Thoughts on Leadership: A Tribute to a Legendary Leader

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me planning, strategizing and fulfilling the commitments I made for the month of March. One of those commitments was completed on Tuesday when I presented to 100 Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Michigan Real Estate agents as part of the brokerage’s Sales Mastery Series.

Today, I left for Nashville to prepare for our upcoming Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Sales Convention. In the wake of the devastating tornadoes that tore through Tennessee earlier this week, there is no better time than now to support the vibrancy of a city whose song of strength continues to play. I look forward to seeing many of you in Nashville for LIVE IT 2020.

Another sad event in the news this week: Jack Welch, former Chairman and CEO of GE, passed away on March 1. Welch was a mentor of mine from afar and I’ve listened to every one of his books on leadership, business and life. He was a great human being and an incredible leader. Throughout the 1980s, his Wildly Important Goals were to streamline GE and skyrocket company growth. Under his helm, GE raised its market value from $12 billion in 1981 to $410 billion when he retired in 2001. He made 600 acquisitions while shifting the company into pivotal emerging markets, according to Businessweek. And Harvard Business Review, in a story published Tuesday, noted that he transformed GE from “a company known for appliances and lightbulbs to a multinational corporation that stretched into financial services and media as well as industrial products.”

But progress did not come easily, and Welch held his employees to the highest standards of excellence and achievement. “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage,” Welch once said.

He was truly a force and we can learn a lot from the lessons he left behind. His life story is serendipitous to my own because in 1968 at the age of 32, Welch became the youngest department general manager in GE history when he was put in charge of the plastics department located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the town I was born in, which is in the heart of the Berkshires.

As my hometown newspaper, The Berkshire Eagle reported in a tribute article following his death, one of Welch’s first moves, after he took charge in Pittsfield, was to change the name of the department from “chemical materials” to “plastics” because it would make it easier to sell products if the name reflected the department’s output more accurately. (As a side note, the name change paid off. GE, according to The Berkshire Eagle, sold its plastics division for $11.6 billion to Sabic Basic Industries in 2007.)

Welch enjoyed life in the Berkshires. Even after GE’s corporate offices were moved to Fairfield, Connecticut, he continued to live in Pittsfield and promote the merits of the town.

Another aspect of leadership he promoted was the ability to make “great people decisions,” writes Claudio Fernández-Aráoz for the Harvard Business Review. When Fernández-Aráoz spoke with Welch years ago, the former GE CEO said effective hiring was “brutally hard” but a key skill for all leaders to develop. Welch said much of his time as leader of GE was spent getting the right people into the right positions and helping those people grow.

“He would involve himself in hiring decisions that most global CEOs would delegate,” Fernández-Aráoz writes. “And he avoided the typical mistake of assigning the strongest or most promising leaders to the businesses that were then the largest.”

Where there were prospects for immense expansion, there was an opportunity for the most able leader to spearhead that growth. Welch said the ability to employ the right people was also a way to keep score of the effectiveness of managers or what he called a manager’s “batting average.” He said this would not only help assess how well a manager could select the right candidates for the right position but would also incentivize managers to help team members flourish. It directly tied in the success of their employees to their own merit as leaders.

Another facet of leadership associated with Welch is candor. In the second chapter of his book, “Winning,” he said without candor, smart ideas are blocked, companies will not be as nimble or responsive to industry changes and intelligent team members will feel like they can’t contribute with honesty and openness for fear of rejection or shame. Welch was a straightforward, blunt talker and it forced those who communicated with him to cut to the chase, too.

Curiosity was also deeply tied to Welch’s leadership style. He asked “more questions than anyone I’ve ever known” said Fernández-Aráoz and was a student of perpetual learning. His desire for knowledge was insatiable and he voraciously soaked in new information about topics far outside the scope of his GE leadership role. Welch was known as a teacher, often training employees and even after his tenure at GE, he taught leaders around the globe.

So, what’s the message? Welch was an advocate for continuous improvement and learning, a candid speaker and a leader focused on fostering the people who work for him, so together everyone could succeed. “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion,” he once said. Now that this titan of industry has sadly passed on, we must use the tools and wisdom of Welch to bring our own visions of success to completion.

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