the biggest opportunities,
and the best allocation of dollars in the right places.
That’s about it. Transfer ideas and allocate resources and
get out of the way.
But information was also critical. Downsizing at GE helped
by creating a company that was far more effective at communicating
As we became leaner, we found ourselves communicating
better, with fewer interpreters and fewer filters. We found
that with fewer layers we had wider spans of management.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 17
Inevitably, as managers and employees in the lower ranks were
asked to take more responsibility, Welch began to feel that it was
important to distinguish between leaders and managers:
Leaders—and you take anyone from Roosevelt to Churchill
to Reagan—inspire people with clear visions of how things
can be done better. Some managers, on the other hand,
muddle things with pointless complexity and detail. They
equate [managing] with sophistication, with sounding
smarter than anyone else. They inspire no one.
Jack Welch never involved himself in deciding on the style of
a refrigerator or what television programs NBC should schedule
for Thursday night prime time. As he put it:
I have no idea how to produce a good [television] program
and just as little about how to build an engine . . . But I
do know who the boss at NBC is. And that is what matters. It
is my job to choose the best people and to provide them
with the dollars. That’s how the game is played.
What companies and business leaders must do, he argues, is
provide an atmosphere, a climate, a chance, a meritocracy,
where people can have the resources to grow, the educational
tools are available, they can expand their horizons,
their vision of life. That’s what companies ought to provide
. . .
People say to me, “Aren’t you afraid of losing control?
You’re not measuring [anymore].” We couldn’t lose control of
this place. We’ve got 106 years of people measuring everything.
So we’re not going to lose control. It’s in our blood.
➤ Business is simple. Complications arise when people
are cut off from vital information.
➤ Always keep the five key questions in mind: What
does your global competitive environment look like?
In the last 3 years, what have your competitors done?
18 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
In the same period, what have you done to them? How
might they attack you in the future? What are your
plans to leapfrog them?
➤ Managing is allocating people and resources. Put the
right people in the right job, give them what they
need, and then get out of the way.
➤ Managers lead with vision. Managers must persuade
others to implement through the force of vision.
DON’T PURSUE A CENTRAL
IDEA; INSTEAD, SET ONLY A
FEW CLEAR, GENERAL GOALS
AS BUSINESS STRATEGIES
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
I am not going to attempt, for the sake of
intellectual neatness, to tie a bow around the
many diverse initiatives of General Electric.
At the end of his first year as CEO, Jack Welch explained what
he wanted to do at GE:
If I could, this would be the appropriate moment for me
to withdraw from my pocket a sealed envelope containing
the grand strategy for the General Electric Company over the
next decade. But I can’t . . .
20 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
What will enhance the many decentralized plans and initiatives
of this company isn’t a central strategy, but a central
idea—a simple core concept that will guide General Electric
in the ’80s and govern our diverse plans and strategies.
Instead of directing GE’s businesses on the basis of a specific
step-by-step strategic plan, Welch preferred to set out only a few
clear, general goals. This would permit his employees to make
the most of opportunities that came their way.
Welch was impressed by what he had read about the Prussian
military strategists in the nineteenth century:
They did not expect a plan of operation to survive beyond
the first contact with the enemy. They set only the broadest
of objectives and emphasized seizing unforeseen opportunities
as they arose.
In running GE, Welch adopted the same attitude: Strategy
would not be etched in stone but instead would evolve over time.
It was important to set broad objectives that were consistent with
the company’s values and to apply those values as situations
The values that guided Welch through the 1980s and 1990s
were very general. But taken together, they provided a strong
■ Create a clear, simple, reality-based, customer-focused vision
and be able to communicate it in a straightforward
way to all constituencies.
■ Understand accountability and commitment and be decisive;
set and meet aggressive targets; always with unyielding
■ Have a passion for excellence; hate bureaucracy and all
the nonsense that comes with it.
■ Have the self-confidence to empower others and behave
in a boundaryless fashion; believe in and be committed
to Work-Out as a means of empowerment; be open to
ideas from anywhere.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 21
■ Have, or have the capacity to develop, global brains and
global sensitivity, and be comfortable building diverse
global teams. Stimulate and relish change; do not be
frightened or paralyzed by it. See change as opportunity,
not just a threat.
■ Have enormous energy and the ability to energize and invigorate
others. Understand speed as a competitive advantage.
To show the consistency of Welch’s attitude toward change at
GE over the years, we include a version of those values from the
summer of 2000.
GE leaders . . . always with unyielding integrity:
■ Are passionately focused on driving customer success
■ Live Six Sigma quality, ensure that the customer is always
its first beneficiary, and use it to accelerate growth
■ Insist on excellence and are intolerant of bureaucracy
■ Act in a boundaryless fashion; always search for and apply
the best ideas regardless of their source
■ Prize global intellectual capital and the people that provide
it; build diverse teams to maximize it
■ See change for the growth opportunities it brings, e.g.,
■ Create a clear, simple, customer-centered vision, and continually
renew and refresh its execution
■ Create an environment of “stretch,” excitement, informality,
and trust; reward improvements and celebrate results
■ Demonstrate, always with infectious enthusiasm for the
customer, the 4-E’s of GE leadership: the personal Energy
to welcome and deal with the speed of change, the ability
to create an atmosphere that Energizes others, the Edge
to make difficult decisions, and the ability to consistently
22 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
Don’t get bogged down in details, Welch advises. Lay out your
goals and adjust to changing realities as you go along.
➤ Set out a general framework for your team. Do not
try to set a detailed game plan for every situation.
➤ Create values that are consistent with the company
vision. Values should reflect the vision, culture, and
goals of the organization.
➤ Make sure there is room to maneuver. Core values
should be constant, but the strategies may need to
change with the competitive environment.
NURTURE EMPLOYEES WHO
SHARE THE COMPANY’S
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
The hardest thing in the world is to move
against somebody who is delivering the goods
but acting 180 degrees from [your values].
But if you don’t act, you’re not walking the
talk and you’re just an air bag.
Welch has often summarized his thoughts on the essential
traits of an effective manager. In his first such effort, he
described four categories:
A. Delivers on commitments—financial or otherwise—and
shares GE’s values. “His or her future is an easy call,”
says Welch. “Onward and upward.”
B. Does not meet commitments and does not share GE’s values.
“Not as pleasant a call, but equally easy.”
24 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
C. Misses commitments but shares the values. “He or she
usually gets a second chance, preferably in a different environment.”
D. Delivers on commitments but does not subscribe to GE’s
values. What happens to managers who deliver the numbers
but do not live the GE values? According to Welch,
they get fired.
That’s a shell shock to our company, because numbers are
no longer job security. Values and numbers now mean job
KEEP THE A’S; GET RID OF THE C’S
By January 1997, Welch was using different language to make
the same points. Speaking to the company’s top 500 managers,
he urged his colleagues to work hard to hang on to the “category
A’s”—in other words, the team players who subscribed to the
company’s values. He urged that they also nurture the B’s but
move quickly to get rid of the C’s:
Too many of you work too hard to make C’s [into] B’s. It is
a wheel-spinning exercise. Push C’s on to B companies or C
companies, and they’ll do just fine . . .
Take care of your best. Reward them. Promote them. Pay
them well. Give them a lot of [stock] options and don’t spend
all that time trying work plans to get C’s to be B’s. Move
them on out early. It’s a contribution.
Eight months later, Welch spoke again about the characteristics
of A, B, and C managers. He told managers that the key
was to demand more of the A’s, to cultivate them, and to nourish
them. The best thing to do with the C’s, he said again, was to
get rid of them.
Someone in the audience confessed that she had recently been
forced to let some people go and that she felt bad about it.Welch
replied without hesitation: Don’t feel guilty.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 25
Callous? Not to Welch. As he saw it, it was simply good business.
As Welch watched the business environment grow much more
competitive and intense in the late 1990s, he concluded that
being a business leader had become far more demanding.
The thing I’ve noticed is that the intensity level and the
global understanding and the facing reality and the seeing
the world as it is, is so much more pronounced in December
1997 than it was 10 years ago, and certainly 15 years ago,
where form was very important . . .
Global battles don’t allow form. It’s all substance. Form
means somebody is not intensely interested in the company.
Welch likes to say that 20 years ago, being named CEO of a
company was the culmination of a career. But today’s CEO must
think of stepping into the top job as only the beginning of the
No one can come to work and sit, no one can go off and
think of just policy, no one can do any of these things.
You’ve got to be live action all day. And you’ve got to be able
to energize others. . . . You’ve got to be on the lunatic fringe.
What does all this add up to? For one thing, it means surrounding
yourself with category A’s—that is, the best possible
The biggest advice I give people is you cannot do these
jobs alone. You’ve got to be very comfortable with the brightest
human beings alive on your team. And if you do that, you
get the world by the tail . . .
Always get the best people. If you [don’t], you’re shortchanging
➤ Give employees more responsibility, and they will
make better decisions. By making your employees
more accountable, you make your organization more
26 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
➤ Nurture the employees who live up to company values,
even if they don’t make their numbers. Consider
reassigning them if their numbers continue to falter.
➤ Eliminate employees who do not live the company
values, even if their numbers are good. Difficult, yes,
but absolutely necessary.
IGNITING A REVOLUTION:
STRATEGIES FOR DEALING WITH CHANGE
This page intentionally left blank.
KEEP WATCH FOR WAYS TO
CREATE OPPORTUNITIES AND
TO BECOME MORE
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
The world is moving at such a pace that
control has become a limitation. It slows you
Before Jack Welch’s arrival at GE, the company was steaming
full throttle toward the cliff edge.
Yes, the balance sheet was strong. But only a handful of the
company’s 350 business units dominated their markets. The only
GE businesses doing well on a global basis were plastics, gas
turbines, and aircraft engines (and overseas, only gas turbines
30 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
were dominant). Something like 80 percent of GE’s earnings still
came from its traditional electrical and electronic manufacturing
businesses at a time when the manufacturing sector was nosediving.
A number of GE’s businesses—aircraft engines, for one—
often consumed more cash than they generated.
There were success stories such as financial services, medical
systems, and plastics. But these businesses contributed only onethird
to total corporate earnings in 1981.
GE’s adversaries were a changing global business environment
and a weakening domestic economy.
For much of the twentieth century, America had dominated
the most important markets of the world economy: steel, textiles,
shipbuilding, television, calculators, automobiles.
Gradually, though, the competitive arena shifted. The Japanese,
in particular, began to lure clients away with higher-quality,
lower-cost products. To compete for business around the world,
the United States would have to become far more productive.
But by the early 1980s, the American economy was increasingly
unhealthy. Inflation, only 3.4 percent in 1971, had soared
to 18 percent in March 1980. (One culprit was the price of oil,
which spiked from $1.70 per barrel in 1971 to $39 per barrel in
1980.) As Jack Welch assumed the reins at GE in the spring of
1981, the American economy was mired in the deepest recession
in a half-century.
Welch’s business ideas were formed as a response to these
fundamental changes in the global business environment. He
understood, better than most, that the business arena had become
increasingly competitive. He had watched a whole new
array of enterprises with international capabilities pop up around
the globe. He understood that a completely new vision was re29
Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 31
quired and, along with that new vision, a new set of business
THE MOST COMPETITIVE ENTERPRISE ON EARTH
Jack Welch had a gut feeling that something required fixing.
I could see a lot of [GE] businesses becoming . . . lethargic.
American business was inwardly focused on the bureaucracy.
[That bureaucracy] was right for its time, but the times
were changing rapidly. Change was occurring at a much faster
pace than business was reacting to it.
Many in American business believed that layer upon layer of
management created the tightest possible command-and-control
system and, therefore, the best operations. But to Welch, those
layers wasted precious time and resources and distracted the
The old organization was built on control, but the world
has changed . . . You’ve got to balance freedom with some
control, but you’ve got to have more freedom than you ever
What was Jack Welch’s vision? Simply this: To make General
Electric the most competitive enterprise on earth. As he told
shareholders on his first day in office:
A decade from now we would like General Electric to be
perceived as a unique, high-spirited, entrepreneurial enterprise
. . . a company known around the world for its unmatched
level of excellence. We want General Electric to be
the most profitable, highly diversified company on earth,
with world-quality leadership in every one of its product
He could not wait to put his business ideas to work—to test
them, to find out which were valid and which were not. He
32 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
would shape and refine his ideas. He was determined to make
good on his promise to grow GE into the most successful business
enterprise in America.
➤ Don’t stick your head in the sand. From the start,
Welch had his finger on the pulse of the competitive
environment. Keep a close tab on those key variables
that create opportunities and challenges for your business.
➤ See things for what they are. Allocate resources to
market-leading businesses, fix ailing companies, and
jettison those that are not competitive.
➤ Begin with a vision. Nothing changes without a clear
vision of where change is supposed to lead. The boldest
vision may be the best vision.
BE NUMBER ONE OR NUMBER
TWO AND KEEP REDEFINING
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
There will be no room for the mediocre supplier
of products and services—the company
in the middle of the pack.
In the early 1980s, Jack Welch decided to pursue a strategy that
would establish each of the company’s businesses as either
number one or number two in its market.
He warned that without such a strategy, the company’s prospects
would be dim.
The winners in this slow-growth environment will be those
who search out and participate in the real growth industries
and insist upon being number one or number two in every
34 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
business they are in . . . or those who have a clear technological
edge, a clear advantage in a market niche.
