What it’s like to meet Jack Welch

“I’m here to pimp my wife’s book” were the first words spoken by Jack Welch, when he presented alongside his wife, Suzy Welch, to an audience at the Indigo book store at the Manulife Center in Toronto, on April 27, 2009.

Jack was referring to Suzy’s new book, 10-10-10: A Life-Transforming Idea. (As an aside, 10-10-10 received poor reviews. I believe reviewers compared the book to Suzy’s first book, Winning, which she co-wrote with Jack. 10-10-10 is nowhere near the caliber of Winning, though I think Suzy targeted the Oprah Book of the Month Club audience with 10-10-10.)

Kevin Kane, holding the Croatian edition of one of his favorite books, Jack and Suzy Welch's Winning

Kevin Kane in Croatia, holding the Croatian edition of one of his favorite books, Jack and Suzy Welch's Winning

When I heard that Jack was coming to Toronto, I just *had* to meet him. This is Jack Welch, the man who was named “Manager of the Century” by Fortune magazine in 1999; who during his 20-year tenure as CEO of General Electric, from 1984 to 2004, increased GE’s market capitalization from $14 billion to more than $410 billion, making GE the largest and most valuable company in the world.

So what’s it like to meet the man in person? Jack entered the store with his wife, the much younger and stunning Suzy Welch. Suzy is the former Executive Editor of one of my favorite magazines, the prestigious Harvard Business Review. Suzy speaks with considerable authority and presence, and has a vivaciousness that initially made me wonder if she might actually upstage her husband.

But once Jack started answering questions, the words of Warren Buffett came to mind when Warren said, “When you talk with Jack about management, his energy and passion fill the room.”

Though Jack genuinely tried to let the evening be Susie’s show, he couldn’t help but oblige the audience by answering a few of their questions. Here are, at random, a few thoughts which Jack shared:

  • Jack was challenged on whether his admonition to “follow your gut” might lead people to not consider important data in the decision-making process. Jack responded by relating “gut intuition” to “pattern recognition”: your gut identifies patterns of experience you’ve seen before, and intuitively hints you toward a correct decision based on your previous encounters. Jack advised us: “Don’t ignore your gut. Your gut is a legtimate data point. But combine your gut with additional data to make a better decision.”
  • People naturally dismiss ideas from people they dislike, regardless of the merit of those ideas.
  • Two questions Jack asked himself during his life and career: “What do you want people to say about you when you’re not in the room?” and “What would make you cry with regret on your 70th birthday?”
  • On the economy, and the US government’s plan to “spend its way out of the recession”: “How are we going to pay back the debt incurred, when realistically, the US will grow at only 4-percent, we have more global competition than ever, and people have fundamentally become more frugal?”

I approached Jack after the question and answer session and asked, “Which idea is tougher to sell inside organizations – candor or boundarylessness?” (These are two concepts Jack strongly endorses in his books.) Jack’s eyes widened and he responded, “They are both as tough as nails to sell!” He looked at me intently and stated emphatically, “You have to reward these behaviors.” Discussing these ideas really got Jack fired up, and we shared stories about them for some length of time.

Then Jack started asking questions about me and my career. He took a keen interest in me, and he is very encouraging. He maintains a relaxed but focused attention when he speaks with you, and he projects a down-to-earth warmth and sincerity. He frequently makes funny remarks, and he even laughed at all my jokes. Even my girlfriend doesn’t get all my jokes, so clearly Jack is a very enlightened person from my perspective. Meeting Jack Welch reminded me of how gratifying an experience it is when you discover that a celebrity whom you have admired from afar turns out to be just as impressive and likable when you meet them in person.

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