Jack Welch: Unplugged

“I think what coming to business school does is allows you to measure yourself-again. Coming out of here with some of these theories isn’t gonna do a damn thing for you. But it’s a very valuable thing-being here. What’s valuable? … Look at your section. Who in your section would you like to go on the battlefield with? Who would you like to play with? …Every one of you know who’s the best, who’s the least effective. That’s what you have to think about; that’s the way you have to think.
Who sees around corners? Who’s got a good nose? Not who can raise their hand and pump out the answers.

Ask yourself what is the non-traditional thinking in the class all about? Because that’s what leadership is all about-finding those people, seeking them out.”
-Jack Welch, when asked his views of management theories, Burden Auditorium, October 19, 2001.
Jack Welch’s charm comes via candor. According to Rosanne Badowski, Welch’s assistant for thirteen years, the much-mythologized manager has not had a new question asked of him in decades. Now is a fine time to formulate them as this month Welch ventures into truly new territory, taking a risk with an all-too-easy-to-deride project: the CEO memoir.
The publication date for Jack: Straight from the Gut was September 11th. In Manhattan’s NBC studio for his first taped appearance as an author, Welch watched the WTC tragedy enfold live. His promotional tour was postponed for a month; it began again in ardor two weeks ago. After leadership, globalization, the Red Sox and golf, it seems Jack Welch now has a new love: writing.

HARBUS: What was it like-writing a book. It seems a small endeavor compared with what you’re used to.

Welch: Oh, it was scary! It was scary. You know throughout my time as CEO I had all these articles written about me-stories in various newspapers, various magazines. You get the normal cover story and you get the normal ‘that was a fine cover story’ responses. But then John Byrne wrote his cover story and, well, he hit something. He hit something new. We let him into GE and he really spent time there, really got to understand something about how the business works, and how I work. He wrote a story about a guy who didn’t change (in a good way). We received over 1,000 responses to that story. It was amazing.

HARBUS: Perhaps the best management memoir is Al Sloan’s My Years with General Motors. It set the bar quite high and no one’s hit it since. What convinced you that you might want to write considering how many business books are, frankly, dull?

Welch: Well, Mark McCormack-my agent at IMG-started coming up to see me every six months. He kept telling me that I should write. Eventually, I convinced myself. I convinced myself that if I could find the right collaborator-and I did, John Byrne-that this could be a worthwhile project. John did a great job. He worked tirelessly.

HARBUS: The relationship between an editor and a writer is so intimate; I imagine it didn’t mirror other relationships you’d had inside GE. What was that like? Was it difficult? [In the book Welch describes turning to his editor, Larry Kirschbaum-the chairman of Time Warner trade publishing and Welch’s personal editor-and saying, “You know, every time I look at you it seems like I just came out of the womb and I’m seeing myself.”]

Welch: You know, Larry and I were volatile, passionate. We were a team; it was incredible. John brought us back to the center when we strayed.

HARBUS: What was the hardest thing to reveal, or to think about revealing?

Welch: The more businessy stuff; that was hard. Mainly because we didn’t want the book to be about that. There is one chapter that describes some specifics, there are some charts, but we tried really hard to make these episodes and events into stories. I didn’t want to make this book a How-To. I also didn’t want to make it a chest-thumper.

HARBUS: Why not? Most leaders, especially when leaving written legacies, think a lot about the merits of chest-thumping-for posterity’s sake.

Welch: Well. Well, I’m comfortable with who I am. You know, I made mistakes. I made many mistakes. But I also had a great team. A lot of people have criticized the book. A lot of reviewers felt I dropped too many names. But, really, how could I not? It was by no means just me; what I’ve done is by no means just about me.

HARBUS: Have you read the reviews?
Welch: Yes, I’ve read them. And there have been some good and some not so good. I think a lot of writers were looking for me to be more introspective, for me to talk more about emotion, personal experience, family. This is just not the point, though; this is just not the point at all.

HARBUS: Most writers don’t really love events like book signings, book tours. I think they approach them with quite a bit of dread, in fact. You seem like you’re having so much fun. Are you?

Welch: I am. I am. I love this. Book signings? I love them. I love people. I love meeting the people. We went to the Chicago book fair, the conference that’s out in Chicago. We held a reception for all of the independent booksellers. We met with the larger retailed as well, of course, but it was truly fascinating to see these people who cared so much about what they do. This, for me, was amazing. I love these people. They smell like a library; they’re just incredible. They were so smart, so kind. This is the fun of it, to me. The fun of the book is now.

HARBUS: Was there anything that surprised you about the process? Was there anything that you learned from wrestling to put your thoughts down on paper?
Welch: Yes. What surprised me was that some of the stuff that I wrote up late at night wasn’t so great when read the next morning. That was interesting. Humbling.

HARBUS: But you’re happy.

Welch: I am. You know I think we worked until midnight every night; we destroyed a lot of trees. It was hard work. But I have to say that writing something like this is the most wonderful way to end a career. I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone.
Welch’s book is currently #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List.