Welch was establishing literally the highest possible standards
for his businesses. He made it clear that he would accept nothing
SETTING THE BAR AS HIGH AS POSSIBLE
Given the large portfolio of businesses that he presided over,
Welch felt he needed a breakaway strategy that would create a
“survival of the fittest” mindset throughout the company.
GE’s managers, said Welch, now had to ask some difficult
Where we are not number one or number two, and don’t
have or can’t see a route to a technological edge, we have
got to ask ourselves [management theorist] Peter Drucker’s
very tough question: “If you weren’t already in the business,
would you enter it today?” And if the answer is no, face into
that second difficult question: “What are you going to do
Within the company, there was widespread unhappiness.
“Why was it necessary to be number one or two?” anxious managers
asked. What was wrong with being a solid number three
In response, Welch pointed out that in many markets, it was
the number three, four, five, or six businesses that suffered the
most during cyclical downturns. Number one or two businesses
could defend their market share either through aggressive pricing
strategies or the development of new products. Runners-up
Moreover, Welch argued, many managers who believed they
were third or fourth in their markets were mistaken because they
were considering only their domestic competition. When international
competitors were factored in, they were likely to fall far
lower in the “rankings.”
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 35
Citing his own experience, Welch explained the difference between
a market leader and an also-ran:
I ran some businesses that were number one or two and
some businesses that were four or five, so I had the luxury
of a laboratory . . . And it was clear to me that one was a helluva
lot easier and better than the other one. The other one
didn’t have the resources and the muscle and the power to
compete on a global scale that was emerging in the ’90s.
But the skeptics persisted. “Why sell off a business,” they
asked, “when it’s making good money?” Again, Welch had an
When you’re number four or five in a market, when number
one sneezes, you get pneumonia. When you’re number
one, you control your destiny.
One problem quickly presented itself. The company was producing
a wide variety of seemingly unrelated products, from
time-shares to nuclear reactors to microwave ovens. Could GE
excel in so many different areas?
The answer turned out to be yes. By 2000, GE had achieved
dominance or near dominance in dozens of markets across the
■ Number one in the world: industrial motors, medical systems,
plastics, financial services, transport, power generation,
information services, aircraft engines, and electric
distribution equipment. NBC, which includes generalinterest
programming (and its CNBC business-news offshoot),
was ranked the number one American network.
■ Number two in the world: lighting and household appliances.
ADJUSTING THE STRATEGY
So Number One, Number Two was a big win. By the mid-1990s,
however, it was clear that the strategy had its limitations.
36 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
For one thing, it was vulnerable to GE managers defining
markets in ways that benefited them. GE managers learned to
define their markets in ways that guaranteed an outcome of
number one or two, often by defining their own markets far too
For example, GE’s power-generation business developed products
for the large utilities and defined its market as “large power
plants.” But by so doing, the division neglected the increasingly
important distributed-power market.
Welch ordered the strategy revised in early 1996. The refinement
came at an opportune time: just as GE was planning to
expand its service offerings. For example, for years, GE had serviced
only GE aircraft engines. In 1997, however, it expanded the
business and started to offer repair and parts for Pratt & Whitney
and Rolls Royce engines.
Might redefining these markets make it more difficult for divisions
to retain their hard-won number one or number two
positions? Temporarily, perhaps. But Welch insisted that he
would stay the course as long as he was convinced that the company
was (a) building on strengths and (b) had the opportunity
to be number one.
By revising the Number One, Number Two strategy, Welch
faced reality, embraced change, shook things up, and forced his
key managers to scrutinize their businesses all over again.
➤ Develop market-leading businesses. Number one and
number two businesses can withstand downturns, but
laggards fall further behind when times get tough.
➤ Define markets broadly. Don’t make the mistake of
defining markets so narrowly that you shut yourself
out of growing market segments.
DOWNSIZE, BEFORE IT’S TOO
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
These are the businesses that we really want
to nourish. These are the businesses that will
take us into the twenty-first century. They
are inside the circles. Outside the circles you
have businesses that we would prefer not to
pursue any further.
Jack Welch felt he had no choice. He not only had to reshape
the company but also reduce its size dramatically.
Alone among American business leaders, Welch was willing
to downsize a company that was not facing an imminent crisis.
He knew this would be a heart-wrenching process. But the result
would be worth it: a GE that was sleek, aggressive, and competitive.
38 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
DOWNSIZING: AN UPHILL BATTLE
Prior to the 1980s, conventional wisdom decreed that employees
should be let go only as a last resort and only when a company
was on the brink of a major business reversal.
So when “downsizing” first appeared on the American business
landscape, it was taken as an indication of a serious decline
in the downsizing company’s fortunes. Or perhaps worse, it was
seen as an evasion of corporate social responsibility.
Apart from that, it was difficult to fire people.
One principle that labor unions had hammered into the
American consciousness was the right of every individual to hold
a job. To some extent, this translated into a right not to be fired.
Meanwhile, the politicians in Washington had accepted the
notion that jobs, especially in one’s home district, were more
important than a corporation’s bottom line.
And for their part, corporate managers had little appetite for
firing employees. Some didn’t want to make the tough decisions.
Others believed in the principle of job security, arguing that it
fostered loyalty and productivity.
Jack Welch, however, believed that lifetime employment was
a failed strategy. GE’s competition in the early 1980s was coming
from foreign firms whose workers had achieved higher productivity
rates. To compete with those companies, GE would have
to invest in new equipment and cut payrolls.
Welch’s position constituted a dramatic shift in corporate
thinking. In 1981, GE rang up profits of $1.5 billion, and the
company didn’t appear to be in trouble. The effect of Welch’s
downsizing program would be to put thousands of GE employees
out of work. His tactics soon made him one of the most
controversial CEOs in America.
It was an uphill battle and no doubt a lonely one. No other
American CEO reached the decision to perform radical surgery
on his or her own company, even before conclusive evidence of
a life-threatening illness had emerged. Welch stood alone.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 39
THE NICKNAME HE HATES
The reactions to Welch’s initial efforts at restructuring were
highly negative. He was dubbed “Neutron Jack”—an allusion to
the neutron bomb, which kills people but leaves buildings standing.
Neutron Jack: The name haunted Welch.
The media used it to characterize him as a heartless, evil individual—
a manager who cared only for the bottom line and
not for the good of his employees.
Welch’s bitterness is clear as he talks about his hated nickname:
I think it was a harsh term. Mean-spirited. They call me
“Neutron Jack” because we laid off people even though we
gave them the best benefits they had in their life.
Despite all the controversy, it wasn’t a close call in Welch’s
mind. He was convinced that only massive surgery would ensure
GE’s long-term success.
He did not think that he had a choice.
He was not at the helm of GE to make his employees happy.
He was there to make the company as profitable as possible.
➤ Even in the good times, regularly review expenses and
head counts. Welch downsized when GE appeared to
be healthy. Don’t assume that because all is well at the
moment, it will stay that way. (And are you sure all is
➤ Don’t lead by polls. CEOs should not run companies
as if they were popularity contests. Welch didn’t hesitate
to make himself unpopular in his early years,
bucking conventions and conventional wisdom. Do
what you know is right for the long-term health of the
40 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
➤ Remember that tough actions today may prevent far
more complex problems later. Had Welch not restructured
in the early 1980s, he might have had to eliminate
far more jobs in later years.
USE ACQUISITIONS TO MAKE
THE QUANTUM LEAP!
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
This [acquisition of Honeywell] is the most
exciting deal for GE since RCA . . . the success
of the RCA deal—which was probably
one of the most successful deals in corporate
history—will bode well for this one. . . .
We’re merging two real high-tech companies.
With real earnings. Doing real things.
—Jack Welch, October 2000
Call it a surprise move.
Call it the tactic that turns an above-average company
into a superstar.
Call it the bold ploy that you spring while others sit stunned,
unable to counter your adventurous gambit.
Surprise, boldness, and even shock—these are the features of
the quantum leap.
42 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
Going for the quantum leap is what Welch had in mind when
he launched the two largest acquisitions in GE’s history: RCA in
1985 and Honeywell in 2000. And although GE was ultimately
frustrated in its bid for Honeywell, the gambit can hold interesting
Welch’s goal, in both cases, was not simply to make the company
bigger. His goal was to build up GE’s highest growth businesses
and thereby grow earnings. Acquiring businesses that
could add to GE’s earnings became a hallmark of the new Welchdriven
THE FIRST QUANTUM LEAP
Welch first cast a covetous eye on RCA, the Radio Corporation
of America, in the mid-1980s.
Like GE, RCA was one of America’s most famous corporate
names. RCA had interests in defense electronics, consumer electronics,
and satellites. But the jewel in RCA’s crown was the National
Broadcasting Company (NBC), which it had created in
Until Welch made his move, the three major television networks
had seemed untouchable. Most people assumed that their
owners would never part with these highly profitable “trophy”
Not Welch. Sometime in 1984, Welch began pondering a GERCA
merger. General Electric in 1984 had sales of $27.9 billion,
and RCA had just over $10 billion. Together, they would constitute
a new corporate powerhouse that would rank seventh on
the Fortune 500.
Welch was convinced that the merger would augment GE’s
drive into the service and technology fields and reduce its dependence
on slow-growth manufacturing businesses.
The deal, announced December 12, 1985, was Jack Welch’s
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 43
boldest move to that point. GE and RCA agreed that General
Electric would buy the communications giant for $6.28 billion,
or $66.50 a share—the largest nonoil merger ever. Since Wall
Street analysts valued RCA at $90 per share, GE appeared to have
gotten a very good deal, indeed.
“This is going to be one dynamite company,” Welch said happily.
“We will have the technological capabilities, financial resources,
and global scope to be able to compete successfully with
anyone, anywhere, in every market we serve . . .”
Welch particularly enjoyed the spark he found among NBC
entertainment executives. “They’re our type of people. They
know how to be number one.” As a result of Welch’s audacity,
General Electric was now a very different company.
THE SECOND QUANTUM LEAP
Even as he was preparing to retire in the fall of 2000, Welch
came upon an opportunity to make another quantum leap.
Honeywell International, Welch’s new target, was a manufacturer
of aerospace systems, power and transportation products, specialty
chemicals, home security systems, and building controls.
Honeywell seemed like a great fit with GE. Both companies
made power-generation systems, plastics, and chemicals. GE aircraft
engines were a major force in the commercial aircraft field;
Honeywell was strong in avionics and business jet engines.
If the Honeywell deal went through, it would add $24 billion
to GE’s annual revenues of $112 billion. GE’s profits—already
on the order of $11 billion a year—would grow by another $2.5
On October 23, 2000, GE and Honeywell announced that GE
would purchase Honeywell for $48.4 billion in stock and assumed
debt. GE would acquire another 120,000 employees, giving
the expanded General Electric a payroll of 460,000. “I want
44 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
an apology from everybody that ever called me Neutron Jack,”
Welch said pointedly. “We have more people today than we did
when I started.”
But Welch was not pleased when some wondered out loud
why GE had chosen to buy a so-called “Old Economy company.”
My answer is: What the hell do you think Honeywell is?
. . . We’re merging two real high-tech companies. With real
earnings. Doing real things. And using e-business tools. So
get that straight.
Buying Honeywell made sense, Welch argued, because there
was a 90 percent overlap between the two companies.
And yet with virtually every single activity there is no
product overlap. So the feels are the same in 90 percent of
the businesses and yet everything is complementary. That’s
not a speech for the antitrust people. That’s fact . . .
Welch had reason to be concerned about antitrust actions.
Merging the two corporate giants was sure to attract intense
governmental scrutiny. And at first, things went well. In May
2001, the U.S. Department of Justice approved the transaction.
(Canada and nearly a dozen other jurisdictions followed suit.)
But 2 months later, the European Commission demanded concessions
that Welch couldn’t accept. “What the Commission is
seeking cuts the heart out of the strategic rationale of our deal,”
Welch wrote in a letter to Honeywell CEO Michael R. Bonsignore.
The deal was dead.
THE “HIDDEN” QUANTUM LEAP
While the Honeywell deal was still alive, Welch announced his
intention to delay his retirement from GE to ensure that the
merger went smoothly. Critics suggested that he had contrived
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 45
the Honeywell deal just to stay on longer at GE. Ridiculous, he
This is not a story of the old fool who can’t leave his seat
. . . Don’t write that story. That story is stupid. In the paper, I
called it “B” with a bunch of dashes . . . Why not take advantage
of the experience I’ve got with RCA and over a thousand
In this response, Welch points to what might be considered
GE’s hidden “quantum leap”: the patient acquisition over 20
years of numerous companies, all designed to propel GE toward
higher sales and earnings.
Under Welch, GE was constantly on the lookout for small
companies that could be quickly integrated into the company’s
units and which would immediately add to earnings. In 1999
alone, for example, GE closed 125 of these deals. The $48 billion,
or $55 a share, Welch offered for Honeywell was half as much
as all the deals GE had done under his watch combined.
The result? A company that in 2000 operated in more than
100 countries and earned revenues of $130 billion.
➤ Go for the quantum leap, even if it goes against company
culture. When Welch acquired RCA, he rewrote
GE’s rule book.
➤ Think outside the box. Both the RCA and Honeywell
deals were audacious moves. One panned out; the
➤ Keep hunting for the little opportunities. The big,
bold moves need to be part of a patient, systematic
approach to mergers and acquisitions.
LEARNING CULTURE I: USE
EMPOWERMENT TO NURTURE
A LEARNING CULTURE
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
The operative assumption today is that someone,
somewhere, has a better idea.
