Jack Welch’s complex legacy

March 3, 2020, 10:53 AM UTC

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Good morning.

Jack Welch, one of the great CEOs of the 20th century, died Sunday at the age of 84. His legacy has been debated since the day he stepped down from the top job at GE in September 2001, and it will continue to be debated for years to come. But the very fact that it is still debated is proof he was a once-in-a-generation, if not once-in-a-century, business leader.

I only got to know Welch after he retired from GE. But he remained as energetic, as candid, and as full of his unique form of Gatling-gun wisdom as ever. In an interview in Radio City Music Hall in 2010, he sprayed news-making soundbites: the Obama administration “is just plain anti-business”; the Hewlett Packard board “has not done one of the primary jobs of a board, which is to prepare the next generation of leadership”; his successor Jeff Immelt was “the best choice I could make at the time.” A couple of years later, I invited him and his wife Suzy to a Wall Street Journal conference on Women in the Economy, where he drove the crowd into a frenzy by bluntly repeating his claims that there is “no such thing as work-life balance,” and that women “don’t want to be in the victims unit.”

But while Fortune rightly dubbed Welch “Manager of the Century” in 1999, it also was directionally right in 2006, when Betsy Morris wrote that Welch’s rules were being displaced by new ones. Subsequent years have only made those changes clearer. A few of them:

– Welch famously and relentlessly focused on delivering steady earnings for shareholders. Today’s CEOs are denouncing quarterly earnings guidance, and advocating a much broader view of “stakeholder” capitalism.
– Welch “went nuts” over Six Sigma, as a tool to reduce cost in his businesses. But Six Sigma is about fixing existing processes. In today’s world of rapid technology change, the best leaders are focusing on how to completely rethink their processes and disrupt their businesses. It’s a very different skill set.
– Welch built a famed management training school, using the company’s facility in Crotonville to hone a generation of corporate leaders. But the top 21st century leaders believe their managers need to look outward to find direction for the future, not focus inward.

I welcome your thoughts on the Welch legacy. More news below.

Alan Murray



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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.

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