Roses and Champagne
Welch was uncommonly conscious of the signals and symbolism of leadership. His handwritten notes sent to everyone from direct reports to hourly workers possessed enormous impact, too. Moments after Welch lifted his black felt-tip pen, they were sent via fax direct to the employee. Two days later, the original arrived in the mail.
They were written to inspire and motivate as often as to stir and demand action. In 1996, for example, Woodburn turned down a promotion from Welch that would have required a transfer because he didn’t want to move his teenage daughter out of school. Welch spoke to Woodburn on the phone and within a day sent a personal note to him.
«Bill,» wrote Welch, «we like you for a lot of reasons – one of them is that you are a very special person. You proved it again this morning. Good for you and your lucky family. Make Diamonds a great business and keep your priorities straight.» To Woodburn, the note was an important gesture. «It showed me he cared about me not as a manager but as a person. It means a lot.»
Or consider how Welch became involved in the excruciating details of the tubes that go into GE’s X-ray and CAT-scan machines. In the mid-1990s, Welch, who spent 15% to 20% of his time interacting with customers, heard some complaints about the poor quality of the tubes. The product was averaging little more than 25,000 scans, less than half what competing tubes were getting.
To fix the problem, Welch reached two levels down into the organization and summoned to corporate headquarters Marc Onetto who had been general manager for service and maintenance in Europe. His orders were simple and direct: «Fix it,» Welch demanded. «I want 100,000 scans out of my tubes!»
For the next four years, Onetto faxed weekly reports direct to Welch, detailing his progress. Back would come notes from Welch every three to four weeks. Some would nearly growl for greater progress; others would flatter and cajole. The experience astonished Onetto. «I was just running a little business here, about $450 million in revenues, and I was so amazed that he could find the time to read my reports and then even send me back notes,» he said. Since then, Onetto’s team has created versions of the tubes that average between 150,000 and 200,000 scans. The improvements added about $14 million in productivity benefits to the division last year.
Not everyone saw that side of Welch. Some rank-and-file employees, for example, grumbled about the unrelenting pressure on them to perform. «No matter how many records are broken in productivity or profits, it’s always ‘What have you done for me lately?» ’ said Stephen Tormey, who negotiated the United Electrical Workers contract. «The workers are considered lemons, and they are squeezed really dry.»
Other critics have questioned whether the pressure Welch imposed led some employees to cut corners, possibly contributing to the defense-contracting scandals that have plagued GE or the humiliating Kidder, Peabody bond-trading scheme of the early 1990s that generated bogus profits.