Before Jack Welch came along, many analysts thought GE to
be unmanageably huge, complex, and heterogeneous. Some
considered the company a rudderless conglomerate—a collection
of assets that lacked coherence and a unifying vision.
Welch did not agree.
He believed that GE’s diversity and complexity could be
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 47
turned into an asset if he could create what he called a “learning
culture.” In a learning culture, GE’s employees would search for
new ideas—inside or outside the company—and implement the
best ones actively and aggressively.
Large and diverse corporations, as Welch saw it, have contradictory
needs. They need both strong integration and rich diversity.
In combination, these two ingredients enable the whole
to outperform the sum of its parts. Welch referred to this as
“integrated diversity,” and this was his goal.
OPENNESS IS ESSENTIAL
Learning organizations, said Welch, have an edge. Learning
translates into actions, and actions spark productivity.
The idea of the learning culture was simple: GE businesses
would share knowledge from every corner of the company.
Shared knowledge would provide a competitive advantage,
and that advantage would translate into higher annual growth
Welch observed that integrated diversity could work only
when the component parts of that diversity—GE’s businesses—
were strong in their own right. That was why it had been so
important to create strong, stand-alone businesses in the 1980s.
From strength came self-confidence, and from self-confidence
Openness, Welch said, was essential.
LEARNING CULTURE ENHANCES PERFORMANCE
How do you build a learning culture? The Work-Out program
of the early 1990s set the stage. At the heart of Work-Out was
the assumption that in many cases employees knew what was
best. As Welch noted:
48 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
The operative assumption today is that someone, somewhere,
has a better idea; and the operative compulsion is to
find out who has that better idea, learn it, and put it into action—
The quality of an idea does not depend on its altitude in
the organization . . . An idea can be from any source. So we
will search the globe for ideas. We will share what we know
with others to get what they know. We have a constant quest
to raise the bar, and we get there by constantly talking to
Welch was fond of saying that GE’s core competence lay in
sharing ideas across businesses, across what he termed the
“boundaryless organization.” He wanted GE to think of itself as
a series of laboratories that shared ideas, financial resources, and
managers. He encouraged a free flow of ideas not just among
GE businesses but also between GE and other companies as well.
Speaking to GE shareholders in April 2000, Welch reemphasized
his commitment to the learning culture. The ultimate, sustainable
competitive advantage of a company, he proclaimed, is
its ability to learn, to transfer that learning across its components,
and to act quickly:
That belief drove us to create a boundaryless company by
delayering and destroying organizational silos. Selflessly
sharing good ideas while endlessly searching for better ideas
became a natural act. We purged NIH—not invented here—
from our system, creating a company with an insatiable desire
All this was done the hard way, before the arrival of the
Internet. Today, with the Internet, information is available
everywhere to everyone, and a company that isn’t searching
for the best idea, isn’t open to ideas from anywhere, will find
itself left behind, with its survival at stake.
The result? Welch credited GE’s learning culture with enhancing
the company’s performance in several ways:
■ Operating margins, less than 10 percent for literally a
century, rose to 17.3 percent in 1999.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 49
■ Inventory turns, which are a key measure of how well assets
are deployed and managed, had run in the three to
four range for a century but topped eight in 1999.
■ Company earnings, which had shown only single-digit increases
throughout the 1980s, showed double-digit increases
for most of the 1990s.
➤ Emphasize idea sharing inside the company. Does
your company have a way to make sure ideas are exchanged
at every level and from every corner of the
➤ Find and implement the best ideas, no matter where
they come from. Welch demolished the notion that
the best ideas come only from within.
➤ Make sure that great ideas are followed by implementation.
Unless the idea is acted on, it will have little
LEARNING CULTURE II:
INCULCATE THE BEST IDEAS
INTO THE BUSINESS, NO
MATTER WHERE THEY COME
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
We really view ourselves as a series of laboratories
that share ideas, financial resources,
and management people.
Keep learning: This is one of the anchors of Jack Welch’s business
Don’t be arrogant, he insists. Don’t assume you know it all.
Always assume that you can learn from someone else.
From a colleague, for example, or even from a competitor.
Especially from a competitor!
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 51
SCOUR THE LANDSCAPE
Welch exhorted his troops to scour the corporate landscape for
good ideas and then to appropriate those ideas. “Legitimate plagiarism”
he once called it: borrowing the best.
Some might wonder why GE—arguably one of the strongest
companies in the United States—needs to go hunting for good
ideas. Shouldn’t GE be teaching other companies what business
is all about?
Absolutely not, says Welch. Every organization has to learn,
and GE is no exception.
Here is Welch on the subject:
At the heart of this culture is an understanding that an organization’s
ability to learn, and translate that learning into
action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive business advantage.
THE BADGE OF HONOR
It is a true badge of honor, according to Welch, to grab good
ideas and run with them.
This kind of opportunism begins at home. Welch likes to
point out that GE businesses share many things such as technology,
design, personnel compensation and evaluation systems,
manufacturing processes, and customer and country knowledge.
The gas turbines business shares manufacturing technology with
aircraft engines. Motors and transportation systems work together
on new locomotive-propulsion systems.
But the learning continues beyond the walls of GE. For example,
GE has adopted and adapted new product-introduction
techniques from Chrysler and Canon, effective sourcing techniques
from GM and Toyota, and quality initiatives from Motorola
Note that by definition GE isn’t “first” with these ideas. GE
52 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
did not invent the Six Sigma quality initiative. (Motorola pioneered
it.) GE wasn’t even the next large company to get on
board. (AlliedSignal was an early adapter.) But GE watched Six
Sigma go through its shakedown cruises at other companies and
then adapted it for its own purposes.
A large company like GE has access to a whole world of ideas,
but the only way to turn that access into a competitive advantage
is to develop what Welch calls a “pervasive and insatiable thirst”
for those ideas, a compulsion to share them, and a mandate to
These are our three ingredients for success, whether the
business is appliances, lighting, plastics, or something else:
Build a good team, share ideas across businesses, give them
resources to go. That’s it.
MOVING IDEAS: A KEY TO A LEARNING CULTURE
Moving ideas, Welch likes to say, is easy—assuming you have a
One favorite Welch example of the learning culture in action
came from its medical systems business, which created a CT
scanner that operated remotely. The scanner allowed a user to
detect and repair an impending malfunction on-line, often before
the customer even knew a problem existed.
Medical systems shared that technology with other GE businesses,
including jet engines, locomotives, motors and industrial
systems, and power systems. Using the new tool, those other GE
businesses could monitor the performance of jet engines, locomotives,
paper mills, and power plants.
Welch was once asked how knowledge was transferred among
the various GE businesses. He noted that every quarter some 30
GE managers hold a 2-day meeting. Each executive stands up in
turn and presents new ideas:
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 53
When we leave there after 48 hours, we may not be the
smartest people in the world, but we are the most knowledgeable
at that moment, because we have been exposed to
all these relevant topics. . . .
Most organizations don’t go for ideas in a meeting. Why
not? Because everybody present comes from the same business.
They talk about the vertical business. We talk about
compensation plans, about China, about generic experiences.
Building a learning culture has put pressure on GE’s business
leaders. They understand there is no reward for simply having a
good idea at GE. The rewards come from successfully sharing
that idea with others.
➤ Make searching for new ideas a priority of every employee.
In today’s competitive environment, organizations
can’t afford to leave anyone out.
➤ Hold idea-sharing meetings on a regular basis. Get a
diverse group of managers together regularly. Make
sure their ideas are translated into action.
➤ Reward employees for sharing knowledge. Find a way
to reward managers and employees for sharing ideas
and putting best practices to work at every level.
THE BIG WINNERS IN THE
TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY WILL
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
The idea of a company being global is nonsense.
Businesses are global, not companies.
From the time Jack Welch became CEO at GE, he was convinced
that significant opportunities existed for company
growth by taking its businesses overseas.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 55
In the early 1980s, few U.S. managers were pushing to globalize.
Their businesses had prospered by concentrating on the American
market; few saw any compelling reason to change.
The pre-Welch GE, which generated more than 80 percent of
its revenues in the United States, was no exception. At that time,
only two of GE’s strategic businesses (plastics and aircraft engines)
were legitimate global enterprises.
Welch delayed his push into the international arena for several
years—while the company went through its “fix, sell, or close”
phase—and then he pushed with a vengeance.
By 1999, international revenues had reached $45.7 billion,
representing 41 percent of GE’s total revenues. (The figure remained
at 41 percent through 2001.)
How did this transformation happen?
In part, it happened the old-fashioned way: through selective,
ground-up investments intended to capitalize on local business
This reflected Welch’s own experiences in the plastics business
in the 1960s:
When I was 29 years old, I bought land in Holland and
built the plants there. That was “my land” for “my business.”
I was never interested in the global GE, just the global plastics
business . . . the idea of a company being global is nonsense.
This perception reinforced Welch’s determination to look for
overseas markets with the greatest near-term opportunities. At
the time, this was Europe and Japan. Welch was eager to enter
other markets in Asia, but he understood that in the near term,
56 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
those markets were smaller, and success would come more
So Europe was a clear focus. As of September 1999, GE had
paid nearly $30 billion for 133 European acquisitions with 90,000
employees. As a result, GE Europe generated $24.4 billion in
revenue, of which only $1.7 billion, or 11 percent, represented
imports from the United States. (By 2001, GE had $26 billion
in sales in Europe with 70,000 employees in that sector.)
But the transformation also grew out of a major shift in corporate
mindsets, beginning with Welch himself.
“Jack’s perception of the world changed in the late 1980s,”
says Gary Wendt, former head of GE Capital, “from trying to
sell things to the world to understanding that GE has to be all
over the world in order to sell around the world.”
Inevitably, this meant that good ideas had to come from places
other than the United States. And it explains the major step that
GE took at the end of the 1990s:
Our insatiable appetite for more advanced technology is
being fed not by a new wing on our world-class Corporate
R&D Center in Schenectady, New York, but by a soon-to-open
Greenfield laboratory in the suburbs of Bangalore, India.
The Bangalore R&D facility opened in September 2000. And
it was only a piece of a bigger picture. By that time, GE was
drawing on intellectual capital from all over the world: from
metallurgists in Prague to product designers in Budapest, Monterrey,
Tokyo, Paris, and elsewhere.
A “TRULY GLOBAL” GE
As a result of these changes, GE by the late 1990s was competing
successfully in markets around the world. To cite just three examples:
■ Aircraft Engines. In 1995, more than half of the world’s
large commercial jet engine orders were awarded to GE
and its joint venture, CFM International.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 57
■ Capital Services. GE Capital Services, which had a minimal
presence in Europe at the start of the 1990s, exceeded
$845 million in net income in 1999. Global Consumer
Finance (GCF), launched in 1992, emerged as the
largest international consumer finance company in the
world, with more than $35 billion in assets and more
than 20,000 employees.
■ Lighting. GE Lighting’s operations include joint ventures
in China, Indonesia, India, and Japan and acquisitions in
the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Hungary. As of
1999, more than 35 percent of Lighting’s revenues came
from outside the United States.
Welch pointed out in his 1999 annual report that there were
fewer and fewer American GE business leaders located outside
the United States. Local leaders, trained in GE’s practices and
values, were replacing them.
Our objective is to be the “global employer of choice.” . . .
This initiative has taken us to within reach of one of our biggest
and longest running dreams—a truly global GE.
➤ Get your house in order first. Make sure your domestic
base is solid before venturing abroad.
➤ Think globally and locally. To compete in the global
economy, companies must develop a distinct strategy
for each international market. Businesses, not companies,
➤ Recognize that there are phases in globalization. Exporting
often comes first. Local production may come
second. Finally, local sourcing (by companies run by
local managers) may be your third phase of globalization.
This page intentionally left blank.
REMOVING THE BOSS ELEMENT:
PRODUCTIVITY SECRETS FOR CREATING THE
This page intentionally left blank.
DELAYER: GET RID OF THE FAT!
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
Every layer is a bad layer. Now we don’t
have all that nonsense. If Delhi wants something,
they fax me. It’s much easier.
Most of Welch’s early moves at GE—downsizing; number
one or number two; fix, close, or sell—were designed to
bring focus and discipline to a company that had been complacent
far too long.
He had one more such step in mind: cutting out excess layers
All those layers slowed things down, Welch thought, and prevented
senior managers from spotting trouble early enough. And
ultimately, bureaucracy sapped the company’s entrepreneurial
62 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
A FOUNDATION OF BUREAUCRACY
In the pre-Welch era, GE more or less assumed the existence of
a large bureaucracy. In fact, “bureaucracy” was not a dirty word
at GE. It implied a strong organization, a certain orderliness.
There were bosses, and there were channels. People could “manage
by memo,” and that was assumed to be efficient.
But bureaucracy has a way of creeping. Of the company’s
400,000 employees at the time of Welch’s arrival, some 25,000
held the title of “manager.” Approximately 500 were senior managers,
and 130 were vice presidents or higher.
In other words, there was a huge officer corps, whose members
did little except paperwork. They reviewed other people’s
memos and wrote memos to their own superiors.
One culprit was the planning system, which had grown cumbersome.
We hired a head of planning and he hired two vice presidents
and then he hired a planner, and then the books got
thicker, and the printing got more sophisticated, and the
covers got harder, and the drawings got better. The meetings
kept getting larger. Nobody can say anything with 16 or 18
DELAYERING LETS PEOPLE FLOURISH
Welch decided to slice away at management in a process he
called “delayering.” He explicitly disagreed with critics who complained
that getting rid of these levels would diminish GE’s
vaunted command-and-control capabilities and harm the company.
