March 2020

By Mike Markovits


I have been working as a partner at AchieveMission for the past 8 years, serving the non-profit sector. I love my work, my clients, and my colleagues. The work is meaningful, the relationships are significant, and the impact is important in helping to create more of the world that I want to see.

And, years before I came to AchieveMission, I worked at GE for 20 years. In recent weeks, memories of my time at GE have been flooding my brain as I have read stories published in response to the passing of Jack Welch, GE’s former CEO.

I joined GE in 1984, just a few years after Jack became the CEO and when he was establishing much of his vision and direction as a leader. As I wrote the previous sentence, I noticed that I referred to him as Jack (not Jack Welch, and not Welch). This is because, even as the CEO of what was arguably the greatest company on earth at that time, he was always just Jack. I met him for the first time in 1987 when he came to tour the factory where I was the Manager of Human Resources. I had my first substantive interaction with Jack when he came to visit the Manager Development Course in 1990, where I was part of a small group delivering a presentation on addressing diversity at GE. As my career progressed, I spent more and more time in meetings with Jack, listening to him speak, presenting to him, and absorbing his leadership lessons.

So, why am I telling you this?  Other than a bit of nostalgia for me, is there anything that we in the non-profit sector can learn from Jack Welch?

My answer is yes.  And here are my four leadership lessons from Jack Welch that apply across sectors:

  • Face reality and lead change
    • One phrase that I remember hearing over and over was to face reality squarely. This meant to me that we could neither sugarcoat facts nor bury our heads in the sand. This seems particularly relevant to me right now as we face all the challenges associated with COVID-19. Let’s look squarely at the reality of what we are facing and make appropriate adjustments in our lives and operating plans.
    • Leaders need to lead change – set the vision, communicate it, and show people how to get there.
    • One quote from Jack that pulls this all together: “How do you bring people into the change process? Start with reality. Get all the facts out. Give people the rationale for change, laying it out in the clearest, most dramatic terms. When everybody gets the same facts, they’ll generally come to the same conclusion.”
  • Know your values and act accordingly
    • For Jack, values were the “how” of operating. About five years after he became CEO, he began actively articulating the values to which he thought all leaders at GE should aspire. Those values ended up being printed on a wallet-size card – a card that still sits in my wallet 16 years after leaving the company.
    • We self-assessed against these values and we were given feedback on how our behavior was or was not consistent with the values.
    • And the values were challenging, sometimes conflicted with each other. This helped me learn that one primary challenge of leadership is managing value-based trade-offs.
  • Know and care about your staff. Use a personal touch.
    • I have often told the story of my first time going to GE corporate headquarters and presenting to Jack and his direct reports. I was waiting nervously outside the conference room when they called me in. As I entered, Jack immediately put his arm around me, and said: “Mike, great to see you again. How have you been?” as if we were good friends and he had been missing me. My nervousness immediately dissipated in the face of his warmth.
    • Friends from my GE days have been posting pictures of personal notes that they received from Jack, and I have a few of my own. It was always the highlight of the week or month to get a personal note from Jack— thanking me for this or that, encouraging me to continue in the direction that I was going. These notes were handwritten!
  • Devote as much time to leadership, in its broadest sense, as you do to everything else – program, fundraising, etc.
    • Jack was often quoted on his commitment to spending half of his time evaluating and allocating people and the other half of his time raising and allocating capital. In our leadership context, this means using half of your time to focus on feedback, performance management, succession planning, leadership and professional development, and everything else connected to supporting your organization’s people to do their best work.
    • When I was in charge of leadership and executive development for GE, Jack never missed an opportunity to come spend time with participants of those select development programs, and he would spend as much time asking questions to learn what people were thinking as he did responding to their questions.

I am proud of my years at GE, pleased with what I learned there about how to be an effective leader and grateful for having had Jack Welch as a role model. And, as with all role models, we need to take from them what works for us, what we believe makes sense and is right, and disregard the rest.