Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
March 3, 2020

The Six Most Valuable Lessons I Learned from Jack Welch

This week marked the passing of one of the most iconic CEOs of the modern business era. I was blessed with the opportunity to spend more than half of my two-decade GE career working in the Jack Welch-led GE. During this time, rarely did a month go by where there wasn’t an article written about the GE management system. I, like many GE alumni, were exceptionally fortunate to be part of that team. We all learned a lot from Jack, and while I suspect many of my fellow alumni have their own take on what they learned from him, here are six of the most valuable lessons that have stayed with me throughout my career.

Lesson 1: The value of a meritocracy
In every type of organization, there are a small percentage of exceptional performers. These exceptional performers must be rewarded differentially to ensure that they continue to push the envelope of high performance. Similarly, while not easy, leaders must aggressively manage poor performers as well. Rare is it that a CEO today regrets moving too quickly on poorly performing subordinates. This differentiation both at the top and bottom is the fuel for talent engagement and motivation, not to mention better business results. 

Lesson 2: The power of high-impact inspection
Anyone who ever worked with or for Jack realized that perhaps his greatest superpower was his uncanny knack for asking piercing questions that got the heart of the issue on the table. His command of the facts and details of a particular business issue – along with his willingness to consider fact-based pushback – created an organizational culture where people were prepared, thorough and knew that they had to be on their game or “face the wrath of Jack.” He could navigate adeptly from the strategic to the tactical in a blink of an eye and could smell B.S. better than anyone I have ever met. He never read the clippings of greatness; he was always focused on how we could continue to win.

Lesson 3: The value of simplicity
While Jack was clearly brilliant, his brilliance was most frequently on display in his ability to simplify. Simplify a problem, a message, a deal or a strategy. His clear strategy to be #1 or #2 or “fix, close or sell” created an unrivaled management framework. He was equally clear on leadership. He embodied his legendary “3 S’s” maxim: Speed, Simplicity and Self-Confidence.

Lesson 4: The value of bold people moves
Jack was absolutely committed to advancing people through stretch assignments. Nearly every leader who ever worked for him at one point in time was promoted well above his or her immediate comfort zone. His commitment to understanding and betting on potential was extraordinary, and it created a culture where leaders grew their teams into leaders with the recognition that they were the beneficiary of such a system. Rarely did top talent languish under less capable leaders for long. These “big bets,” coupled with strong reinforcement of development and brutally candid feedback, enabled generations of leaders to grow and develop at a profoundly accelerated rate. 

Lesson 5: The critical value of accountability
Most great leaders cherish the opportunity to control their own destiny. As such, Jack knew they needed to be given accountability and empowerment. The phrase “make and meet commitments” was ingrained in everyone. Meeting your commitments was rewarded. Missing them had consequences. You were taught to have contingency plans for when commitments were going to be missed. And dramatically over-delivering had a powerful and energizing upside that further inspired exceptional commitment and extraordinary effort.

Lesson 6: The CEO owns talent and culture
GE had many great management processes. Ask any senior GE leader which was the most benchmarked process within GE and they would undoubtedly would tell you it was Session C: GE’s legendary approach to succession planning and talent management. This process was responsible for growing and developing hundreds of public company CEOs. Jack’s personal interest in people, their performance, potential and career aspirations was well documented. He was frequently quoted as saying he spent more than half of his time on people. This commitment permeated the organization. People layers below him knew that if they performed and were designated as high potential, they would be on his radar someday. This passion for people extends to culture as well. The culture was purposeful, and it evolved, but it reflected the leader.

It’s been almost a decade since I left GE. It has been nearly two decades since I worked in the Jack Welch GE. These lessons left an indelible mark on me. They have proven to be universal principles for many leaders who have gone on to lead high-performing enterprises. While he may be gone, he will not be forgotten. Thank you, Jack, for being a great teacher to so many of us. 


Steve Patscot is a GE alum and the North American leader of Spencer Stuart’s Human Resources Practice, where he advises CEOs, boards and senior human resources executives on leadership and succession planning issues. Reach him via email and follow him on LinkedIn