We attempted to eliminate the command portion while
keeping the subtleties of the control. Big corporations are
filled with people in bureaucracy who want to cover things—
cover the bases, say they did everything a little bit. Well, now
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 63
we have people out there all by themselves; there they are,
accountable for their successes and their failures. But it gives
them a chance to flourish. Now you see some wilt. That’s the
sad part of the job. Some who looked good in the big bureaucracy
looked silly when you left them alone.
Welch had two goals in mind. First, he wanted to turn the
strategic planning function over to the businesses. Second, he
wanted to remove the obstacles that prevented direct contact
among the businesses and between the business and the CEO’s
office. Control would survive; command would be diminished.
The pace of business would pick up.
Delayering speeds communications. It returns control and
accountability to the businesses, which is where it belongs.
We got two other great benefits from the sector delayering.
First, by taking out the biggest layer of top management,
we set a role model for the whole company about becoming
lean and agile.
Second, we identified the business leaders who didn’t
share the values we were talking about: candor, facing reality,
lean and agile. We exposed the passive resisters.
In retrospect, Welch was convinced that he had acted properly
by trimming GE’s bureaucracy. “By the time you get through the
levels, the barn has burned down, and you’ve got to get closer
to the game,” he said in 1997. “Every layer is a bad layer. Now
we don’t have all that nonsense. If Delhi wants something, they
Delayering requires a certain kind of resolve. It’s one thing to
lay off lower-level employees at distant factories, far from the
corner offices. It’s quite another to ax an associate, or a buddy,
in the next office.
But this is the kind of resolve that may be needed to transform
a low-performing organization into a higher-performing one or
to push a high performer to the next level. Deadwood and redundancy
in the executive suites can cost a company dearly in
money, flexibility, and spirit.
64 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
➤ Get rid of any layers of management that do not add
real value to the process. Ask yourself: How can I improve
communications with the folks down below on
the factory floor? If the answer is “lose layers,” then
➤ Don’t let emotions get in the way. Cutting executive
jobs can be one of the most difficult decisions a manager
has to make. Make the call based on objective
criteria, not relationships.
THROUGH THE “S” SECRETS:
SPEED, SIMPLICITY, AND
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
It takes enormous self-confidence to be simple,
particularly in large organizations. Bureaucracy
is terrified by speed and hates simplicity.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jack Welch began to outline
a new vision for GE’s future. In September 1989, for example,
The biggest mistake we could make right now is to think
that simply doing more of what worked in the ’80s will be
enough to win the ’90s. It won’t. . . . We have to turn in the
66 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
’90s to the software of our companies—to the culture that
Welch summed up his prescription for that culture in three
words: speed, simplicity, and self-confidence.
THE FIRST TWO “S’S”: SPEED AND SIMPLICITY
Speed, obviously, meant having people make decisions in
minutes. It meant cutting back on paper flow and staff work.
Simplicity, as Welch defined it, meant different things in different
corners of the company:
To an engineer, it’s clean, functional designs with fewer
parts. For manufacturing, it means judging a process not by
how sophisticated it is, but how understandable it is to those
who must make it work. In marketing, it means clear messages
and clean proposals to consumers and industrial customers.
And most important, on an individual, interpersonal level,
it takes the form of plain-speaking, directness—honesty.
Writing to shareholders in 1995, Welch elaborated on the importance
Simple messages travel faster, simpler designs reach the
market faster, and the elimination of clutter allows faster decision
In the case of senior management, a critical component of
simplicity is a powerful, easily graspable core message—a vision:
Whatever it is—we’re going to be number one or number
two, or fix/close/sell, or boundarylessness—every idea you
present must be something you could get across easily at a
cocktail party with strangers. If only afficionados of your industry
can understand what you’re saying, you’ve blown it.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 67
THE THIRD “S”: SELF-CONFIDENCE
The third S, self-confidence, is intimately related to the first two.
In fact, argues Welch, one can’t really embrace simplicity without
a healthy dose of self-confidence:
One of the hardest things for a manager is to reach a
threshold of self-confidence where being simple is comfortable.
Where does this self-confidence come from? Welch’s answer
has several parts:
Some people get it at their mother’s knee, others through
scholastic, athletic, or other achievement. Some tiptoe
through life without it. If we are to create this boundaryless
company, we have to create an atmosphere where selfconfidence
can grow in each of . . . us.
But many attributes of large organizations, such as the turf
battles, the parochialism, and so on, work against the development
Self-confidence does not grow in someone who is just another
appendage on the bureaucracy, whose authority rests
on little more than a title. Bureaucracy is terrified by speed
and hates simplicity. It fosters defensiveness, intrigue, sometimes
Even if a company can’t manufacture self-confidence, says
Welch, it can work against the confidence-destroying aspects of
corporate culture. It can provide people with opportunities to
dream, take risks, and win. And it can make sure that employees
can see how their work contributes to the overall effort:
We can grow a work ethic that plays to our strengths, one
that unleashes and liberates the awesome productive energy
that we know resides in our work force. If we can . . . create
an environment where each man and woman who works in
our companies can see a clear connection between what he
or she does every day, all day, and winning and losing in the
68 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
real world, we can become productive beyond our wildest
This was one reason GE devised its Work-Out program: to
design a process that gave people a voice and got them talking
to one another and learning to trust one another.
Again, the three S’s are interrelated and mutually supportive.
In his 1995 letter to shareholders, Welch commented:
Self-confident people don’t need to wrap themselves in
complexity, “businessese” speech, and all the clutter that
passes for sophistication in business—especially big business.
Self-confident leaders produce simple plans, speak simply,
and propose big, clear targets.
Speed. Simplicity. Self-confidence. They emerged and endured
as key watchwords in the Welch management philosophy.
➤ Promote the three “S’s”: speed, simplicity, and selfconfidence.
These three attributes build organizations
that are able to change with the changing environment.
➤ Start with a simple message. The most effective communications
are those that are easy to understand.
Making the vision clear sparks people’s passion and
➤ Establish systems that foster self-confidence. Help
people understand how their efforts are helping the
company to succeed. Find ways to let people take risks
ACT LIKE A SMALL COMPANY
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
Small companies move faster. They know the
penalties for hesitation in the marketplace.
What we are trying relentlessly to do is get
that small-company soul—and smallcompany
speed—inside our big-company
The goal of most big corporations is to get still bigger. Bigness
is considered a virtue (or at least a necessary evil) in the
When Jack Welch took over at GE, the company was then one
of the largest in America, with more than 400,000 employees.
Through restructuring and downsizing, Welch pared the company
down to 270,000 employees. But meanwhile, GE’s acquisitions
were adding many more people to the payroll, as was
Welch’s Six Sigma quality initiative. By the summer of 2000, GE
had 340,000 employees.
But simple head counts can be misleading. Even as GE was
70 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
getting bigger, Welch was making his company act as if it were
much smaller. He achieved this goal by simplifying GE’s complex
hierarchy and by creating programs that unleashed empowered
BIG HAS ITS ADVANTAGES
Does “big” have its advantages? Of course, says Welch:
Big allows us, for example, to spend billions on development
of the new GE90 jet engine, or the next-generation gas
turbine, or positron emission tomography [PET] diagnostic
imaging machines—products that sometimes take years of investment
before they begin producing returns.
Size gives us staying power through market cycles in big,
promising businesses . . . Size will allow continued heavy investment
in new products . . . Size gives us the resources to
invest over a half-billion dollars a year on education: cultivating,
at every level in the organization, the human capital we
must have to win.
Offshore, “big” permits us to form partnerships with the
best of the large companies, and large countries, and to invest
for the long term in nations such as India, Mexico, and
the emerging industrial powers of South Asia.
SMALL COMPANIES CUT TO THE CHASE
Big, it seems, can be beautiful. So what is it about small companies
that Welch loves? His answer:
For one, they communicate better.
Without the din and prattle of bureaucracy, people listen
as well as talk; and since there are fewer of them, they generally
know and understand each other.
Second, small companies move faster. They know the penalties
for hesitation in the marketplace.
Third, in small companies, with fewer layers and less cam29
Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 71
ouflage, the leaders show up very clearly on the screen. Their
performance and its impact are clear to everyone.
And finally, small companies waste less. They spend less
time in endless reviews and approvals and politics and paper
drills. They have fewer people; therefore they only do the important
things. Their people are free to direct their energy
and attention toward the marketplace rather than fighting
Welch loves the idea that small companies are uncluttered,
simple, and informal.
They thrive on passion and ridicule bureaucracy. Small
companies grow on good ideas—regardless of their source.
They need everyone, involve everyone, and reward or remove
people based on their contribution to winning. Small
companies dream big dreams and set the bar high; increments
and fractions don’t interest them.
And he loves the way small companies communicate:
with simple, straightforward, passionate argument rather
than jargon-filled memos, “putting it in channels,” “running it
up the flagpole,” and worst of all, the polite deference to the
small ideas that too often come from big officers in big companies.
Everyone in a small company knows the customers—their
likes, dislikes, and needs—because the customers’ thumbs-up
or [thumbs]-down means the difference between a small
company becoming a bigger company tomorrow or no company
So size alone, says Welch, is no longer enough in a brutally
competitive world marketplace. Big companies must acquire the
soul of a small company. While you are growing, Welch cautions,
don’t lose your soul.
Don’t permit the attributes of bigness to overwhelm you.
Get bigger, but protect the soul of the more nimble organization
that you once were.
➤ Assume that your big company can act small. Welch
had to work at it, but he knew he could instill the
72 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
passion and informality of a small company into the
soul of GE.
➤ Structure for smallness. Welch removed layers and
sector heads that did not add value. If your organization
is too bloated, consider restructuring, removing
layers, boundaries, approvals—in short, anything that
bloats and slows the company.
➤ Check reality: Do you know your customers? This is
a good yardstick. Welch likes to compare his company
to the corner grocery store. Do you know your customers,
and do they know you? If not, you have your
work cut out for you.
REMOVE THE BOUNDARIES!
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
Our people must be as comfortable in New
Delhi and Seoul as they are in Louisville or
Schenectady . . .
When Jack Welch came on board, General Electric had hundreds
Those boundaries kept people within the company from
communicating easily with one another. And by extension, they
kept GE personnel from communicating with outside constituents.
When Jack Welch assumed command, he tried to identify all
the debilitating boundaries within GE. He knew that if he could
eliminate boundaries, it would go far toward creating the open,
informal business environment that he believed was essential.
74 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
THE GENESIS OF BOUNDARYLESS
Welch called upon GE to become boundaryless. The term was
certainly not in any dictionary. And as Welch was quick to acknowledge,
the made-up word was clumsy at best. But people
soon understood what it meant.
Welch first began using the term in the early 1990s. At that
time, he acknowledged that the business strategies he had employed
in the 1980s—restructuring, reducing the number of
management layers, and the like—were too incremental. They
took too long to affect the company.
Something new was needed. The answer was boundaryless.
WHAT’S IN A WORD?
The boundaryless company, Welch notes, is one in which “we
knock down the walls that separate us from each other on the
inside, and from our key constituents on the outside.” The boundaryless
■ Removes barriers between functions
■ Removes barriers between levels
■ Removes barriers between locations
■ Reaches out to important suppliers and makes them part
of a single process
We no longer have the time to climb over barriers between
functions like engineering and marketing, or between
people—hourly, salaried, management, and the like.
How does one get rid of boundaries? At GE, it was easiest to
get rid of the vertical ones—the boundaries of hierarchy—and
the company made great strides in this area in the 1980s.
What happens after getting rid of the boundaries?
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 75
Instead of hierarchies, there are cross-functional teams.
Instead of managers, there are business leaders.
Instead of workers who are told what to do, there are workers
who decide what to do.
If you want to get the benefit of everything employees
have, you’ve got to free them—make everybody a participant.
Everybody has to know everything, so they can make the
right decision by themselves.
By the summer of 1993, boundarylessness had become one of
the core values at GE:
If you’re turf-oriented, self-centered, don’t share with people,
and are not searching for ideas, you don’t belong
here . . .
Being boundaryless allows us to jab one another and have
fun. We rag each other when somebody starts to protect turf.
THE CEC MODEL
One powerful force for boundarylessness at GE is the Corporate
Executive Council (CEC), which includes the top 25 to 30 executives
of the company. It meets every 3 months, from a Monday
to a Wednesday, for a free-flowing exchange of ideas.
In the bad old days, says Welch, GE functioned like a classic
conglomerate. “Each business quarter,” he explains, “the divisional
manager phoned the finance person to report the numbers.”
GE is very different today. Through the CEC, leaders don’t
merely discuss numbers; they exchange ideas.
By design, CEC sessions have no formal agenda. The point is
to keep it loose.
A senior GE official may distribute a brief memo in advance
of the get-together to alert the executives about the main topic
of the meeting. But that’s about it in terms of structure. The
76 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
whole purpose of the meeting is to foster learning about problems
being faced by other businesses and to pick up good ideas
that might work in one’s own business. Structure would work
against these goals.
The CEC is, in a sense, a model and metaphor. Welch urged
his colleagues at GE to break down boundaries, wherever they
existed, from the CEC level on down. The fewer the boundaries,
the more likely that employees could do their jobs well.
➤ Root out boundaries. Anything that disrupts communications
between departments and employees or
between employees and outside constituents is bad.
➤ Model behaviors with senior managers. Welch credits
his CEC meetings with helping to spread the flow of
ideas throughout all of GE’s diverse businesses. They
also set a positive pattern for others in the company.
