Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 8 April 2020

The Jack Welch I knew: he was one of a kind and his sense of humour was renowned

Behind the tycoon's cunning business acumen was a compassionate man, says Michael Garin

Former Chairman and CEO of General Electric Jack Welch appears on CNBC from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on October 22, 2013. Richard Drew / AP
Former Chairman and CEO of General Electric Jack Welch appears on CNBC from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on October 22, 2013. Richard Drew / AP

Jack Welch, one of the great legends of American business, passed away on Sunday at the age of 84. I was lucky enough to know him throughout much of the 1990s because I was one of his principal advisers on General Electric’s media strategy when I was the global head of telecommunications and media investment banking at ING Barings.

Jack was one of a kind. His grasp was broad, but he focused relentlessly on the matter at hand, whatever it was. And he had that unique ability to make you feel whatever you had to say was important, as long as you knew what you were talking about. He was a very powerful man but when you were with him, he seemed like just an ordinary guy.

Images of Jack Welch appear on screens above trading posts on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Monday, March 2, 2020. Welch, who transformed General Electric into a highly profitable multinational conglomerate, died of renal failure at the age of 84. His death was confirmed Monday by GE. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Images honouring the memory of Jack Welch appear on screens above trading posts on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Monday, March 2, 2020. Richard Drew / AP

His sense of humor was renowned. My favourite story about Jack was when the head of NBC, Bob Wright, was preparing to visit Cardinal Francis Spellman, an American bishop, to deliver a mea culpa on behalf of GE, which owned the network. NBC's parody show Saturday Night Live frequently performed skits about a fictional priest named Father Guido Sarducci, and it aggravated the Catholic Church no end. Accompanying Bob in New York was Ray Timothy, head of NBC’s television division. Jack was on the phone from GE’s corporate headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Clearly these three Irish Catholic boys were very concerned and quite anxious about the coming meeting with the cardinal, another larger-than-life New York character. As the conference call was ending and Bob was getting ready to cross the street from NBC’s headquarters to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Jack ended the conversation by telling Bob: “And r-r-r-remember B-B-B-Bobby [Jack had a bit of a stutter], he didn’t get to be Cardinal by being good at ****ing Latin.“

That was Jack. He could say something very important while making you laugh at the same time.

Lessons can be learned from the mistakes of firms such as General Electric. Richard Drew/AP
Jack Welch's time at the helm of General Electric transformed the culture of the company. Richard Drew / AP

Jack developed an organisational structure that, at the time, was unique to GE. It combined the skills of corporate support teams like finance, legal, HR and others with the professional expertise of the operating groups. While the career path in the operating teams was vertical, that of the support services spanned the scope of the entire organisation. Jack's new approach gave operating executive access to the best corporate professionals when running their business, and at the same time provided the top executive staff with a constant pipeline of information to help them manage one of the world’s largest corporations as well as they did.

But in order to make this unique methodology work, operating executives had to believe that their support colleagues were there in fact to provide support – not control, which unfortunately is too often the case here in the region. The true partnership of skills and disciplines in this matrix structure accounted in large measure for GE’s incredible success during Jack’s tenure. This was a one of the many lessons I took from my time advising the company, and I have tried to integrate it into the companies I’ve been fortunate to run ever since.

The other key lesson I took away from my time with Jack is that structure alone is not sufficient. Equally critical is the right corporate culture. Operating teams had to believe that the support teams were genuinely there to help manage the divisions, rather than spy on or control them.

To accomplish this, GE created its Crotonville, New York, training centre, where more than 12,000 employees from across the company improve their management skills while getting to know their colleagues from various divisions for a week at a time. Building a culture of co-operation and collaboration among a diverse staff of highly competitive and ambitious executives is no easy task, but Jack’s dedication to this effort helped ensure that, during his tenure, co-operating to succeed remained a core cultural value.

These are important lessons for UAE organisations to learn. Too often, we spend billions of dirhams building world-class organisations only to lose millions through a lack of synergy and collaboration.

I’m grateful that this challenge is finally being addressed in the media sector here in Abu Dhabi. Twofour54, Image Nation and Abu Dhabi Media are, for the first time, working together to ensure that we fully realise our potential to be the leading creative hub for Arab-language media and entertainment, as well as a magnet for international content creators whenever their productions or development brings them to our part of the world.

Michael Garin is CEO of twofour54 and Image Nation

Updated: March 4, 2020 12:37 PM

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