Editor’s Note: Bill Lane, author of “Jacked Up: The Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE Into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company,” served as Welch’s speechwriter for 20 years.
A former first lieutenant on a U.S. Army Special Forces team in Vietnam, Lane has taught high school English and coached varsity baseball in Puerto Rico; has traveled extensively in Asia, Africa, and Australia; and has served as a civilian congressional liaison officer for the Army at the Pentagon.
In 1980 Lane joined GE as a speechwriter. Three years later he became manager of executive communications and Jack Welch’s speechwriter. Until 2002 he served in those capacities with responsibility for the major company meetings and the GE annual report. After Welch retired, Lane left the company to begin a consulting, writing, and public speaking business.
Lane will speak at the Princeton Chamber on Thursday, October 2, at 11:30 a.m. at the Marriott Princeton Hotel. Price: $35. Call 609-924-1776 for more details.
Following is an excerpt, reprinted with the permission of publisher McGraw-Hill.
My first big GE company meeting, in September of 1980, was also the first time I encountered Jack Welch. He was a superstar, the boy wonder, an object of intense curiosity. For the many who had had unpleasant dealings with him in the past, Welch was an object of dread.
The race for the chairmanship was nearing the finish line. The field had been narrowed to three vice chairmen: Ed Hood, John Burlingame, and the mercurial, stuttering maniac, Jack Welch. “The fact that this man is even an officer in the General Electric Company, much less a candidate for chairman, just astonishes me,” I remember some old fart saying. And his was, by no means, an isolated view of Jack.
Jack arrived at the next big meeting, this time as chairman-elect, in the first limo of a five or six-car motorcade, moving pompously around the circular driveway to a stop at the front of the hotel. I was there, and told him a few years later, that I thought the spectacle was obscene. He didn’t disagree.
It turns out that ground transportation had sent a white Rolls Royce to meet him at his jet — and he had angrily refused to get in. A modest black Lincoln was hastily called, and away he went. Jack never avoided luxury, but instinctively loathed the type of ostentation that would, years later, contribute to the downfall of several of his CEO colleagues.
Jack would move about quickly, usually with six or eight pals, radiating noise and energy like a thundercloud, whether emerging from the golf course (where he was a single-digit handicap), holding court at the Black Catte (a resort in upstate New York), or roaming from private meetings to scheduled events.
I was in the meeting room with three or four other speechwriters and staff, rehearsing the GE speakers for the next day. The Welch entourage came flying through the lobby doors, strolled up the long aisle of chairs, and parked themselves three or four rows behind me. The rehearsing speaker, who was droning through his slides on the stage, spotted the intruders and dialed up his intensity.
He may have even said, “Hi, Jack.” Welch conversed in his stentorian sotto voce for a while, as his companeros leaned over, solicitously, to hear his acidic commentary, and strange, indescribable sounds I called “whale noises.” Jack and his boys stayed to hear the speaker slog on for a few more minutes before I heard, “I can’t deal with this shit anymore,” which signaled the posse to get up and leave.
I wasn’t sure I liked this guy, but he left me curious; he was the antithesis of everything I had encountered in my four short months at GE. He was 10 or 11 years older than I was, but he was a “kid,” like me; or rather like the kid I thought I still was: wild, profane, and passionate. Over the years, and to this day, I marvel at the courage Reginald Jones showed in picking a successor who was nothing like himself — perhaps the least like him; a character the likes of which had never been seen at GE.
Jack Welch’s refusal to “deal with this shit anymore” carried implications far beyond that day. After playing the game for 20-plus years, wasting money on “hats,” slides, airplane rides, and bullshit meetings, it dawned on him that he didn’t have to deal with it anymore. More importantly, under his command, no one else should have to deal with it anymore.
Power may corrupt, but it also can liberate, and he began to instinctively conceive ways for us to free ourselves from the corporate crap that had enslaved and bored GE, not to mention the entire capitalist organizational structure, for more than a century. Jack ran his first meeting of general managers about 10 months after he took over. He had announced at the end of the final Jones-era meeting that we would leave the Belleview Biltmore and move to the five-star Boca Raton Hotel and Club in South Florida.
Welch quickly changed the agendas from the ridiculous, posturing, pretentious “Vision” extravaganzas they had become into what I would describe as “success stories with messages attached.”
People who believe the legend of “Neutron Jack” — the maniac, bull in a China shop, Tasmanian Devil caricature, who upturned the tables and chairs of a boring, stolid company doomed to either breakup or hit the scrap heap — do not understand the GE of the early ‘80s.
Reg Jones was arguably the best CEO in the country at the time, and certainly the most honored. GE’s management practices were the toast of every business school in the world and its management team was the prey of every recruiter in town. Indeed, GE used to annually publish a book that they would hand out at the Boca conference, filled with the pictures, titles, and bios of each attendee — but were forced to stop when the book became a headhunter’s menu.
GE was profitable, competitive, and had the healthiest balance sheet in big business. Jack has always been quick to admit that GE was not some foundering wreck that he’d grabbed the wheel to save. Although Jack hated the analogy, GE was like a ponderous supertanker, slow to change direction even after violent spinning of the wheel.
But on day one of the Welch era, the wheel at least began to turn on communications.
There would be no more “visions,” especially visions like those offered up in Reg Jones’s last meeting — onanistic fantasies that would supposedly unfold over a decade. Anyone who even claimed they could see four or five years into the future was now considered a bullshitter.
The mass liquidation of the strategic planning apparatus, which was built around a five-year view, would begin within a year. Welch’s rejection of the Jones-era long-range vision planning was especially apparent in the restructuring of GE Capital, a backwater business started during the Depression to finance appliances consumers could no longer afford.
After a leadership purge, GE Capital would soon grow, largely because it operated on the idea that no one could know what was going to happen in financial services three months from now, much less three years. It began to become, in the mid-’80s, the “place to be” for Welch-style, frenetic, instant gratification-loving people like Larry Bossidy and the ineffable Gary Wendt. And that whole crowd laughed at anyone who pretended to know what was going to happen three months from now in financial services, much less three years.