Jack and Suzy Welch: Why Strong Leadership Is about Truth and Trust


Jack and Suzy Welch are one of the business world’s iconic power couples: He was the longtime CEO of GE. She was a business journalist and served as editor of the Harvard Business Review. Together, they wrote the bestseller Winning. In a recent interview on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111, the Welches talked about the economy, careers, leadership, and their new book, The Real Life MBA: Your No BS Guide to Winning the Game, Building a Team and Growing Your Career.

Listen to the full interview above, and read an edited transcript of the conversation below.

Knowledge@Wharton: As somebody from a blue-collar background, I had a lot of fun going through this book. I enjoy books talking about how people can really get a handle on their lives, and that seems to be a lot of what you guys talked about.

Suzy Welch: Well, the book has three parts. The first part is about winning the game — winning at strategy, and figuring out how to get your company aligned. The second part of the book is about building a great team — we call it a “WOW Team” — taking into account all the different types of managers, all the types of employees that exist in the world today. And the third part is all about growing a great career. And that’s hard these days. I mean, it’s [getting] harder and harder. So, you’re right, we do cover the real-life aspects of working and coming at it from three different angles.

Knowledge@Wharton: It’s a much different economy now than it was in 2007. What’s the biggest mistake you think companies are making today?

Jack Welch: Well, it’s tough out there. And the big deal out there is engagement. Are employees being engaged? So, from two standpoints, this book tries to deal with the employee — how they can become more engaged? And the manager — how they can get the employee more engaged? Gallup just came out with this month’s poll, [and it’s] pretty consistent with the last three or four years since the recession: Only 35% of the people polled feel they’re engaged at work. Imagine going into a game with 65% of your team not turning on to play. It’s a big problem.

Knowledge@Wharton: It seems as though there has been a bit of a fundamental shift — and maybe it’s in some respects, generational with more millennials getting into the work force — that companies understand that the people you have are even more valuable now than they were 20 years ago. You don’t want to lose them. You don’t want to have to spend all the time at HR and rehire people and fill slots and take all that time. It just drags down the company.

Suzy Welch: And yet at the same time, the people at work have seen their jobs pulled out from underneath them since the 2008 recession. They’ve just seen layoffs and down-sizings. They’ve seen whole industries shut down because of fundamental technology changes. So, it’s true, companies do understand how valuable these great people are. But at the same time, individuals are saying, ‘I’m not going to be at any company forever. I’m my own brand. I’m my own business. And I’m going to go where the going’s good.’

Jack Welch: People want meaning in their work. They spend all their time at their work and they want to have purpose for it. And they want to know what’s in it for them.

Knowledge@Wharton: You published Winning about a decade ago, and since then, you’ve been doing a variety of different things, going around the globe and having conversations, doing talks and conferences. You mentioned in the new book that the process has been an unbelievable learning experience for you.

Jack Welch: We’ve talked to over a million people in the last 10 years at differing locations around the world. And over and over again, we see frustrated workforces. And we see lack of engagement. We don’t see an alignment between coming to work, winning, and having fun. And we try in this book to look at it from two sides: the manager’s side and the employee’s side. We give an angle to each one to try and enhance the life experience at work.

Suzy Welch: And just get the fun back in work. Because if work’s not fun, then 40 hours a week, you’re just slogging away? That stinks.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the book, you say that people not only should find a job, they should find a job that they like, that they really love.

Suzy Welch: We call it more than that. We call it your area of destiny. We urge people to build their careers at that intersection of what they’re uniquely good at — some people are good at a lot of things, but you are uniquely good at something — and what you love to do. And if you can identify those two things and you can say, OK, what’s at the intersection of them, then you’re in your area of destiny. If you’re not working there, you’ve got to work your way towards there. Otherwise, it’s really a grind.

Knowledge@Wharton: You two have done a lot of Q&As with various companies and various organizations, especially over the last decade. Are people in general feeling a little bit better now than they did back in 2007?

Jack Welch: 2007, no. 2008, yes. And from the beginning to now, there’s a little better feeling. The problem is, that managers still are not transparent enough in today’s world.

So, when we ask people in an audience, “How many of you know where you stand, where do you fit in your company, where are you — what’s your trajectory forecast to be?”, [the answer we get is]: I don’t know. And when asked to raise their hands in an audience of thousands, you don’t get 10% or 15% who say they know where they stand. They don’t. Unless an employee knows where they’re going, it’s a tough way to spend the day.

Knowledge@Wharton: If you don’t have that knowledge — and part of it is the transparency issue – plus a passion for what you do, you can go through life just slogging away and not enjoying it.

