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Jack Welch electrifies Kellogg audience with leadership insights

10/16/2002 - Speaking Oct. 16 in Owen L. Coon Forum before an overflow crowd of Kellogg School students, faculty and staff, Jack Welch offered his perspectives on leadership and strategy gleaned from his 20-year tenure as chief executive of General Electric Co. Welch stepped down from his role at the company this year.

The legendary CEO adopted a conversational tone, but spoke with the energy and intensity that have become his trademarks. In his remarks, he stressed the importance of passion and people management. Welch spoke for more than an hour as Kellogg Dean Dipak Jain and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs David Besanko moderated a Q&A format discussion based on questions submitted by students prior to the event.

As he began, Welch invited inquiries on a broad array of topics—"from my salary to the union, whatever you want to go at," he said. Students focused on subjects ranging from corporate leadership and succession, to globalization and hiring policies. Welch even offered some advice for business schools who want to train the best leaders: "These schools should emphasize a hell of a lot more classes based around people management," he said, sending a murmur through the audience.

Widely regarded as a preeminent corporate leader, Welch has been credited with reinventing GE several times during his tenure there, frequently extending the company's product line into novel areas while growing business internationally. Globalization was among the topics Welch expressed keen interest in discussing.

"Globalization has become the newest four-letter word," he said, alluding to the wildly varying definitions the term assumes based on context and speaker. "To me, globalization means a constant striving for more intellect and cooperation [within a company], bringing together the best and brightest from around the world. Globalization is not perfect, it's not the cure for everything, but it's a step in the right direction and has done more to help the 'have-nots' get closer to the 'haves' than anything else."

Speaking about GE's globalization strategy, Welch highlighted what he considered the company's key to success. He noted that GE took tangible, visible steps to demonstrate its commitment to globalizing the company. As a result, people in the business community paid attention.

"We took our very best people and put them in key roles so everyone knew we really meant [what we said]," explained Welch. "We moved a key guy from New York to Hong Kong. Right there, that sent a signal that meant more than 20 speeches on globalization."

Leadership was another subject of interest to Kellogg students. Welch offered his assessment of the way a person becomes a leader, and what any good leader should accomplish.

"Leadership comes from having lots of experiences and building your self-esteem and self-confidence step by step," said Welch. "Your job as a leader is to create an environment where others can earn self-confidence. Leaders allow people to experiment and to fail and to try things. It's all about going to bat and getting your swings, not about playing it safe."

Throughout the discussion, the audience responded warmly to the speaker's remarks, laughing as Welch made an occasional joke or wry observation. Welch demonstrated the ability to modulate his tone from serious to nonchalant without ever seeming to lose sight of his overall purpose—communicating the tenets of good corporate management to a rapt audience.

"Time after time, the biggest mistakes I've seen CEOs make is not putting their best talent behind the initiatives they take," stated Welch. "Put the best people in these key roles and others [in your company] will follow."

One highlight of the evening came when Welch pinpointed what he believes represent the traits any senior executive must embody to compete today. Passion, he said, was most important, but in addition a business leader needs energy and the ability to energize others. The leader, he said, must also have an "edge"—defined as the ability to make a firm decision—and then execute that decision effectively.

But Welch, whose new book titled Jack: Straight From the Gut was on sale at the event, came back to emphasizing passion and commitment to doing whatever it takes to accomplish one's job.

"I can't stand dabbling," he said. "You want to be an artist? Fine, then paint. But get in the game."