PBS came to campus last night to film an episode of its program “CEO Exchange” with Jack Welch, former chairman and chief executive officer of General Electric Co. Interviewed in front of a crowd of several hundred at the Power Center, Welch expounded on his views of how to achieve success in both a commercial and personal manner.
In speaking of his triumphs with GE, Welch said, “it”s been the focus on people that”s been the key ingredient and its diversity has allowed the company to flourish.”
While he admitted that economically, the “wind was at our backs” during his tenure, which began in 1981 and ended several months ago, “it”s about the people who come to relish change. Change is at the heart of what makes business vital.”
Throughout the interview, Welch answered several questions previously submitted by some of the nation”s top CEOs, including Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and Michael Eisner of Disney.
In response to Ford CEO Jacques Nasser”s question about Welch”s biggest success, Welch said it would have to be turning GE into a “meritocracy where everyone counts where people are evaluated in a candid way. The cruelest thing you can do as a human being is to not let them know how they are doing.”
“No one”s ever been removed by me that”s been surprised,” he added.
Welch also answered questions about maintaining leadership in the business world. For him, it boiled down to the characteristics of having energy, being able to energize others, having edge, being able to execute orders and showing passion.
“It”s all about life experiences. You want to give people the chance to take a swing you want them to stretch,” he said.
Recently, Welch has come under fire from environmental agencies regarding GE”s connection to the polychlorinated biphenyls, also known as PCBs, found in the Hudson River.
GE has resisted the river cleanup, which would involve dredging the river for a cost of about $500 million.
The proposal “has nothing to do with science and nothing to do with money,” Welch said. “It is a violation of our integrity to go in and do something that stupid to the environment,” he added, noting the negative consequences of dredging.
As for future, Welch had high remarks for his successor, Jeffrey Immelt.
“The company will be better off because we have a whole new set of eyes which will help revitalize it,” he said. “The exciting part will be to watch how he will change things.”
Chicago-based consulting firm A.T. Kearney sponsored the program. Earlier in the day, Welch signed copies of his new autobiography at Border”s Books, Music and Caf on East Liberty Street.
Welch was not the only corporate mogul in Ann Arbor yesterday. Home design specialist Martha Stewart also made a short visit, during which she briefly met with Business School students and observed case studies being presented in the class “Business Leadership in Changing Times.”
Stewart did not allow reporters access to the class.