My Jack Welch Era

My Jack Welch Era

Dan Wolgemuth


This past week an American corporate icon passed away. Jack Welch, the titanic leader of General Electric for two decades, drew his last breath on March 1st.

Much has been written about the leadership style, power, success, and passion of this man. Frankly, I’m grateful to have lived it firsthand. From 1995 to 2002, I was a part of the GE structure. In 1993, Mary and I moved from Goshen, Indiana to Kansas City to be part of a global risk management business. Not long after, General Electric purchased the business under the watchful eye of Mr. Welch and Gary Wendt, one of his lieutenants and fiercest internal rivals.

By 1996, Mary and I, along with our three kids, were in Folkestone, Kent along the English Channel leading a global technology project for a GE Capital subsidiary. And with that I merged my personal and professional journey into the unmistakable and rigid Welch GE culture.

During this period, GE became the largest corporation in the world (when measured by Market Value). Jack lived for shareholder value. Customers. Clients. Employees. All downstream from the shareholder.

To that end, Jack pioneered and promoted corporate strategies that unapologetically leveraged his workforce in order to garner Wall Street affection. Every employee was measured against the Four E's. Energy. Energize. Edge. Execution.

Measurement systems were established to assess and quantify results in each of these four categories. Measures that defined, shaped, and galvanized a culture. In part this played out through the corporate insistence that every manager had to “rack and stack” every employee under their supervisory stewardship. In my case, 36 technology professionals. Computer programmers, systems analysts, database architects… and the support staff beside them. 36. Top to bottom. Then, whatever slight measure of subjectivity had been applied, was no longer valuable. The rest was pure math.

The top 10% were your “A” performers.
The next 15% were “B’s.”
Then 50% as “C’s.”
Rounding out the curve, 15% as “D’s.”
And yes, 10% at the bottom.

And the bottom 10% were gone. Period.

The “D’s” were on Performance Improvement Plans. And the vast array of “C’s” were messaged with a patronizing pat on the back expressing gratitude for their “solid” performance. In fact, too much encouragement and motivation to this “C” group meant only one thing…that somebody on their team who currently possessed a B, or an A was under attack. There was no win-win here. It was a classic Zero-Sum game. Your bigger piece of the pie meant that your colleague’s piece just shrank. This was how GE defined Edge. And yes, it was toxic to a team.

Make no mistake. It worked. For a while. In fact, the assessment culture was healthy for a time. Honest conversations with employees who really did need to move on. A corporately-induced fire in the belly of a leader who owed it to his employer and the shareholders to make sure that good stewardship existed.

But a Zero-Sum game doesn’t last long. Fierce internal competition is antithetical to teamwork. It’s adversarial to trust. And it pours high octane fuel on the embers of competition. And while this might delight Wall Street, it eroded morale and ultimately betrayed the very stockholders it had befriended.

Zero-Sum. I win when you lose. Your gain comes at my expense. If you look good, I need to find a way to look better or to tarnish the luster on your shine. Performance deteriorated into politics, and before long, a paycheck and stock options were about the only thing you could use as motivation.

A legacy that Wall Street rewarded. Stockholders won. Jack won.

Twenty years later. I reflect on the lingering legacy of Jack. I test it against a leader who said that in order to save my life I would have to lose it. For others. For the overlooked. For the broken. The least. Self-sacrifice for a Kingdom. Treasure where the “Bulls and Bears” don’t run.

And as for a Zero-Sum game…Jesus talked in infinite and unbounded terms. He invited the celebration of others and their gifts. This was no game for the Messiah. Abundant life was not at the expense of others, but a means to serve.

The invitation of Jesus was to die to myself. That was his definition of “Edge.” It is the ultimate definition of edge.

Shortly after Jack left GE in 2002, he received a $417 million severance. Jesus, at the age of 33 hung on a cross. And “Follow me” was His invitation.

Edge redefined.

‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40, NIV)

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