When former GE chief Jack Welch’s how-to guide, Winning, was published a decade ago, Warren Buffett famously claimed “no other management book will ever be needed”. How does it measure up today?
Over 40 years at GE, Jack Welch climbed his way through the ranks until he led the company to double-digit growth as chairman and chief executive – a career that has earned him the titles of “manager of the century” and “icon of American business”. His move from CEO to management guru has been a smooth one. Winning sold over 440,000 copies in the first six months of its release, earning Warren Buffett’s famous declaration.
Co-authored with wife Suzy Welch, Winning encapsulates Welch’s experience, guided by thousands of questions he has been asked in airports, restaurants, lifts and at Q&A sessions across the world. His distillation of these interactions comes down to one question: What does it take to win?
Welch sees winning – cleanly and by the rules – as the greatest social responsibility of business; “it makes the world a better place”. Here, he offers a road map to reaching that goal.
Jack Welch starts with what he calls management philosophy and with the issue of mission and values. Welch claims that despite these being vital to success, they are all too often hot air, and inspire no real action. Instead they must be concrete, detailed and linked to day-to-day behaviours, and he cites many examples of what can go wrong when there is a meltdown of mission and values.
His reputation as straight-talking “Neutron Jack” is evident in a chapter dedicated solely to the value of candour. Jack Welch claims a lack of straight-between-the-eyes feedback has become business’s “dirty little secret”, blocking smart ideas and fast action. Welch then moves on to one of his most controversial approaches to management – based on differentiation between high and low performance.
It is not without its fair share of controversy, and has been labelled by critics as essentially Darwinian. I refer, of course, to his infamous 20-70-10 approach, in which Welch asks us to applaud and generously reward the top performers, nurture the middle and identify and fire the bottom 10 per cent.
In the section headed Your Company, Jack Welch covers eight rules of “what leaders do”, from making unpopular decisions to getting “into everyone’s skin”. He answers key questions on how to hire and manage a team of star players, and how to sack those who are underperforming – “do it right, no surprises and no humiliation”.
He then switches to the world outside the business, to talk about strategy which is not about “arduous, intellectualised number crunching” but involves picking a general direction and “implementing like hell”. Ponder less, do more, he urges. He wants leaders to understand the competition, who they are and what they do but, most importantly, how their own business measures up.
From budgeting to organic growth and mergers and acquisitions, he explores Six Sigma. Described by Welch as “one of the greatest management innovations of the last quarter century”, he claims it improves customer experience, lowers costs and builds better leaders.
Finally, Jack Welch turns his attention to Your Career – how to find the right job, so that work no longer feels like work, to get promoted and even how to handle a bad boss. He ends in an area which is not his comfort zone – a chapter about work-life balance, again employing candour in saying that readers should “do as I say, not as I did”. This was, he confesses, to “work hard, play hard and spend some time as a father”.
Throughout Winning are key themes that surface again and again – the team with the best players wins; don’t “overbrain” things to the point of inaction; share learning relentlessly; have a positive attitude and spread it around; never let yourself be a victim; and – have fun.
Jack Welch sees business as a game and to him, winning is a “blast”. The same can be said of his book, which is far from academic and as straight-talking as you would expect. His focus on people makes him a likable character and Winning a refreshing approach to management.
What is your favourite business bible? Email Brendan Walsh here
Published April 2005
Sales Winning reached the top spot on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list, and also appeared among New York Times bestsellers
Plaudits Following the book’s publication Fortune magazine called Jack Welch “manager of the century” while BusinessWeek dubbed him “an icon of American business”
Did you know? In his first four years at the helm of GE in the 1980s, Welch oversaw nearly 120,000 layoffs, earning him the nickname Neutron Jack
Do it now
Mission and values: spend the energy and make them real. If your business values are “a pleasing list of pleasant platitudes written on a lobby wall” then scrub them off and start again. Take away anything lofty or imprecise about the mission and values on which your business is built and begin to implement them – for real.
Brendan Walsh is Executive Vice President of American Express Global Corporate Payments, Europe, and Chair of American Express’s European Governance Board.
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