Memoirs of a Successful CEO

By Christopher M. Leporini, REALTOR® Magazine

They called him Neutron Jack. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch accumulated other labels during his 20 year tenure, but for many years that nickname stuck. Some employees gave it to him in the early eighties, after a tough-minded decision to cut employment rolls; in honor of a type of thermonuclear weapon designed to kill people, but leave buildings standing. By the time he retired this past spring, however, he was celebrated in many quarters as the CEO’s CEO, a icon of business leadership. Now Welch returns with Jack: Straight From the Gut (Warner Books, 2001. $29.95), recounting his story from his Massachusetts Irish Catholic upbringing to his final days at GE. If you manage a company, or have dreams of doing so one day, this book provides an opportunity to learn about leadership from a business great.

Brokers might find Chapter 24: “What this CEO Thing is All About” especially illuminating. It distills some of the key ingredients that Welch feels led to his success. Obviously, there are many differences between running a Fortune 500 company and a small real estate business, but effective leadership values remain the same on any scale. Some of these elements are characteristics that leaders must build in themselves, such as integrity, self-confidence, and passion. Leaders do more than make decisions, says Welch, they set the tone for the entire organization.

Welch’s people-oriented business philosophy is reflected throughout the book, as he repeatedly stresses the importance of having the right people around you to achieve business success. He describes being a CEO as “a job that’s close to 75 percent about people and 25 percent about other stuff.” Among the many lessons he learned about managing people were:

  • Don’t punish honest mistakes. When people make mistakes often the last thing they need is disciple, Welch says. Instead, a leader’s job should be to restore the employee’s self-confidence. If you fail to create an environment where people can learn from their mistakes, their mistakes will pile up as they begin to second-guess themselves.
  • Don’t hire on appearances. Falling for slick, empty packages is an easy mistake to make, Welch says. He talks about how he sometimes let himself be swayed by credentials such as academic degrees, when what he really was searching for was a passion for the business.
  • Always be direct. Welch scorns what he calls “superficial congeniality” the bureaucratic art of smiling to someone’s face, while waiting for an opening to stick a knife in their back. Whether or not they agree with your decisions, he believes, being direct earns the respect of people around you.

A self-described round peg in a square hole, Welch says that his outspoken honesty sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. Critics predicted he was too different to survive long as CEO, but his 20-year success at GE proved them wrong. Jack: Straight from the Gut offers his view of why he succeeded. Along the way, it provides real estate practitioners with the opportunity to learn about leadership from one of the best. Real estate is essentially no different than any other business. If a brokerage’s leadership exhibits a strong sense of the company’s goals and values, then this spirit will spread throughout its members. Though he was not universally loved throughout his GE tenure, he had a distinct vision for the company’s direction. Whatever else people called him, there was never any doubt that Jack Welch was the boss.

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This post was contributed exclusively for REALTOR® Magazine.

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