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Kevin Meyer

Quality Insider

Leadership by Welch, Immelt—and Layer

Lean leaders put people first

Published: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - 09:05

Regular readers know I’m not a big fan of Jack Welch, to put it mildly. My opinion is shared by many in the lean world, at least those who recognize that the second, oft-forgotten, pillar of lean is “respect for people”—a concept diametrically opposed to Welch's “leadership” methods.

Unfortunately, idol worship took hold. Welch held, and to some extent still holds, a power unrivaled since the pagan idols of ages old. A generation of GE “leaders” and Welch worshippers barfed forth onto the business world and proceeded to decimate U.S. manufacturing, and common sense, for that matter. I believe this was a significant contributor to the economic malaise of the last several years as the gullible followed his advice to outsource, chase cheap labor, whack employees, and measure success and value purely by the increase in stock price.

Under Jeff Immelt, Welch’s successor, GE has started to return ever so slightly to the real world. Some GE folks have realized the fallacy of chasing cheap labor and have even decided to move appliance manufacturing back to the United States. The company even claims to have “discovered lean”... 25 years after many other companies. So be it; give kudos where kudos are due.

But GE still has a long way to go, especially from a leadership—particularly servant leadership—perspective. This was reinforced again this past week when Immelt penned a piece for LinkedIn on “How to Differentiate Great Leaders From Good Leaders.” In it he lists five questions he uses to discern the great from the merely good:
1. Is the leader self-aware?
2. Is the leader committed to the organization and does he drive change?
3. Is the leader a giver or a taker?
4. Is the leader a critical thinker?
5. Does the leader have a dream for himself and the company?

Good characteristics, but the lean cognoscenti will immediately recognize a couple of missing key aspects of real leadership. Before I get to that, let’s compare this list to another article published last week. This piece was by Mike Myatt, in Forbes, describing Brigadier General Brian Layer’s “10 Ways to Make Each Day a Leadership Masterpiece.”

Brig. Gen. Brian R. Layer, Deputy Commanding General of Army Sustainment Command, presents flowers to his wife, Ella, during a retirement and retreat ceremony in his honor earlier this year.

The 10:
1. Excel in the moment.
2. Invest in a relationship and build trust.
3. Help someone else achieve and grow.
4. Listen.
5. Connect someone to your vision, mission, and priorities.
6. Thank someone.
7. Prepare for the known and study for the unknown.
8. Prepare for an important decision.
9. Leverage white space.
10. Grow physically, mentally, spiritually.

Now... compare that to Immelt’s list. Everyone should be able to see what’s missing—the core of real leadership. And why Immelt and GE still have such a very long way to go. I’ll distill it down to two key concepts:
1. Leverage people... including yourself.
2. Learn... and teach.

I’ve discussed both many times in the past because they are my personal hot buttons. Respect for people is a core pillar of lean, and not recognizing that is probably the primary reason lean transformations fail. Do you consider people a cost or a value? A liability or an asset? Your answers should be regardless of what your traditional profit-and-loss tells you, and what that mission statement on the wall, which hasn’t been looked at in years, says. Are people really your most important asset? If so, how do you protect, nurture, and grow that asset? Or do you just fly all over the world chasing a lower cost for the hands attached to the valuable brain you ignore? Be honest.

In a somewhat similar manner, since it also leverages people, I’ve also found that the best leaders are those who voraciously seek out and consume knowledge, then distill, implement appropriate new concepts, and especially, teach. In my experience this has also become a consistently powerful predictor of future leadership ability. Do you augment your leveraging of people by mentoring and raising the knowledge level of your organization? Not just by paying for training, but by making a personal commitment of time and effort?

Brian Layer gets it. He’s a leader who challenges himself, is humble, and recognizes the value of people. Jack and Jeff could learn a thing, or actually two, from him.

This column first appeared Aug. 25, 2013, on the Evolving Excellence blog.


About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.


Jokes are not often simply jokes

When I read Welch's "Straight from the Gut", an old joke came to my mind: a sheepdog says to the sheep: < My leadership is based on very simple criteria: when I bark, you start rushing - and quick! >

Read "Built to Last" by Collins and Porras for more about GE

Context counts. In "Built to Last" Jim Collins and Jerry Porras reminded people that Jack Welch's predecessor at GE, Reginald Jones, had retired as "the most admired business leader in America" (http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/companies-need-not-hir...). If someone's view of Jack Welch is clouded by the notion that somehow he turned around a troubled company they should revisit his tenure.

In Harvard Business Review (July-August 1996) Henry Mintzberg wrote, "Go to the popular business press and read just about any article on any company. The whole organization almost always gets reduced to a single individual, the chief at the 'top.' ... But after the organizations are created, we don't need heroes, just competent, devoted, and generous leaders who know what's going on and exude that spirit of the hive. Heroes - or, more to the point, our hero worship - reflect nothing more than our own inadequacies."


Great point!

I like this...when I used to teach leadership classes in the Navy, we would do an excercise where we'd have a class brainstorm two lists: words that describe the BEST teacher they'd ever had, and words that described the WORST teacher they'd ever had. Then we'd ask them whether those same lists also described the best and worst leaders they'd worked for...