➤ Involve everybody. To achieve boundarylessness in
your organization, involve everybody. If boundaries
are deeply ingrained, consider holding a Work-Out
session (see Leadership Secrets 18 to 20).
UNLEASH THE ENERGY OF
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
The way to get faster, more productive, and
more competitive is to unleash the energy
and intelligence and raw, ornery selfconfidence
of the American worker, who is
still by far the most productive and innovative
in the world.
The first phase of Jack Welch’s revolution at GE, in the early
1980s, brought massive change:
■ 350 businesses transformed into 12
■ The core electrical manufacturing businesses replaced by
high-tech and service as the focus of the company
■ Selected plants closed, and others made state of the art
■ Payrolls slashed, and layers of management pared away
78 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
Jack Welch called these years the “hardware phase.” And although
the hardware phase boosted GE’s bottom line, it also
disconcerted many employees. They had been moved to new
plants, given new bosses, assigned new tasks. As a result, few felt
secure in the new GE.
By the late 1980s, Welch knew that a serious issue confronted
him. As a result of downsizing, GE’s remaining employees were
expected to carry a far greater work burden. They had to develop
the belief that they were not just cogs in a giant machine but
They had to be made to feel like owners.
TURN EMPLOYEES INTO OWNERS
This was a tall order. At the time, a spirit of animosity prevailed
between management and workers.
“We spent 90 percent of our time on the floor figuring out
how to screw the management,” an employee later confessed to
Welch. “That was all right because you guys spent 95 percent of
your time figuring out how to screw us.”
So in the fall of 1988, Welch launched the second phase of
his revolution. It centered on shifting authority from managers
The way to harness the power of these people is to protect
them, not to sit on them, but to turn them loose, let
them go—get the management layers off their backs, the bureaucratic
shackles off their feet, and the function barriers
out of their way.
In the past, managers had carried the burden of boosting productivity;
from now on, this would become the job of the men
and women on the factory floor.
Before at GE, we generally used to tell people what to do.
And they did exactly what they were told to do and not
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 79
one other thing. Now we are constantly amazed by how
much people will do when they are not told what to do by
A new concept had been born. Welch gave it a name: empowerment.
As GE managers were fond of saying, workers tended to park
their brains at the factory gate each morning. No longer! Henceforth,
managers had to find a way to harness the brainpower of
the work force. They had to permit workers to make decisions,
contribute ideas, and organize their own workdays. They had to
give their employees more power, make their workday more fun
and interesting, and otherwise enable them to raise their own
level of productivity.
Welch later confessed that he regretted having waited 7 years
to empower the work force. But starting earlier would have been
impractical. In the “hardware phase,” there was too much uncertainty,
as employees worried whether they would still have a
job at the end of each day. And of course, there were too many
Empowering and liberating and exhilarating a bloated bureaucracy
in the beginning would have been impossible. It
would have produced a mixed message because we were
shocking them. I’m not sure you could have sold that and
In 1990, Welch unleashed the next phase of his “empowerment
revolution”: a program he called Work-Out. As we will see
shortly, Work-Out was all about building up employees and
showing them that they were contributing directly to the health
of the enterprise.
Welch had at least one ulterior motive in effecting all this
change. He continued to be irritated by Wall Street’s persistent
assessment of GE as a portfolio of businesses lacking coherence
and focus. A spirit of common purpose would eventually impress
outsiders and perhaps even the skeptics on Wall Street.
But this was a secondary concern. At their heart, Welch’s
80 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
changes were about treating employees as an integral part of the
➤ Unleash productivity by involving everyone. Make
sure that everyone knows how important his or her
contribution is to the overall effort.
➤ Turn workers into owners. Owners—literal and figurative—
have a far greater stake in the business.
➤ Have patience; attitudes don’t change overnight.
Welch waited until 1988 before implementing Work-
Out. He knew that other aspects of his plan had to
take effect before he could make his move.
LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE WHO
ACTUALLY DO THE WORK
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
Our desire to tap into this creativity . . . to
listen more clearly to these ideas . . . led us to
a process we call Work-Out.
The subject of this chapter began as a GE paradox.
Jack Welch, one of the country’s toughest and most aggressive
bosses, brought forth a program designed to let workers
become their own bosses.
By doing so, he changed his company.
82 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
THE NAME AND THE MODEL
Like all ambitious programs, this one needed a name.
Welch had been talking about “working out the nonsense of
GE” and dealing with problems that needed to be “worked out.”
Not surprisingly, the name became “Work-Out.”
The model for Work-Out was the New England town meeting
in which residents charted the town’s course through dialogue
with each other and with the town leaders. Welch hoped the
Work-Out program would help GE accomplish four important
1. Develop trust among employees
2. Empower employees
3. Eliminate unnecessary work
4. Spread the GE culture
At the heart of Work-Out were two assumptions:
1. Employees had to be in a position to make suggestions
to their bosses face-to-face.
2. Employees had to be able to get a reply on the spot,
Work-Out began in the fall of 1990. Welch wanted all GE
employees to complete at least one Work-Out session within a
year. Thus, the initial emphasis was on getting as many employees
through the program as possible rather than on developing
and refining specific techniques.
Once organizers decided who should attend a Work-Out session,
they sent out invitations, explaining what Work-Out was all
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 83
about. A subsequent letter, containing details about when and
where the session would occur, was mailed to those who expressed
The sessions were conducted far enough from the workplace,
often at a hotel, to get people’s undivided attention. Workshops
usually lasted 3 days. There might be as many as 50 participants
or as few as 20. They represented a cross section of GE personnel
from senior and junior managers to salaried and hourly workers.
During the first 2 days, no one was allowed to take notes. (Welch
was concerned that taking notes would “bureaucratize” the exercise.)
Generally, the leader of any GE business, large or small, kicked
off the first-day session, talking about the strengths and weaknesses
of that business and explaining how the business fit into
GE’s overall strategy. Then, for the time being, he or she left.
A facilitator then arranged for participants to break up into
small groups of 8 to 12 people. The groups brainstormed about
some of the weaknesses the keynote speaker had identified. The
facilitator shuttled from one room to another, keeping the breakout
sessions on track.
The facilitator had no veto power over what topics were discussed.
However, he or she was concerned with process. In particular,
senior employees weren’t allowed to dominate conversations
or bully others in the room.
Eventually, the facilitator reconvened the minigroups in a plenary
session. The participants then discussed their ideas about
the business’s problems, paying particular attention to four criteria:
reports, meetings, measurements, and approvals. What
should be eliminated? What should be reinforced? Their ideas
were summarized in a series of proposals, which might number
as many as two dozen or more.
In the final hours of the third day, the boss returned to undergo
a fairly remarkable experience.
84 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
TURNING HIERARCHY UPSIDE DOWN
It was this final session that gave Work-Out its special power.
For 2 full days, employees had spent hours discussing not only
their business but also their boss. Employees were expected to
be completely candid in their critiques of both, and most often,
The result was a fairly dramatic shift of power. Previously, the
boss, standing in the front of the room, had an unchallenged
aura of authority. No more! Now, the boss had to listen and
The participants put forward their proposals, and the boss
could make one of three responses: (a) agree, (b) say no, or (c)
seek more information. In this last case, the manager would be
required to come up with an answer within a month.
The big surprise? Some 80 percent of the proposals got immediate
up-or-down answers. Work-Out suggested that, given
the right circumstances, it’s not difficult to reach decisions and
make changes in a business.
A participant was chosen to record all the proposals discussed,
along with the steps to be taken by management to determine
the feasibility of a certain proposal. After all other participants
certified the accuracy of this summary, it was distributed to
everyone else in that particular GE business.
Next to each recommendation was the name of the Work-
Out participant who raised the issue—the issue’s “champion”—
who followed up on the recommendation and informed the attendees
The goal of Work-Out was to come up with specific, actionable
items. (Recommendations with fuzzy language were
dropped.) Each recommendation could comprise as many as
three action items, and each action item came with a deadline.
The Work-Out leader assigned a “roadblock buster,” who made
sure that each deadline was met.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 85
➤ Turn hierarchy upside down. The Work-Out program
was clear evidence of Welch’s commitment to transferring
power within GE. Managers who could not
deal with the requirements of Work-Out were fired.
➤ Enable people to speak out freely. The success of this
sort of program depends on employees speaking candidly,
without fear of penalty.
➤ If a full-blown Work-Out session is not possible, consider
a half-day minisession. Follow the guidelines
presented in this leadership secret but compress the
entire session into a half-day program.
GO BEFORE YOUR WORKERS
AND ANSWER ALL THEIR
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
The people who are closest to the work really
do know it better.
At the outset of the Work-Out program, the invisible walls
between managers and employees often loomed large and
inhibited communication between the two constituencies.
The chains of history and tradition were too strong to be
broken so quickly. Initially, there were many awkward silences.
But over time, Work-Out began to catch on. Someone would
summon up the necessary courage and talk.
A question would get asked.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 87
A problem would be put on the table.
Once the ice was broken, others in the audience overcame
their timidity as well. And then things started to happen.
A CASE IN POINT
Armand Lauzon, a GE manager, faced Work-Out attendees
(from a GE facility in Lynn, Massachusetts) on the final day of
One by one, the group’s 108 recommendations were put to
him for one of three responses: “yes,” “no,” or “need more information.”
The proposals ranged from designing a plant-service
insignia to building a new tinsmith shop.
To 100 of the 108 proposals, Lauzon said “yes” on the spot.
One of the approved proposals was to permit Lynn’s employees
to bid against an outside vendor on new protective shields
for grinding machines. (An hourly worker had sketched a design
for the shields on a brown paper bag.) Ultimately, the internal
group won the bid for $16,000, far less than the vendor’s quoted
$96,000. It was an ideal Work-Out result: saving GE money,
bringing work to the Lynn plant, and empowering employees.
RATTLERS AND PYTHONS
At some Work-Out sessions, facilitators divided problems into
two separate categories: rattlers and pythons.
Rattlers were problems that could be resolved on the spot;
that is, they could be shot and buried in real time, like a rattlesnake.
Pythons, by contrast, were issues that were too complicated
to unravel straight away, comparable to a python wrapped up in
88 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
One rattler example involved a young woman who published
a popular monthly plant newspaper and had run into a wall of
bureaucracy. GE policies required her to secure seven signatures
before she could go to press. She pleaded her case to her boss
at a Work-Out session: “You all like the plant newspaper. It’s
never been criticized. It’s won awards. So why does it take seven
“This is crazy,” he replied. “Okay, from now on, no more
At the Research and Development Center in Schenectady,
New York, an employee at a Work-Out session asked why managers
got special parking places. No one could think of a good
reason. The privilege was rescinded on the spot.
At a Work-Out session for the company’s communications
personnel, a secretary asked why she had to interrupt her own
work each time something landed in the “out tray” on her boss’s
desk. Why couldn’t he drop the material off on her desk the next
time he left his office? On the spot, the change was made.
Pythons, by definition, are tougher to unwind than rattlers.
At one Work-Out session, field-service engineers griped about
having to write reports used to forecast which turbines might
need to be replaced the next time an outage occurred.
Their complaint was that no one was reading the reports,
which sometimes ran as long as 500 pages.
This problem was knottier. People actually did need some
version of this information, although clearly not in its current
Eventually, as a result of some intense Work-Out sessions, the
huge reports were scrapped. In their place came briefer, more
up-to-date reports, which were actually read!
THE KEY ELEMENT
Jack Welch, for one, was ecstatic about Work-Out:
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 89
Work-Out is many things . . . but its central objective is
“growing” a culture where everyone’s ideas have value . . .
where leaders lead rather than control [and] coach rather
Work-Out is the process of mining the creativity and productivity
that we know resides in the American work force . . .
In 1997, Welch spoke again as an advocate of high employee
The most important thing a leader has to do is to absolutely
search and treasure and nourish the voice and dignity
of every person. It is in the end the key element.
The Work-Out program continues today. According to one
senior executive, it has proven itself as a “best practice which
targets bureaucracy and all its waste, pomposity, and nonsense.”
➤ Search out practices that have stopped making sense.
Every company has these foolish habits that should
have been abolished years ago. Root them out and
➤ Build programs on a foundation like Work-Out.
Think of Work-Out as a prerequisite to more ambitious
initiatives such as Six Sigma.
➤ Nourish dignity. The most important thing a leader
does, Jack Welch asserts, is “treasure and nourish the
voice and dignity of every person.”
This page intentionally left blank.
NEXT-GENERATION LEADERSHIP: INITIATIVES
FOR DRIVING AND SUSTAINING
This page intentionally left blank.
STRETCH: EXCEED YOUR
GOALS AS OFTEN AS YOU CAN
FROM THE FLIES OF JACK WELCH
Boundaryless people, excited by speed and
inspired by Stretch dreams, have an absolutely
infinite capacity to improve everything.
Most managers feel that reaching goals and meeting budgets
translate into doing a good job.
That’s not good enough for Jack Welch.
He feels that goals exist to be exceeded and even to be blown
away. He calls this business strategy “Stretch.”
Set the bar very high, advises Welch. If you don’t, you’ll never
know how much your workers can really achieve.
94 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
MAKING STRETCH HAPPEN
Stretch begins with the definition of performance targets that are
within a company’s capabilities.
The second aspect involves setting those sights higher—much
higher—toward goals that seem beyond reach, requiring an almost
superhuman effort to achieve.
We have found that by reaching for what appears to be
the impossible, we often actually do the impossible; and
even when we don’t quite make it, we inevitably wind up doing
much better than we would have done.
