Jack Welch has a stammer. And he’s short.
But neither stopped him from reaching the height of the business world. Tapped to run GE when he was a mere 45 years old, he turned it into an international giant, using bold, inventive and aggressive techniques that others quickly emulated.
“My success is lots of self-confidence from an Irish mother,” Welch, who's featured in the June 2014 issue of SUCCESS, says, his blue eyes glinting at the memory. “My mother told me [when] people would make fun of me and stuff like that, just tell them your mind works so much faster than your brain that your tongue can’t keep up with it.” (To read the cover story, subscribe for instant access.)
“And I believed her,” he continues, adding with a laugh, “I never realized I was short.”
Supportive mother aside, he also credits his phenomenal business success with an early pursuit that belies his 5-foot-8-inch stature. Growing up in Salem, Mass., he spent his youth playing sports. He carried the lessons he learned on the playing field into the business world.
“I knew how to pick people, generally speaking. And I built great teams,” he says.
The formula is the same on the gridiron as in a boardroom. “Great teams deliver great results, and you’re the winner,” he says.
It also helps if you have unstoppable energy.
Now 78 and spending much of his time in a well-appointed, but comfortable, house that overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway in North Palm Beach, Fla., Welch spreads the lessons he learned to others.
He travels the world, talking to groups about how they can be successful. With his third wife, Suzy, a Harvard Business School graduate and former journalist, he posts missives on his LinkedIn page. He serves as a senior adviser for New York City-based Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, reviewing a wide variety of businesses in the private equity firm’s portfolio.
But his real passion is Jack Welch Management Institute at Strayer University, an online school where he delivers webcasts to roughly 650 MBA students, and allows them to quiz him about everything from personnel to profits. With the zeal of a Baptist preacher, he talks about the wonders of being able to reach hundreds of people with the push of a button.
His raspy voice rising and falling with the cadence and inflection of his New England roots, Welch may be a business guru, but he is also a preacher. He doesn’t undersell the hard truths but insists it’s all about the greater good.
“If you don’t believe it’s a noble profession you shouldn’t go in it,” he says of creating a business and nurturing it. “And if you don’t believe you’re improving the quality of life of workers…. Do you think anybody likes firing anybody? Do you think anybody likes that? I can’t imagine.”
He famously earned the name Neutron Jack in his early years at GE by selling off unprofitable businesses and shedding bureaucracy, which resulted in the loss of about 100,000 jobs. But as profits grew, opinions of him changed. During his 20-year tenure at the multifaceted company, GE’s business increased from $25 billion to more than $130 billion.
But even as it grew to become one of the biggest companies in the world, he says he ran it like a mom-and-pop operation. He urges others to follow his lead.
“Run it like a grocery store,” he says. “In a grocery store, you know your customers when they come in, you know when their kids are sick. You know everything about them. You know your supplier, when his aunt died—you know all that stuff.”
“The reflected glory of your team is more important to your ultimate success than what you personally bring to the table.”
Jack Welch says meaningful work is the jackpot of life. Read more about his leadership journey and how you can create a culture of learning at your company in the June 2014 SUCCESS cover story, available for your desktop, mobile or tablet device.