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Business Technology: The Bottom Line Is People

He's widely regarded as the best-known and perhaps most successful CEO the business world has ever known, but he didn't talk much about corporate strategy, grand plans, or sweeping vision. In the 21 years he was CEO, he boosted his company's market cap from about $13 billion to $500 billion, but he didn't talk much about shareholder value or working the analysts. What Jack Welch did talk about, regardless of the nature or direction of the question, was people: their inherent goodness, their potential, their intelligence, their inborn desire to achieve and excel. What employees want above all else, he said, is to have a voice, and to have their dignity.

Last week, Welch spent a few hours with the InformationWeek community at our spring conference, meeting and chatting with dozens of attendees at a cocktail party, regaling his dinner companions with stories of golf adventures and of the particular sufferings of a lifelong Red Sox fan, and then fielding questions for almost two hours from an audience of about 400 business-technology professionals. Throughout that time, his ideas kept coming down to one thing: people--how they're treated, how they're evaluated, how they're motivated, how they're trained, how they're inspired, and how they're given those dual essentials of voice and dignity.

I had the privilege of conducting the first part of this very public interview with Welch, and I don't think I'll ever forget the way in which I could fully sense from a couple of feet away how his entire body and spirit and voice strained out to the crowd as he spoke of his pride in creating environments where people were given the chance to excel, grow, and build things, and where he helped ensure that workers "didn't have some bureaucratic ass sitting on them all day long."

That was the subject that made the anger blaze: bosses who nitpicked, meddled, muddled, and never let people working for them be in a position to have a voice in what they did or why they did it, and denied them the chance to embrace the dignity that involvement, achievement, and commitment bring. His eyes flashed and the veins in the neck and head tensed as he spoke of these cowards and horses' asses and gutless wonders. When asked about his biggest disappointment, he said it was not having rooted out more quickly and more vigorously all those managers who delivered the goods but never embraced the high character and ideals of the organization--in short, the ones who treated people inside and outside their companies dishonestly and unfairly.

For the second half of the interview, the questions came from the audience, and Welch used several of his answers to tie in to the conference theme of "Collaborative Business: The Big Picture." He spoke of the need to get out and live with customers and suppliers, to revel in their ideas, inventions, and innovations, and to share just as passionately with them one's own company's best practices, insights, and approaches. He said that while he always valued inventions and big ideas, he put a far greater value on people who could take those ideas and spread them, share them, move them through the company in ways that would make the customer happier and more engaged.

He spoke of the notion of false kindness that pervades companies that don't embrace a performance-based culture, and in which poor or perhaps just misguided performers are allowed to coast, delivering little and achieving less, wasting their own opportunities to learn and grow. The false kindness, he said, was really a coverup for a lack of courage and honesty that lie at the heart of having brutally frank but constructive evaluations with employees at every level so that each has the informed and directed opportunity to change and to grow.

If you do this right, said Welch, leaning far forward and in a voice straining with conviction, you don't have to fire anybody because the bottom 10% will get out of the bottom all on their own--what person wants to be last? What person doesn't want to improve?

From a guy who referred to himself several times as a dinosaur or a fossil, that's pretty relevant advice for today.

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

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