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“Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.” – Jack Welch

A few decades ago, the name Jack Welch was synonymous with corporate leadership. Welch, the chairman and CEO of General Electric from 1981-2001, oversaw decades of growth for the company with his trademark drive and candor. Although retired for years, he remains an active speaker and writer. He was in Kansas City recently to promote his new book, The Real-Life MBA, and my friend John Stevenson of ClientKudos attended the talk. John's email about the event inspired me to think more deeply about Welch and his perspective as a business leader.

I've never fully bought into the idea of Welch as a leader to fully idolize and emulate — as I've written before, I think we grow into great leaders by becoming more of who we are, not trying to become someone else. However, it's undeniable that Welch has some great ideas that deserve consideration. They may even inspire you to think differently about how you lead!

The following are some of the takeaways John identified, along with my thoughts on how we can embrace these ideas to build and run effective, sustainable companies.

Leading

It all starts with visionary leadership and the ability to inspire a great team to do good work on behalf of their customers. With this in mind, Welch has noted that numbers don't inspire, but vision does. He remarks,

“Numbers aren't the vision. Numbers are the product. I never talk about numbers.”

If we want to communicate value, we can't just talk in numbers, we have to talk about impact. Our true vision is of the impact our products can make on other people's lives. Does it improve their lives in a tangible way? Does it have a lasting impact on their health, their environment, or their community? These are the true measures of our success, and when we speak to that vision, we inspire the people around us who help make that impact happen.

So how do we measure our impact? According to Welch,

“If I had to run a company on three measures, those measures would be customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction and cash flow.”

I admire the idea that customer and employee satisfaction are the measures of our success. Cash flow is vital of course and must be measured, but if our vision and our work is contributing to customer and employee satisfaction, we know that we're on the right track and cash flow will follow.

Building

When it comes to building companies, Welch's ethos stresses simplicity and speed — foreshadowing the “lean methodology” that many of today's successful startup companies embrace. Welch says,

“If you're not simple, you can't be fast. And, if you're not fast, you're dead. So, everything we did (at GE) focused on building self-confidence in people so they could be simple — and successful.”

Building self-confidence in employees and partners is a vital part of leadership. Enabling them to make important decisions quickly and confidently is the key to the simplicity and speed Welch advocates.

Another idea that resonates with the “lean methodology” so often employed today is transparency and sharing of ideas. Business models of the past increasingly siloed different aspects of the organization, making it difficult for ideas to cross-pollinate and see the light of day. Part of building a strong company is encouraging people to share their ideas so that the best of the best can gain traction and contribute to the development of the organization. As Welch notes,

“What makes a company flourish is transferring ideas… We take the best of diversity and use it.”

Winning

Welch knows a lot about success. During his time at GE, the business grew by over 4,000 percent, which is truly staggering growth. When organizations have achieved success, visionary leaders are often already one step ahead planning for what comes next. But this doesn't mean they shouldn't take time to celebrate what they and their team have achieved. 

“People feel guilty about stopping to celebrate a little victory… but it lets people know they've won. It's so critical to an institution. It brings it alive, gives it character.”

Moments of celebration are vital to the human experience, to bringing us together as communities and acknowledging our commonality and our achievements together. Celebration brings a company full circle, from the exciting idea of the impact we can have on others to the moment when that impact comes to fruition, and contributes to the satisfaction of employees and leaders alike. Never forget to celebrate accomplishments, whether they are steps on the road to success, or the big moments when our impact manifests itself on a large scale.

Jack Welch was definitely a visionary leader and his achievements can serve as a model for companies being built today. As with any “icon,” we can take on the aspects of their work that resonate within us and make us better and discard what doesn't work for us. By collecting and considering the many examples available, we find inspiration and validation for the leaders we are meant to become. I hope some of Welch's advice feeds the vision that you are developing for yourself.

Which business leaders resonate with you as you develop your own leadership style? Share your favorite piece of advice by tweeting @Ace_Wagner!

Photo Courtesy of ETW.