Patrick Macdonald, a Chartered Engineer, won a Sainsbury Management Fellowship to support his MBA at INSEAD in 1992. While at business school, several of his professors cited General Electric (GE) as the exemplar of US, and indeed global, business leadership. Patrick seized the opportunity to move to the USA and work at GE a few years later. Jack Welch, GE’s legendary boss, put a huge emphasis on developing business leaders. Jack, who has just died, had a profound impact on Patrick’s career. Amongst other roles, he’s now Chairman of the School for CEOs, a business dedicated to help the next generation of leaders succeed.
In this blog article, Patrick reflects on Jack’s exceptional leadership and legacy.
I was lucky enough to work for Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, at the height of his powers. Sadly, Jack died this week. Thousands of words were written about him during his 20 years at the head of General Electric and thousands have been written since. He has gone through a familiar cycle of huge admiration and praise at first – ‘Manager of the Century’ according to Fortune magazine – followed by a slow trashing of his reputation since. GE’s performance and profile suffered badly under his successor, Jeff Immelt. Jack recently gave himself an A for his leadership of GE and an F for his choice of successor, Jeff Immelt. I’d agree with that assessment. Indeed, I’d give Jack an A++ for his leadership. He was the most complete boss I’ve worked for, a fantastic leader. Like most of his team, I would have run through walls for him.
Let’s take his leadership first. Sure, Jack could be incredibly tough. Sure, he took some potentially good ideas beyond the point where they made sense (such as ‘rank and yank’, firing your lowest 10% performers every year, year after year). But he took the slow, unwieldy, bureaucratic GE he inherited – already the most admired company in America – and turned into a nimble, agile, exciting business whose value he grew by 29x to $410bn. Many of the concepts he espoused – be #1 or #2, fix/close/sell, 6 sigma – have been widely copied and are now part of the business lexicon. He ruled GE like a tidal wave. It was astonishing how much he knew about the most obscure corner of the business, and equally astonishing how quickly he got a 300,000-person organisation to respond to his ideas. GE was built around the idea that Jack was right, and the only issue was how quickly you got it. Fortunately, Jack usually was right – and was good at course corrections when he was wrong – and life was good.
But the weakness in this model, of course, was its reliance on that one exceptional leader. It was vulnerable to a successor who wasn’t right as often as Jack. The enormous resources of GE would follow the boss in the wrong direction just as readily as the right one, and that vulnerability came home to roost under Immelt’s leadership. Unfortunately, Jeff’s judgement turned out not to be as sound as Jack’s. He churned through GE’s multifarious businesses, becoming the first person in history to buy and sell $100bn of assets, paying nearly $1.7bn in fees along the way. The businesses he bought often did not endure. Pricing discipline was lost and execution lacked focus. Disaster loomed, with GE’s valuation dropping 90% from its 2000 peak. Jeff left in 2017.
It’s fashionable now to lay the blame for GE’s subsequent problems at Jack’s door. As I said above, Jack took full responsibility for picking his successor. But it seems unfair to hammer him for mistakes made more than a decade later. With that logic, the successes you’re racking up today are not down to you at all – they’re down to your predecessor and whoever picked you. I don’t think life works that way. Jack built the most valuable company on the planet and changed the way we all do business. That’s enough for me.