Jack Welch: Life & legacy of 'manager of the century'

Jack Welch, driving force at GE for two decades, dies at 84

Jack Welch: Life & legacy of 'manager of the century'

As any boss knows, one of the best reflections of your leadership skills is the achievements of your employees. When those you mentor end up at the helm of some of the world’s biggest and best-known companies, you know you’re doing something right.

Over two decades with General Electric Co., Jack Welch had proteges go on to head up Boeing Co., Home Depot Inc., Chrysler and ultimately one who succeeded him as CEO of GE.

William Conaty, a 40-year veteran of GE who served as human resources chief under Welch, said in 2014 that his boss had a “tremendous, tremendous passion for the business, but he also had a tremendous passion for people.”

All levels of employees knew their CEO as simply Jack, and he knew the names of thousands of them. When he was happy, or dissatisfied, he would send his workforce handwritten notes.

Though he ruthlessly cut costs — and jobs: under Welch, the workforce at GE shrunk by one-third and annual dismissals of the lowest 10% of performers became standard practice — to fulfill his vision of a leaner corporate machine, his methods were clearly effective. Over his time running GE, the stock surged almost 3,000% and he was awarded the title “Manager of the Century” by Fortune magazine in 1999 with GE sitting at a market value of more than $500 billion.

His leadership strategies were extolled and imitated across the business world. His training programs were groundbreaking and also widely imitated, including one where employees brainstormed for days in bids to accelerate decision making. 

Welch cast a long shadow in the business world from the beginning. Hired in 1960 at GE in Massachusetts he worked his way up the management chain, gaining a reputation as a blunt force to be reckoned with. He questioned everything about how the company was being run, and eventually, in 1981, he became CEO — the youngest leader in the company’s history.

In a 1994 interview with Industry Week, Welch said a successful leader “can shock an organization and lead its recovery. An unsuccessful leader will shock an organization and paralyze it.” He firmly believed organizations needed to be constantly regenerated.

Despite retiring from GE as CEO in September 2001, Welch was far from done with the working world. He was a part-time adviser at GE, partner at investment firm Clayton Dubilier & Rice, consultant to various companies including JPMorgan Chase & Co, teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technologys business school, opened a management institute bearing his name and guest-hosted on CNBC and New England Sports Network.

He published an autobiography, “Jack: Straight From the Gut,” the same year as his semi-retirement, where he lauded his mother as the most influential person in his life. This followed his first book “Winning,” published in 1995.

Born in Massachusetts in 1935, John Francis Welch Jr. grew up outspoken, athletic and sure of himself — he wrote in his school’s magazine he wanted to “make a million,” and he achieved that goal a few times over. He graduated with honours from the University of Massachusetts in 1957, and three years later received a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois before being hired on at GE.

He became the gold standard of greatness, the icon of industrial imagination,” said Yale University business professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Welch, whom he had known since the 80s.His track record over those 20 years as CEO is hard to see excelled anywhere.”

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