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Jack Welch Gives Women Advice—And They Don't Like It

Vivia Chen

May 8, 2012

Jack_suzy_welch_headshotI thought Jack Welch is supposed to walk on water. I mean, this ex–CEO of General Electric Co. is the Big Kahuna of corporate wisdom, no?

Well, maybe when he's holding one of his man-to-man leadership talks. With the ladies, however, he's striking out.

That's what happened at a recent conference for female executives sponsored by The Wall Street Journal, where he and his wife Suzy spoke. The WSJ's John Bussey reports that some women were so infuriated by Welch's comments that they walked out.

Here are Welch's dos and don'ts for women:

    1. Don't bother with affinity groups. Welch basically calls women's groups "victims units." Though GE is known for hosting a range of women's programs, Welch didn't seem impressed by them: "The best of the women would come to me and say, 'I don't want to be in a special group. I'm not in the victims unit. I'm a star. I want to be compared with the best of your best.' "

   2. Don't bother with mentoring too. In fact, he calls it "one of the worst ideas that ever came along. . . . You should see everyone as a mentor."

  3.  Do take on the hard jobs. Instead of joining women's groups or waiting for mentoring, Welch urges women to go for "tough assignments to prove yourself, get line experience, and embrace serious performance reviews and the coaching inherent in them."

  4. Do insist on a thorough review. All the coaching is meaningless "without a rigorous appraisal system, without you knowing where you stand . . . and how you can improve," says Welch. He also says that the appraisal "is the best way to attack bias" because performance is documented.

  5. Do work your butt off. "Overdeliver. . . . Performance is it!"

What really ticked the women off was Welch's suggestion that corporate America is a meritocracy where women can rise if they just work hard at it. Instead of criticizing the system or addressing underlying biases in the workplace, Welch puts the onus on women to succeed.

"This meritocracy fiction may be the biggest obstacle to women's advancement," consultant Lisa Levey told the WSJ. "He showed no recognition that the culture shapes the performance metrics, and the culture is that of white men," said investment manager Allison Quirk to the WSJ.

They're right, of course. Welch does speak from the perspective of a white alpha male. It's limited, but does that mean it's totally invalid?

Sadly, I think there's some truth to what he says. For those who aspire to be on the top of the food chain, Welch is probably right that you have to be singular in your focus, work like a maniac, and take no prisoners. Would women's programs be distractions? Quite possibly—one-time corporate star Sallie Krawcheck certainly feels that way. As for work/life balance, fuhgeddaboudit!

It's not for everyone, but that formula seems to have worked for some of the women I know who are at the top of their game in law firms and corporations. Some strike me as a bit ruthless; many are also quite dismissive about the "glass ceiling," and have little use for the sisterhood. They're not my buddies, but they are incredibly successful.

Of course, what Welch doesn't say—and maybe doesn't realize—is that even women who give it their all still might not land on top of the heap. After all, women only make up 3.6 (that's a 0.6 rise from last year) percent of the CEOs in the Fortune 500.

So is Welch, the corporate warrior, just telling like it is? Or is he the ruling class member who's missing the big picture? I guess it's both. Not very reassuring, is it?


Photo: Suzy and Jack Welch.

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The "Jack Welch days" are over -- apparently, no one has told him yet..... Great strategies, Jack - for people still working in a 1960's environment.....

Jack Welch has a right to his “ivory tower” opinion but he needs to revisit the “trenches” and, more importantly, revisit the games managers’ play when they hand out “challenging jobs/projects” that can get you noticed based on a good performance.

1). Welch’s comment about affinity groups seems to ignore the existence of the largest and most sacred of all affinity groups—the good old boy network. He’s lived and worked within that group for so long and has benefited from the protection that rooted group offers its members it’s not surprising that he would dismiss other affinity groups that actually pose a threat to his club.

2). And to dismiss “mentoring” as a bad idea again begs the question—what does Welch mean about getting a “thorough (performance) review”? Mentoring, coaching, managing are pretty much all related to input/advice/coaching one gets, or fails to get from management. Clearly Welch benefited from both--by being on the receiving and giving-end of thorough performance reviews.

3). Taking on the hard jobs aren’t necessarily available to women and minorities. Jack should know there is a pecking order for getting the “choice jobs”. The highly visible jobs are hard but getting one is very political. The good-ole’ boys tend to give the “cherry” jobs to those in their network. They groom their own and thus embrace a self-fulfilling prophecy that it’s who you know in the only affinity group that matters (see my #1 comment—where mentors exist throughout the brotherhood without even having to ask or wait for such assistance).

4). The biggest laugh I had (not as in “ha ha” but as “BSht”), was Welch’s insistence that women, and I’ll add people of color and other protected group members, “insist on a thorough (performance) review”. While that request may be taken seriously by some managers—over the past forty years, I’ve noticed managerial cowardice. Particularly when the insisting is coming from women or minorities. Jack—women and minorities actually do insist on thorough and truthful reviews. Such requests, however, are often taken as hostile, even threatening (many managers are not used to being spoken to in such a manner from a female or minority employees) and most managers don’t want a confrontation so they back-pedal and actually then regard such employees as “problematic; not team players, etc.”…which ultimately leads to assignments that are less than challenging, …which contribute to unhappy campers who are then stunted, and eventually laid-off/or terminated.

Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, those that can go along to get along--but many women and non-white-males, who manage to climb relatively high on the career ladder, will recall having to work a bit harder and eat a bit more crow along the way.

BTW #5). I agree with, “Work your butt off…Performance is it.”

Posted by: valentinoBenito |

In the corporate world it depends on the company as to whether women or white men are favored. At my company, the supervisory attorneys in the law department are mostly women (and several are minorities) and the next GC almost certainly will be a woman. The current GC is a white man who very strongly supports diversity. In another company where I worked many years ago, every law department promotion while I was there went to a woman (but the GC was a white man). In my experience, corporations are much more women-friendly in terns of promotions into senior legal management than law firms, particularly BigLaw.

So by this article is Jack Welch saying he became CEO simply by working hard and performing? What a joke or he is delusional. To address his specific statements-- you can only prove yourself if you are provided with a tough, visible, project. People flock to and trust those they are comfortable with, which ends up being people who look like them or those they have a relationship with outside of work (i.e., 'his dad is a friend of mine'). Not only do women not look like most CEOs, they tend to not have the external relationships that provide instant credibility. You need someone who is willing to take a 'risk' on your talent to provide you with the opportunity to shine. The problem is that no one in a place of power is choosing to take a risk on high performing women, or for that matter minorities. This is the inherent issue that plagues corporate America. Oh, and the fact that people in power tend to forget that someone helped them get there.

I admire Jack Welch for having the courage to speak the truth. I think women's groups can be interesting, but they do have an incredibly discriminatory feel. Not many of us would find it acceptable if firms had men's-only groups.
I often quote another Welch truism: There is no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices and choices have consequences.

I do agree that feedback/reviews are key.

But it seems Mr. Welch thinks that women who attend affinity groups think of themselves as victims, that women who want consistent mentoring and support are failures, and without his sage advice women won't apply themselves. Oh, and women only have themselves to blame for not succeeding. I can't imagine why the attendees might have been a tad irritated with Mr. Welch.

I attend affinity groups, women's groups, groups associated with my legal specialty, groups associated with my university, groups associated with a whole host of other elements of my life. Why does attending women's groups make me a "victim" but attending an alumni group not make me a victim?

I'm not surprised at Mr. Welch's views given the dismal track record of car companies in providing opportunities for women. But I agree with the women who walked out. This type of "wisdom" isn't.

I should clarify -- I agree with Jack Welch's point not to bother with women's groups. I disagree if he thinks corporate life is a true meritocracy. White men still have an unfair advantage.

I agree regarding women's groups. For the most part, I am not that interested in the women's bar groups as my time is limited and I want to invest my time with inclusive groups and network with ALL lawyers. I also think these segregated groups can reinforce the idea that women must hang out with women. Also, the concept of women's groups have a retro, sorority feel that I reject. Why pigeon-hole ourselves by gender? I learn as much or more from male attorneys as I do female attorneys. Lastly, plenty of women attorneys do not have children yet the women's bar events or women's business groups I attend spent a disproportionate amount of time obsessing over how moms can balance work. Women's groups act like it is a given that women are moms or will be. It is 2012 -- do men spend this much time talking about balancing work with being dads?

I don't understand why people are upset with him for stating the obvious. I would think by diving in, working hard and taking on the tough jobs would be the only way to go.

I've decided to become a regular reader of your blog. Your writing, on its face, is witty and provocative and of course ought to be. I happen to teach at Florida A&M University College of Law, a place you can't possibly know anything about but which you included on your (or a linked) list of places one should not ever attend. More on that some other time, I don't feel sufficiently insecure at the moment to respond with something less anecdotal than your post yesterday. Meanwhile, I'll keep reading your blog because I want to understand where you are coming from. Your sponsors or potential sponsors should be happy for that. So far you demonstrate a real knack for agreeing with and condemning an idea all at once. Some of your other posts, for example, show disdain for and allegiance to that certain elitism, at the alter of which you seem secretly, or not, to worship. At least that is what you do in this article. You say Welch is both ignorant but "probably right" all at once. In fact, there is something for everybody on all sides of this issue to like in your post. You are either praising with condemnation or condemning with praise. As you know, it will only help your blog to provoke good or bad comments so I hope you won't mind my comments. But I do want to point out one interpretation of your post. I think others who have commented to this post probably read it rather quickly and then went back to work (having remembered only the part that indicated your agreement with one side and not realizing you apparently are on all sides. A close reading hardly proves the thesis statement, particularly since you, a woman, seem to agree if only begrudgingly.

Welch's comments are insulting to women. Does he think women aren't doing these things already? Women regularly over-perform and work like maniacs and still only inch up the ladder. He ignores the underlying, institutionalized bias that fails to recognize and reward (and mentor and evaluate) women the same way it does men. It's easy for men who run and benefit from the system to call it a meritocracy but they define merit in masculine terms. Yes, women need to be more politically savvy and better self-advocates, and affinity groups can be a distraction. But men like Welch, who blame women for failing to advance in the system that men control, are the largest problem women face.

Good analysis, Vivia. What nobody says is that while women may be deluded to think that affinity groups will always help them to rise, once women become stars, they should reach back to encourage other women.

..and we go to work/school tomorrow and carry on...

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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