- Jack Welch pioneered the direct and hard-driving communication and leadership approach that became popular for CEOs in the 1980s and 90s.
- His honest communication style broke through the overly polite and sometimes disingenuous corporate culture and led to amazing success for GE.
Welch found a path to success by making hard decisions and communicating honestly about them.
Former GE CEO Jack Welch was considered one of the world’s great communicators until his retirement from the company in 2001. He turned GE from a $10 billion light bulb company into a $500 billion technology powerhouse. Welch was a powerful leader who honed his skills for decades and changed the face of corporate leadership through his example and teachings.
Welch was named “Manager of the Century” by Fortune upon his retirement. He was awarded a severance payment of $417 million, the largest at the time. He pioneered concepts like downsizing, stock options for top performers, and the idea of a company taking actions that would improve stockholder value.
A large part of Welch’s leadership philosophy was the way he communicated with people. Here is what you need to know about his communication philosophy and what brands can incorporate into their own strategies.
Reward Success and Starve Failure
Welch had high expectations of the people who worked for him, which often led to difficult decisions regarding those who underperformed. GE leaders quickly learned they did not want to be in the bottom 10% of performers, who were kindly told their abilities were not a fit and that they should look elsewhere.
The top 20%, on the other hand, were quickly promoted so the company could take full advantage of their skills. Welch turned his successful strategy into a book called Winning that revolutionized the corporate world and created a new paradigm for leadership.
Ask Piercing Questions
A direct approach can be uncomfortable, especially for the recipient who may be used to the niceties and politeness of most corporate communication. Welch’s approach was to get to the real heart of the issue as quickly as possible, rather than couching the truth in corporate-speak that often leaves key people wondering what an executive’s true view of them is or where they stand within the company.
Welch lived by this statement: “Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be.” Because of his ability to get beyond corporate mumbo-jumbo and reach the core of any situation, Welch’s leaders knew where they stood and what they needed to do to advance and compete.
Along with asking piercing questions, Welch gained a reputation for being unflinchingly honest in his communication to those under his leadership. This quality was almost refreshing in an age where many executives couched their statements in politically correct vagueness.
Welch acknowledged that people avoid candor because they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings or cause conflict. However, he argued that “lack of candor is the ultimate form of alienation.” It destroys trust, he said, and when executives are more concerned with appearances and social conventions than telling the truth, this results in mediocrity.
Welch discovered that keeping his communication simple was the best way to have an impact on his audience. He came up with simple maxims, like always being #1 or #2, and the mantra of “fix, close, or sell” as a way to show his employees and others how to be successful in any situation.
Another overarching principle was the concept of change as a driving force for leadership. A famous Welch quote says, “Change before you have to.” He also said, “Don’t manage; lead change before you have to.”
Welch taught his leaders to “make and meet commitments.” The real lesson was in the power of overdelivering on those commitments. Welch knew he had to inspire his leaders to go above and beyond if the company was going to be successful.
Welch’s example was passed down to others at GE. Soon, the company entered a season of rapid growth and transformation. Today’s communicators and marketers will also find success if they strive to overdeliver on commitments and go above and beyond in everything they do.
It has long been a common tactic of corporations to make excuses and try to deflect the blame when things don’t go well. There can be tremendous pressure to save face and make things look good when they’re not.
Welch broke this pattern with GE, admitting failures and weaknesses transparently so they could be dealt with and improved. His blunt statement “Control your destiny or someone else will” encapsulates his view of owning a company’s failures and successes.
Corporations have moved away from some of Welch’s practices in recent years, but for many of them, the candor and directness, as well as the ownership and focus on success Welch employed, still form the plumbline by which other principles and practices are measured.
Most business leaders appreciate candor and directness from those they work with. Communicating in this way will generally earn leaders the respect of those that work with them and for them.
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