Reaching and stretching, according to Welch, avoid the mediocrity
that can arise out of compromise:
People work for a month on charts and presentations and
books to come in and tell the CEO that, given the economic
environment, given the competitive scenario, the best they
can do is a 2. Then the CEO says, “I have to give the shareholders
a 4.” They eventually settle on 3 and everyone goes
So Stretch means shooting for the stars. But what happens if
employees fail to reach goals? Welch considers this a crucial
If they don’t have the team operating effectively, you give
them another chance. If they fail again, you hand the reins to
another person. But you don’t punish for not meeting big targets.
If 10 is the target and you’re only at 2, we’ll have a party
when you go to 4. We’ll give out bonuses and go out on the
town and drink or whatever. When you reach 6, we’ll celebrate
again. We don’t waste time and money budgeting 4.12
to 5.13 to 6.17.
Jeff Immelt, former head of GE Medical Systems who ultimately
succeeded Jack Welch as CEO, observed that when Welch
began the Stretch concept in the early 1990s, he focused on financial
goals. By the late 1990s, he was concentrating on getting
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 95
GE business leaders to stretch goals dealing with process (the
new introduction of products, cycle time, etc.). “You’ll never get
there if you don’t do process,” says Immelt.
STRETCH DOES HAVE RISKS
Too much Stretch can be a bad thing.
“It makes you think that your plan won’t get you to the
Stretch goal,” explains David Calhoun, head of GE Lighting in
the late 1990s. “So you might think about acquiring a new company,
[or you] might decide to drop prices out of the bottom
to get to the Stretch goal. In other words, stretching forces them
to do stuff they wouldn’t otherwise do.”
And Stretch can lead to internal frictions. There was the example
of a lower level employee who worked hard to improve
on the previous year’s numbers. At the end of the year, that
person did indeed get his numbers up. Yet the person’s boss,
who was seeking a far higher Stretch target, scolded the worker
for “only delivering” what the boss deemed to be mediocre results.
The result, not surprisingly, was an unhappy manager and an
Welch understands that Stretch is not an easy concept, and it
takes time to implement.
If you have a lousy relationship where a boss takes a
Stretch goal and stamps it as a plan and then nails you because
you didn’t reach it, the Stretch program is dead.
WORTH THE RISKS
To some business leaders, Stretch may be out of reach.
And indeed, in Welch’s early years, Stretch was out of reach
96 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
for GE. It would have been too much to ask of his GE colleagues
in the difficult years of restructuring. They first needed to regain
confidence in themselves and in their businesses. Once they did,
Stretch became possible.
Reach for the stars, Welch exhorted his people.
The worst that can happen is that you will fail.
Indeed, you probably will fail.
But by stretching yourself and stretching your business, you
may actually reach the stars.
➤ Get the most out of your employees. Each employee
should be “stretched” to the maximum.
➤ Set Stretch goals and then push to exceed them. If
people don’t reach those goals, fine—as long as
they’ve truly tried to stretch.
➤ Push for the impossible. Instill in your employees the
idea that they should go beyond ordinary goals.
MAKE QUALITY A TOP
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
As boundaryless learning has defined how
we behave, Six Sigma quality will . . . define
how we work.
When Jack Welch embraces an idea, that idea becomes a
passion. This was true when he embraced quality—specifically,
“Six Sigma” quality—in the late 1990s. He was convinced
that focusing on quality would make General Electric the
most competitive company on earth.
98 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
A HIDDEN FACTORY
GE had long been associated with quality. But in the 1990s, it
was becoming painfully clear that GE’s quality was not world
It’s gotten better with each succeeding generation of product
and service. But it has not improved enough to get us to
the quality levels of that small circle of excellent global companies
that had survived the intense competitive assault by
themselves, achieving new levels of quality.
It wasn’t as if Welch had ignored quality. But he had assumed
that he could attack the issue of quality through other strategies.
For example, the Work-Out program captured Welch’s most important
“cultural” goals: openness, informality, boundarylessness,
high involvement, self-confidence, productivity, and so on.
Welch hoped that Work-Out (among other efforts) would help
keep GE’s quality high.
But by the mid-1990s, employees were arguing that greater
productivity was not possible without higher quality standards.
Too much time was being spent on reworking products. One
senior manager referred to the “hidden factory” in which all of
that reworking went on.
So Welch gradually became convinced that being as good as
the next guy, or even a little better, wasn’t good enough.
We want to be more than that. We want to change the
competitive landscape by being not just better than our competitors
but by taking quality to a whole new level. We want
to make our quality so special, so valuable to our customers,
so important to their success, that our products become their
only real value choice.
The question was: How?
As it turned out, the answer was Six Sigma. Simply put, this
measures mistakes per million operations. One sigma means that
68 percent of the products are acceptable. At six sigma, only 3.4
defects per million operations occur.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 99
Pressure from Japanese competitors convinced American
companies like Motorola that it was time to rethink things. The
quality of American goods was then hovering at around four
sigma levels. Japanese manufacturers of products like electric
equipment, cars, and precision instruments were already at six
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Motorola pioneered Six
Sigma, increasing its quality from four sigma to five point five
sigma. This yielded $2.2 billion in savings, and other companies
soon launched their own Six Sigma programs.
A PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEM
So Welch found himself in a dilemma.
He agreed that GE needed to push quality improvement. But
he worried that Six Sigma was inconsistent with his business
strategies. It was centrally managed. It seemed too bureaucratic
with its reports and standard nomenclature. It assumed specific,
Work-Out had been designed to eliminate reports, approvals,
meetings, and measures. Six Sigma seemed likely to put them
back in. “I don’t know that it’s us,” he told one colleague.
THE CONSENSUS: WE NEED QUALITY
In April 1995, a survey showed that GE employees were dissatisfied
with the quality of the company’s products and processes.
Many of them knew that a number of other companies had
achieved dramatically higher quality levels through a disciplined,
A few months later, Larry Bossidy reinforced the message.
Bossidy had been a GE vice chairman, but he left in July 1991
100 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
to become CEO of AlliedSignal, where (in 1994) he launched a
Six Sigma program.
“GE is a great company,” Bossidy told GE’s leaders. “I know.
I worked there for 34 years. But there is a lot you can do to
become greater. If GE decides to do it, you’ll write the book on
Welch was impressed. Ultimately, he and his colleagues decided
that GE had to put together a serious quality program. But
they also decided to do it in a way that was special.
As former Vice Chairman Paolo Fresco commented: “When
GE decides to do something, it goes after its own objectives with
a vengeance, with an intensity which is unique.”
Within a few years, Six Sigma had become more than a GE
It had become the new corporate mantra—a battle cry, as
much as a quality initiative.
➤ Tackle quality head-on. Don’t rely on other company
initiatives or strategies to tackle the problem of quality.
Attack it directly.
➤ Find the “hidden factory.” Don’t let low quality standards
necessitate endless reworking.
➤ Use quality to make sure that your products are your
customers’ only actual value choice. Quality can be
just as important as price, features, and so on.
MAKE QUALITY THE JOB OF
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
By 2000, we want to be not just better in
quality, but a company 10,000 times better
than its competitors.
In January 1996, at the annual gathering of GE’s 500 top managers,
Jack Welch formally launched the Six Sigma initiative.
GE aimed to become a Six Sigma quality company by the year
2000, producing nearly defect-free products, services, and transactions.
Welch considered Six Sigma the most difficult Stretch goal GE
had ever undertaken. But if successful, he said, the program
would be “the biggest opportunity for growth, increased profitability,
and individual employee satisfaction in the history of our
102 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
GOING FOR SIX SIGMA
Prior to Six Sigma, GE’s typical processes generated about 35,000
defects per million operations, or three point five sigma. GE’s
goal through the Six Sigma program was to cut defects to fewer
than four per million operations. To reach six sigma, therefore,
GE needed to reduce its defect rates by 10,000 times. And to hit
this goal by 2000, it would have to reduce defect levels an average
of 84 percent a year. But Welch was optimistic:
Very little of this requires invention. We have taken a
proven methodology, adapted it to a boundaryless culture,
and are providing our teams every resource they will need to
win. . . .
Motorola had gotten to six sigma in 10 years. Welch wanted
to get there in 5. Was this possible? Again, Welch was optimistic.
Motorola had to pioneer the program. GE could learn from Motorola’s
experience and also had a Work-Out culture to reinforce
the quality initiative.
There is no company in the world that has ever been better
positioned to undertake an initiative as massive and
transforming as this one. Every cultural change we’ve made
over the past couple of decades positions us to take on this
exciting and rewarding challenge.
The Six Sigma program relied on the creation of a new “warrior
class” within the company. This group—comprising Green
Belts, Black Belts, and Master Black Belts—would be made up
of managers who had undergone the complex statistical training
of Six Sigma and could implement its procedures.
Despite Welch’s enthusiasm, Six Sigma was at first considered
by many to be another new management fad. So Welch turned
up the heat. At the GE operating managers’ meeting in January
1997, he hammered away at the importance of the quality program:
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 103
You’ve got to be lunatics about this subject. You’ve got to
be passionate lunatics about the quality issue. You’ve got to
be out on the fringe of demand, and pressure and push to
make this happen. This has to be central to everything you
do every day.
Only the quality-minded individual, Welch warned, would
prevail at GE:
In the next century, we expect the leadership of this company
to have been Black Belt–trained people. They will just
naturally only hire Black Belt–trained people. They will be
the leaders who will insist only on seeing people like that in
the company . . .
Welch also put teeth behind his words. In March 1997, he
sent a fax to GE managers around the world directly linking
advancement opportunities to Six Sigma. Effective January 1,
1998, Welch wrote, one must have started Green Belt or Black
Belt training to be promoted to a senior middle-management or
senior management position. Effective January 1, 1999, all of
GE’s “professional” employees, numbering between 80,000 and
90,000, and including all officers, must have begun Green Belt
or Black Belt training. And in case anyone still missed the point,
Welch tied 40 percent of his 120 vice presidents’ bonuses to
progress toward quality results.
After Welch’s fax, the number of applicants for Six Sigma
training programs skyrocketed.
BACK TO THE LEARNING ORGANIZATION
A reporter asked Welch what the quality program meant to the
average GE factory employee.
“Job security,” Welch replied. “Enhanced satisfaction. Not
wasteful rework. Growth.” Without the quality program, he continued,
the factory employee might get laid off. And because the
104 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
quality program focused in part on finding out what customers
wanted, the employee could increase his or her long-term job
This is a key point: Welch believes that quality is, at its heart,
about the customer. When customers think they derive more
value from your products and services, they remain your customers.
The drive for quality is not some GE drive. The only reason
for the quality is to make your customers more competitive
. . .
It has nothing to do with what you want. All these things
are done in a way that the customer drives them. The customer
manages your factory.
Welch insisted that the quality initiative was simply the next
step in creating the learning organization:
Quality is the next act of productivity . . . Out of quality you
eliminate reworking. You get salesmen’s time improved dramatically.
They’re not spending 30 percent of their time on
invoice errors. . . .
Quality is the next step in the learning process. Getting rid
of layers. Getting rid of fat. Involving everyone. All that did
was to get more ideas. The whole thing here is to create the
➤ Think about quality universally. When implementing
a Six Sigmalike quality program, look at all products
➤ Start with a quality cadre. Welch identified a core
group, with clear qualifications and characteristics, to
lead the quality charge. Then he broadened the base.
➤ Link compensation to quality performance. As soon
as pay and promotion prospects were linked to Six
Sigma, participation soared and change took root.
MAKE SURE EVERYONE
UNDERSTANDS HOW SIX
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
Quality is the next act of productivity.
Following Motorola’s lead, General Electric designed a Six
Sigma quality program comprising four steps to be applied
to every process and transaction:
1. Measure. Identify the key internal process that influences
“critical-to-quality” issues (CTQs) and measure the defects
generated relative to identified CTQs. Defects are
defined as out-of-tolerance CTQs. The end of this phase
106 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
comes when the Black Belt can successfully measure the
defects generated for a key process affecting the CTQ.
2. Analyze. The objective of this phase is to learn why defects
are generated. Brainstorming, statistical tools, and so
on are used to spotlight key variables (Xs) that cause the
defects. The output of this phase is the identification of
the variables most likely to drive process variation.
3. Improve. The objective of this phase is to confirm the key
variables and then: (a) quantify the effect of these variables
on the CTQs, (b) identify the maximum acceptable
ranges of the key variables, (c) make certain the measurement
systems are capable of measuring the variation in
the key variables, and (d) modify the process to stay
within the acceptable ranges.
4. Control. The objective of this phase is to ensure that the
modified process enables the key variables (Xs) to stay
within the maximum acceptable ranges.
THE SIX SIGMA PLAYERS
There are four groups of key players in the GE Six Sigma effort:
1. Champions. These are senior managers who—although
not on Six Sigma full time—define, approve, and fund
projects and are responsible for the success of the overall
program. Most Champions report directly to the business
leader, and a GE business might have up to 10 Champions,
each of whom receives a week’s training. Several
hundred Champions have been selected.
2. Master Black Belts. These are full-time teachers with
heavy quantitative skills as well as teaching and leadership
ability. They mentor Black Belts. Master Black Belts
are trained for at least 2 weeks. In the fall of 2000, there
were 500 Master Black Belts.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 107
3. Black Belts. These are full-time quality executives who
lead teams and report to the Champions. In the fall of
2000, there were 5000 Black Belts.
4. Green Belts. These are members of Black Belt project
teams who do not work on the projects full time and
have other jobs in the company. In the fall of 2000, there
were 100,000 Green Belts.
THE SIX SIGMA PROCESS
Each of the four phases—measure, analyze, improve, control—
takes 1 month. Each begins with 3 days of training, followed by
3 weeks of “doing” and 1 day of formal review by the Master
Black Belts and Champions.
A “successful” project is one in which (a) defects are reduced
10 times if the process began at less than three sigma (66,000
defects per million operations) or (b) there is a 50 percent reduction
in cases where the process started at greater than three
GE defined five corporate measures to help its businesses track
progress in the Six Sigma program:
1. Customer Satisfaction. Each business conducts customer
surveys, asking customers to grade GE and the best in a
category on critical-to-quality issues on a one-to-five
scale, where five is the best. A defect is defined as less
than best in a category or, even if best in a category, a
score of three or less.
2. Cost of Poor Quality. There are three components: appraisal
(mostly inspection), internal costs (largely scrap
and rework), and external costs (mainly warranties and
3. Supplier Quality. GE tracks defects where the defective
part either (a) has one or more CTQs out of tolerance
108 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
and therefore must be returned or reworked or (b) is received
outside the schedule.
4. Internal Performance. GE measures the defects generated
by its processes. The measure is the sum of all defects in
relation to the sum of all opportunities (CTQs) for defects.
5. Design for Manufacturability. GE measures the percentage
of drawings reviewed for CTQs and the percentage of
CTQs designed to Six Sigma. Most new products are
now designed with CTQs identified. This is an important
step because the design approach often drives the defect
Since Six Sigma began in January 1996, the results have far exceeded
Welch’s expectations. He noted the progress in his letter
The Six Sigma initiative is in its fifth year—its fifth trip
through the operating system. From a standing start in 1996,
with no financial benefit to the company, it has flourished to
the point where it produced more than $2 billion in benefits
in 1999, with much more to come.
Consistently throughout this ramp-up period, Welch stressed
that quality-mindedness was critical to success at, and by, GE:
In the next century, we will neither accept nor keep anyone
without a quality mindset, a quality focus. It has been
remarked that we are just a bit “unbalanced” on the subject.
That’s a fair comment. We are.
➤ Understand the component parts of Six Sigma quality.
Measure, analyze, improve, and control to achieve a
new discipline in your company.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 109
➤ Nothing is more important than follow-through. You
will need to make sure that quality does not fall off
in the future.
➤ Your customers know quality. Consider initiating customer
surveys to assess your quality effort.
MAKE SURE THE CUSTOMER
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
It’s really gone from a quality program to a
productivity program to a customer satisfaction
program to changing the fundamental
DNA of the company.
In his 1999 letter to shareholders, JackWelch proudly explained
the program’s impact on the company.
During the initial 2 years, he noted, GE had invested some
$500 million in training its work force. It had also dedicated
some of its best talent, literally thousands of employees, full time
to Six Sigma projects.
Nearly every professional worker at GE had become a Green
Belt, with 3 weeks of training and one Six Sigma project under
his or her belt.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 111
Another 5000 full-time Black Belts and Master Black Belts
were starting and supervising Six Sigma projects. A number of
those Master Black Belts and Black Belts had already been promoted
into key leadership posts.
As for the financial returns from Six Sigma, they were better
than expected. Savings in 1998 due to Six Sigma projects
amounted to $750 million, over and above GE’s investment. Billions
more would be saved due to increased volume and market
In 1998, GE introduced its first major products designed for
Six Sigma. These products were “designed” by customers and
incorporated every feature the customer deemed critical to quality.
The first such product was LightSpeed, a CT scanner that
revolutionized medical diagnostics. Thanks to LightSpeed, a
chest scan that once took 3 minutes to perform now took only
SIX SIGMA AT WORK
Here are some other examples of how Six Sigma has worked at
GE’s lighting business had a billing system that didn’t mesh
very well electronically with the purchasing system of Wal-Mart,
one of GE’s most important customers. This caused disruptions,
delays in payments, and wasted time for Wal-Mart.
A GE Black Belt team secured a $30,000 budget and went to
work. Within 4 months, defects dropped by 98 percent.
Employees at GE’s Capital Mortgage Corporation were handling
300,000 telephone calls a year from customers. When necessary,
they relied on voice mail. Although GE personnel always
112 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
returned these calls, sometimes it was too late: Customers had
already taken their business elsewhere.
A team led by a Master Black Belt got involved. It discovered
that one of the corporation’s 42 branches was able to answer its
phone calls the first time around. The team figured out how and
spread the word across the other 41 branches, leading to millions
of dollars of additional business.
CUSTOMERS FEEL VARIANCE
However, by 1999, Welch and his senior colleagues were aware
of a major problem. Although the company was saving significant
sums through Six Sigma, customers weren’t sensing these improvements.
Why? The answer lies in a concept called variance.
Consider a hypothetical example, presented in the chart on
It appears there have been substantial improvements in customer
service: The mean delivery time has been cut from 17 to
12 days. But there are wide variances in the delivery times. Yes,
customers sometimes received the product in 4 days but other
times didn’t receive it for 20 days. And although the average
performance has been improved, lots of deliveries still take up
to 20 days.
Welch focused on these still-frustrated customers:
These customers hear the sounds of celebration coming
from within GE walls and ask, “What’s the big event? What
did we miss?” The customer only feels the variance that we
have not yet removed.
The challenge he laid out to his top managers was to turn the
company’s outlook “outside in.” This meant two things: (a) measuring
the parameters of customer needs and processes and (b)
working toward zero variability.
He explained this new priority in the 1999 annual report:
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 113
Customer Dashboard: Customer XYZ
Dashboard Dial: Order to Delivery Time
Order by Order Delivery Times
Starting Point After Project
28 Days 29 Days
18 6 Big Change
19 10 No Change
17 Days 12 Days
Today, Six Sigma is focused squarely where it must be—on
helping our customers win. . . . The objective is not to deliver
flawless products and services that we think the customer
wants when we promise them—but rather, what customers
really want when they want them.
And a year later, he presented another Six Sigma status report
to GE shareholders, this time against the backdrop of e-business:
We have the hard part, hundreds of factories and warehouses,
world-leading products and technology. We have a
century-old brand identity and a reputation known and ad-
114 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
mired around the globe, all attributes that new e-business
entrants are desperate to get. And we have one other enormous
advantage—Six Sigma quality—the greatest fulfillment
engine ever devised.
➤ Customers must be brought into the process. Make
sure that your customers feel the results of your quality
program as quickly as possible.
➤ Don’t assume that the customer is as happy as you
are. Monitor customer reaction to the initiative on a
➤ Keep the customer as the main focus. Make sure your
employees are aware that the point is to satisfy customers.
GROW YOUR SERVICE
BUSINESS: IT’S THE WAVE OF
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
The market is bigger than we ever dreamt.
In 1980, the year before Welch took over, GE was almost entirely
a manufacturing enterprise, with 85 percent of revenues
coming from manufacturing and only 15 percent from services.
The company had always been involved in services, but the
service sector was regarded as something of an afterthought—
known, tellingly, as the “aftermarket.”
At first, GE saw the service sector as merely a source of some
incremental business. But in time, company executives under-
116 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
stood that a systematic focus on services could enlarge the potential
markets of GE businesses many times over.
HIGHER RATES OF GROWTH FROM SERVICES
To Jack Welch and other GE executives, the point was not to
give up on manufacturing. But it was clear that the service sector
had the potential for much higher rates of growth. And service
had another huge advantage: Profit margins were typically 50
percent higher on services than on manufactured products.
So a push began in the late 1980s to grow services. In 1990,
GE derived 45 percent of its revenues from its service businesses—
up substantially from the 1980 figure. Only 5 years later,
in 1995, GE’s nonmanufacturing business (financial services, aftermarket
services, and broadcasting) had grown to just under
60 percent of total revenues.
In 1995, Welch pushed the service initiative to full throttle.
And by the year 2000, manufacturing made up only 25 percent
of the entire GE mix, while nonmanufacturing businesses made
up the rest, for total nonmanufacturing revenues of just under
The most important engine in this service growth—indeed,
the key engine of growth for all of GE—has been GE Capital
Services (GECS). In 1999, GECS revenue reached $55.7 billion,
or about half of GE’s total revenue of $111.6 billion.
But also extremely helpful to GE’s efforts in the service field
was a hidden asset: its installed base of industrial equipment,
including 9000 commercial jet engines, 10,000 turbines, 13,000
locomotives, and 84,000 major pieces of medical diagnostic
By October 1996, GE was bringing in $7.8 billion—fully 11
percent of its total revenues—through servicing that installed
base. At the end of 1998, its product-service revenue exceeded
$12 billion a year.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 117
MAKE SERVICE A PRIMARY MARKET
In 1997, Welch was asked how far he was prepared to go toward
becoming service oriented. Was he prepared to abandon certain
In response, Welch noted that customer demand was pulling
the company in the direction of services, but there was clearly a
point of diminishing returns:
We offer them complete solutions not so much in order to
increase our equipment sales, but because they have a need
for them. That said, we will always be a company that sells
high-tech products. Without products, you’re dead. You go
out of business and become obsolete. If I fail to introduce a
new medical scanner, how many hospitals are likely to come
and see me for new services?
It’s worth noting that General Electric’s increased emphasis on
services can run counter to one of Welch’s earlier business strategies:
that all GE businesses must be either number one or two
in their markets.
What’s the challenge? A company that manufactures, say,
widgets can define its market quite narrowly and thereby seize
the number one or number two spot with relative ease. But when
that same company begins to provide services, its market share
may plummet because it may put itself into a new peer group
of service-oriented firms.
Welch, for one, can live with these kinds of complications.
All these things you learn. If Jack Welch knew 17 years
ago what he knows today, it would be a better company.
This is a learning organization. I learn every day. Keep
searching. I don’t know diddly. I got guys here trying to learn
➤ Think hard about the services that might be directly
associated with your products. Is your company leav118
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
ing money on the table by not pursuing aftermarket
➤ Think equally hard about services that are further removed
from your core product lines. GE Capital Services—
far from the light-bulb trade!—has been an
➤ Stay flexible. As you make the move into services, be
aware that some of your long-standing ideas about
your business may need to be adjusted.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
While we are already generating billions in
Web-based revenues, the contribution of
e-business to GE has been so much more. It
is changing this company to its core.
Jack Welch viewed tackling the Internet as the fourth major
initiative of his tenure at the helm of GE, after Work-Out,
globalization, and Six Sigma quality.
During the 1980s, GE went through a substantial modernization
effort, in part to take advantage of emerging technologies.
Exploiting the Internet was a natural extension of these
But large, established companies like GE needed time to figure
out the Internet. Many of these companies, especially retailers,
120 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
moved slowly onto the Internet, fearful of cannibalizing their
long-established brick-and-mortar businesses. Many were unwilling
or unable to trade away profits for speculative ventures
into e-business. Yes, Wall Street loved the dotcoms in their heyday,
but Wall Street also expected companies like GE to make
THE WAITING GAME
GE’s relationship with the Internet dates back to October 1994,
when GE Plastics set up the company’s first Web site. This was
a straightforward “brochureware” site that presented information
aimed at its key audience of design engineers.
Three years later, GE Polymerland, the distribution arm of GE
Plastics, became the first GE Web site to engage in electronic
transactions. This was only a small step forward, however, because
GE Plastics was still doing transactions both off-line and
So GE was neither an early mover on the Web nor a
particularly adventurous player when it did move. To some extent,
this reflects the Old Economy background of its CEO.
Welch earned his doctorate in chemical engineering at the
University of Illinois in 1960. As the Internet gained increasing
attention in the early and mid-1990s, Welch began to feel his
way. He watched intently as other companies reacted to this new
Like many other executives, he was bemused by Wall Street’s
embrace of the dotcoms. And no doubt, he envied these startups’
high valuations, but not so much that he was tempted to
plunge his company into the Internet world at an early, untested
So he watched and waited.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 121
LATE, BUT NOT TOO LATE
For Welch, the year 1998 was a turning point. By that time, it
seemed that everyone around him was using the Internet for one
thing or another. His wife was making their vacation plans on
the Web. His colleagues at corporate headquarters were shopping
on-line. By Christmas 1998, Welch was persuaded that the Internet
Revolution was here to stay.
At that point, most of GE’s Web sites were like GE Plastics’:
essentially on-line brochures. “The epiphany,” observed Pam
Wickham, Manager, E-Business Communications and
http://www.ge.com, “which Jack got toward the end of 1998, was the
transaction piece, that this was the business model to pursue,
that the Internet could provide a revenue stream.”
So Welch issued a challenge: As quickly as possible, all GE
businesses would build Web sites that were fully equipped to
When Welch issued his challenge, GE Polymerland’s Web site
generated revenues of only $10,000 a week. By the end of 1999,
that figure had risen to $6 million a week, and by June 2000,
the site was bringing in $15 million a week.
And of course, GE Polymerland was only one example among
many. In response to Welch’s challenge, GE’s many businesses
developed “e-businesses.” Critical aspects of these businesses,
such as sales, product development, and customer collaboration,
began to be performed partially or totally on-line.
One of the most appealing benefits of an e-business is increased
efficiency. Under the old system, for example, a number
of people took part in the ordering and fulfillment processes. At
each one of these “touch points,” human error could enter the
system. Such errors are all but eliminated on the Internet, where
the customer gets the chance to “create” the kind of product he
or she wants without intermediation.
Today, only a few years after Jack Welch’s strong push toward
122 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
the Internet, General Electric is widely regarded as one of the
best examples of an Old Economy giant successfully embracing
➤ Look before you leap into e-business. Welch was criticized
for being a late mover on the Internet, but GE
avoided many of the problems on the “bleeding edge”
➤ Look for appropriate e-business opportunities. Web
brochures are not enough. What products can you sell
➤ Take advantage of the Web’s efficiencies. E-business,
with its minimal transaction costs, can be highly profitable.
Elimination of human error in the orderfulfillment
process can further enhance profitability.
MAKE EXISTING BUSINESSES
INTERNET READY: DON’T
ASSUME THAT NEW BUSINESS
MODELS ARE THE ANSWER
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
E-business . . . is already so big and transformational
that it has almost outgrown the
bounds of the word “initiative.”
Jack Welch acknowledges that GE may have been intimidated
by the Internet in its early days:
Why wasn’t the e-revolution launched by big, highly resourced,
high-technology companies, rather than the small
start-ups that led it? The answer may lie, as perhaps is true
in GE’s case, in the mystery associated with the Internet—the
124 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
perception that creating and operating Web sites was Nobel
Prize work—the realm of the young and wild-eyed.
But even after deciding in 1999 to move aggressively into ebusiness,
Welch and his fellow GE executives labored under a
They had devised an Internet strategy anchored in the belief
that there were Internet-savvy companies gunning for GE and
its traditional business models. The GE executives lumped these
presumed rivals together under a catch phrase: destroyyourbusiness.
Welch believed that GE itself would have to play the role of
“GE killer”—that is, devising the new Internet-based business
models that would supplant the old ones.
To prepare for these efforts, GE put together e-business teams
consisting of young Internet-savvy types. Stationed in off-site
locations, they were tasked with figuring out tomorrow’s Internet
business models. Once those models were identified, GE would
pounce on them and adopt them before anyone else had the
chance to do so.
But in May 1999, the teams of young Internet hotshots delivered
a surprising report: There were no competitive threats out
there to any of GE’s businesses. GE was so far ahead of the pack,
they said, that it really didn’t need to worry about threats from
new business models.
Nevertheless, argued the young people, GE had to make its
traditional businesses Web-enabled. This would prevent customers
from jumping ship to competitors.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 125
CHANGE TO THE CORE
The young people were talking Welch’s language. This wasn’t
brain surgery, as he liked to say. And so, in the spring of 1999,
e-business leadership teams were formed in all GE businesses.
Their mandate was to take GE’s business models, modify them,
get them Web enabled, and move business processes from offline
NBC was the attraction that lured Jack Welch to the Internet
party. It was the first business in the GE stable to become deeply
involved in the Internet.
Think about MSNBC. Think about cable. Now think about
what you can do as you get into the Internet . . . we can drive
traffic to sites. We’re communicating with millions of people
every day in that business. How many offshoots can we develop?
How many new things? I think CNBC.com will be an
These kinds of visions persuaded Welch to set his ambitious
goal for GE’s managers: Create and implement an Internet strategy
before the end of 1999.
As he noted in the 1999 annual report:
E-business . . . is already so big and transformational that
it has almost outgrown the bounds of the word “initiative.”
While we are already generating billions in Web-based revenues,
the contribution of e-business to GE has been so much
more. It is changing this company to its core.
Because 85 percent of its transactions were with other businesses,
GE was well positioned to take advantage of the businessto-
business (B2B) marketplace on the Internet. On the other
hand, this was still largely uncharted territory.
“It’s not as if you look at us versus our traditional competitors
and say we’ve been resisting it while all these other guys have
been doing it,” said Gary Reiner, senior vice president and GE’s
chief information officer. “Business-to-business commerce over
the Internet as we would define it today, in the kinds of busi126
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
nesses where we’ve been playing—we haven’t been doing much
of it, nor has anybody else.”
Ultimately, Welch’s Internet vision boiled down to three imperatives:
1. Keep upgrading people and retaining Internet-skilled talent.
2. Figure out how to leverage information technology to
create a competitive advantage for your businesses that
customers can see and feel.
3. Leverage information technology to support internal
➤ Adapt your business model to the Internet. Don’t
worry that your business model will not work on the
➤ Think “Web enabled” rather than “Web threatened.”
Your goal should be to take existing products and processes
on-line rather than attempting to build up from
➤ Think inside and outside. On the Internet, as in most
aspects of business, the two key challenges are (a) to
develop great people inside and (b) to present a compelling
value proposition to the customer.
USE E-BUSINESS TO PUT THE
FINAL NAIL IN BUREAUCRACY
FROM THE FILES OF JACK WELCH
There’s no question. Channels will be different.
Commerce will be different. People will
Convinced that yet another business revolution was underway,
Jack Welch moved aggressively toward the Internet in
Welch wanted every senior executive at GE to share his passion
for this new form of commerce, and he took steps to make that
happen. He instructed each of GE’s 12 businesses to select an
e-commerce leader. He told the teaching staff at Crotonville
to make sure that every class taught at the Leadership Institute
in the coming year focused intensively on some aspect of
128 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
Welch also encouraged younger GE staffers to serve as Internet
“mentors” to senior GE executives. These mentors were asked
to work with their older colleagues for 3 to 4 hours a week,
surfing the Web and evaluating competitors’ sites. In short, the
older executives were learning to organize their computers, and
their minds, for work on the Internet.
Welch had his own mentor. He admitted that he was at best
a C or C-minus student: “I’m not the fastest gun in town.” But,
he said, the process worked:
It was this mentor-mentee interaction . . . that helped overcome
the only real hurdle some of us had: fear of the unknown.
Having overcome that fear, and experiencing the
transformational effects of e-business, we find that digitizing
a company and developing e-business models are a lot easier—
not harder—than we had ever imagined.
BREAKING THE GLASS
There was much more to be done.
By June 1999, the e-business initiative had affected the 1000
or so individuals who made up the e-business teams as well as
some 500 senior executives at GE.
But what about the other 340,000 GE employees, to whom
Welch wanted to convey his excitement about the Internet, preferably
in “Internet time”? By June 1999, fully 70 percent of GE
employees were using e-mail, and there seemed no reason not
to take advantage of that medium to reach employees instantaneously.
Welch decided to use the Internet to brief employees
on each quarterly senior management meeting.
In his first “e-brief,” issued on June 7, 1999, Welch observed:
We must have a “break-the-glass” mentality to get on top
of this fast-moving subject. You will see fanatical commitment
from the Business CEOs and from me on this subject.
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 129
The response to this first e-brief was remarkable. Energized
by the opportunity to communicate with Welch directly for the
first time, 6000 employees fired off e-mails to the boss within 2
Of course, Welch couldn’t respond to each and every message
in this mountain, and as the novelty wore off, the flow subsided.
But something fundamental had changed. Formerly, Welch’s direct
contacts often were limited to his two dozen or so direct
reports. But after the implementation of e-mail, he regularly received
between 40 and 50 e-mails a day from all corners of the
And of course, people were e-mailing each other across the
And they were e-mailing customers, suppliers, and everyone
else in the GE extended network. Welch loved it:
It puts a small-company soul into that big-company body
and gives it the transparency, excitement, and buzz of a
It is truly the elixir for GE and others who relish excitement
and change. E-business is the final nail in the coffin for
bureaucracy at GE. The utter transparency it brings about is a
perfect fit for our boundaryless culture and means everyone
in the organization has total access to everything worth
PART OF A BIGGER PICTURE
The first effect of GE’s Internet effort, Welch said, was to further
energize and refresh the company’s previous initiatives:
For 20 years, we’ve been driving to get the soul of a small
company into this sometimes muscle-bound, big-company
body. We described the contribution of Work-Out, and there
was more. We delayered in the ’80s, eliminating many of the
filters and gatekeepers. We got faster by reducing corporate
130 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
staff. . . . And we ridiculed and removed bureaucrats until
they became as rare around GE as whooping cranes.
Every year we got better, faster, hungrier, and more
customer-focused—until the day this elixir, this tonic, this
e-business came along and changed the DNA of GE forever
by energizing and revitalizing every corner of this company.
The Internet enabled GE to use the huge databases it had
compiled on customer processes in ways that directly benefited
those customers. In the future, said Welch, these benefits would
What we are rapidly moving toward is the day when “Dr.
Jones,” in Radiology, can go to her home page in the morning
and find a comparison of the number, and clarity, of
scans her CT machines performed in the last day, or week, to
more than 10,000 other machines across the world. She will
then be able to click and order software solutions that will
bring her performance up to world-class levels. And the performance
of her machines might have been improved, online,
the previous night, by a GE engineer in Milwaukee, Tokyo,
Paris, or Bangalore.
Welch looked forward to the day when the chief engineer at
a local utility could check the heat rate and fuel burn of his
turbines—before he had coffee in the morning—to learn how
he stacked up against 100 other utilities.
And with a few mouse clicks, that same engineer could review
all the services that GE could provide to increase his facility’s
With the advent of the Internet, Welch noted, amazing new
things became possible.
WELCH ON THE NET
GE, argued Welch, was well positioned to exploit the Internet.
It already possessed the nuts-and-bolts skills and strengths that
other companies sorely lacked:
29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch 131
We already have that! We already have the hard stuff—
over 100 years of a well-recognized brand, leading edge
technology in both product and financial services, and a Six
Sigma–based fulfillment capability. The opportunities
e-business creates for large companies like GE are unlimited.
In particular, it was the speed of e-business that got Welch’s
The speed that is the essence of “e” has accelerated the
metabolism of the company, with people laughing out loud
at presentations of business plans for “the third quarter of
next year” and other tortoiselike projections of action. Time
in GE today is measured in days and weeks.
And yet, Welch told shareholders in April 2000, some things
You have undoubtedly read about the ongoing debate
about New Economy companies versus Old Economy companies
and the advantages, or penalties, for being one or the
The fact is the Old Economy/New Economy scenarios are
just trendy buzzwords. There is now and will be in the future
only one global economy. Commerce hasn’t changed. There
is, however, a new Internet technology that is fundamentally
changing how business operates.
One area in which Internet technologies were having a profound
impact, Welch noted, was the measurement of progress.
Like most traditional companies, GE had measured things like
revenues, net income, cashflow, and so on. In the Internet world,
of course, these would continue to be measured, but they would
now be measured far more frequently. In addition, new things
would be measured, and these measures would be grouped into
four “buckets”: buy, make, sell, and strategic:
On our “buy” side, we now measure the number of auctions
on-line, the percentage of the total buy on-line, and the
On the “make” portion, the Internet is all about getting information
from its source to the user without intermediaries.
132 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
The new measurement is how fast information gets from
its origin to users and how much unproductive data gathering,
expediting, tracking orders, and the like can be eliminated.
This tedious work in a typical big company is the last bastion—
the Alamo—of functionalism and bureaucracy. Taking it
out improves both productivity and employee morale.
On the “sell” side, the new measurements are number of
visitors, sales on-line, percentage of sales on-line, new customers,
share, span, and the like.
Welch noted that if GE got the components right (e.g., number
of on-line visitors, percentage of sales on-line, etc.), traditional
sales and net and cashflow measurements would follow.
In the end, all of this going on at GE is about using this
transformational new technology to better serve customers
and to be so good and so fast we become the global supplier
➤ Manage in Internet time, using the latest technologies.
The Internet, in combination with intranets, allows
managers to communicate instantly with employees.
➤ Reinvent the company to compete in Internet time.
Think in terms of days and weeks rather than years.
Exploiting Internet time will change the fundamentals
of your business.
➤ Build on strengths. Success on the Internet in part
grows out of being a fundamentally strong company.
In September 2001, Jack Welch retired as chairman and CEO
of General Electric. He had been at the job for 20 years and
5 months. His memoirs, Jack: Straight from the Gut, were published
that month, and while Welch acknowledged to me that he
enjoyed the book signings more than writing the book, he could
certainly feel satisfied at the book’s warm reception. It remained
on bestseller lists for 6 months. Welch was circumspect about
the kinds of business activities he was pursuing in retirement.
He engaged in business consulting, but his clients were kept confidential.
As was befitting the man who many called the greatest CEO
of the era, Welch left General Electric in spectacularly better
shape than when he took over in April 1981. For the year 2001,
during which Welch served as chairman and CEO for the first
8 months, GE had revenues of $125.9 billion (down 3 percent)
and earnings of $14.1 billion (up 11 percent). Due to
an economic downturn and the September 11 terror attacks,
GE came under enormous pressure. The stock dropped 16 percent.
But no one blamed Welch or, for that matter, his successor,
Jeff Immelt. Fortune magazine named GE the “Most Admired
Company” for the fifth year in a row and the Financial Times
picked GE as the “World’s Most Respected Company” for the
The programs that Welch set in motion became part of his
legacy. At the forefront were Six Sigma and digitization. As for
Six Sigma, there were more than 6000 projects in 2001. With
respect to e-business, GE generated $19 billion of incremental
cost savings. His service initiative had grown to a $19 billion
portion of GE’s 2001 revenues.
But Welch’s legacy would not be measured only in the numbers.
He would be unhappy if it had been. To him, the “soft
stuff”—the company’s values—were uppermost. For instilling
134 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch
values that did so much for GE and for leading the way so remarkably,
the company renamed the Crotonville (N.Y.) management
institute the John F. Welch Learning Center. One could
imagine a huge smile breaking out on the former chairman’s face
upon hearing that news.
You can download this book at