Suzy Welch: It stinks. And it happens just way too often. But that’s why it’s imperative for you as an individual to identify your area of destiny and to work there. And if you’re not in it, go find it and live in it. And that’s why it’s imperative for people who lead teams — [whether the] team has three people, 30 people, 300,000 people, it doesn’t make any difference — it’s your job as a leader to tell people where they stand so they know if they’re doing great or if they need to change in some ways or if they need to find other work. The fact that people sort of sleepwalk through their jobs is just criminal.

Knowledge@Wharton: And a lot of that now really does fall on the C-suite, even more so today than ever. I’m not sure what it was like back in your day, but could the CEOs , CFOs and such essentially hold themselves separate from the guts of the operation?

Jack Welch: No. No, no, no. It’s even more so today. I agree. But the winning companies back in those days, [the executives] had their hands dirty, were in there, were transparent, let everybody know where they stood.

Knowledge@Wharton: Was that your key?

Jack Welch: That’s my whole philosophy. Every quarter I sat down and said, “Here’s what I like about what you’re doing. And here’s what you need to improve.” Little card, hand-written, four times a year.

“It used to be you rose up through the ranks, and by the time you got a job as a boss, you had done the work of everybody beneath you….”–Suzy Welch

Knowledge@Wharton: That’s fantastic.

Jack Welch: Yup.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why have we lost that?

Jack Welch: We haven’t lost it. Technology has not done us a lot of favors in terms of socialization. It’s done a lot of favors in terms of speed and some other areas, but the human equation’s a little less.

Suzy Welch: And upwards of 35% or people work remotely now, [some or all of the time]. You used to sort of know where you stood. If your boss wasn’t telling you in a structured way, the way Jack suggests they do, you at least could pick up a little bit about how you were doing by seeing your boss every day … [making] eye contact, [thinking about the] number of times you met and chatted. Now, everything’s email.

Jack Welch: Suzy, why don’t you talk a little bit about the chapter where we deal with the new workforce, for example? People are out there dealing with new types of work.

Suzy Welch: We have a chapter in the book that’s called “Geniuses, Tramps and Thieves.” It’s a takeoff on the Cher song.… It’s Sonny and Cher, [and] it was “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” But in the last 10 years, there’s been three different kinds of worker groups that have really emerged. And geniuses — what we mean by that is people whose work you don’t understand. I mean, it used to be you rose up through the ranks, and by the time you got a job as a boss, you had done the work of everybody beneath you. As a reporter, I became an editor. I’d done the work when I was running a magazine, done the work of everybody who worked for me.

But now, you can come in from business school or whatever, and you could be running a business with a hundred coders and have absolutely no idea what those coders do. Or the financial geniuses. But it’s really important that you are able to manage them, because otherwise the inmates can start to run the asylum, and the customer will suffer, and the company would suffer.

Jack Welch: We had an interesting experience with this. We were in California and our daughter had a problem with her iPhone. So we took her into the [Apple] Store. And we’re standing around the store waiting while they were fixing it, and talking to a kid who ran it with 20 to 30 … “geniuses” in the back room. And we said to him, “What’s your background?” [He said,] “Well, I have a BA from Cal-Berkley.” How do you manage these guys? He says, “I don’t know what the hell they do back there, but I do know one thing — I know how the customer feels when they bring the product back out again. I’m all into one measurement: Are they happy? Did they get it fixed? And they get it fixed quickly.” So, you’ve got to manage outputs, not manage how they’re doing that when you’re managing that type of workforce.

Suzy Welch: It’s actually sort of an upside, because really managing outputs is what it’s all about. Why should you be in there doing their job for them? He did talk about the importance also of knowing them as human beings — so that you could make sure that they were sharing values around how the work was done.

Every quarter I sat down and said, ‘Here’s what I like about what you’re doing. And here’s what you need to improve.’ Little card, hand-written, four times a year.”–Jack Welch

The second group that we write about is — we call them “tramps,” but it is this group of people who are not working where you are. There are whole companies now where everybody is remote. Our son is applying for a job where actually they boast on the website that everybody just works from home. This is a company with 190 employees.

How do you manage them so that you become greater than the sum of your parts? How do you make that a real team? And a lot of that socialization, ironically — or paradoxically, I should say — is actually helped by technology, because all you’ve got is technology to bring you close with these individuals sometimes.

And then the third [category] — the “thieves.” We’re not talking about the people who actually steal from you or are ethically bad — [that group’s] pretty small, and we talk about to handle them in another part of the book. But this is about the biggest thief of all in business today, and that’s fear. Fear that you’re going to lose your job. Fear that they’re not telling you something. Fear that you don’t know where you stand. [And anything] that puts that kind of fear in you.

Jack Welch: Technology’s going to overtake you.

Suzy Welch: Right. Your job’s going to be obsolete. Your industry’s going to fall apart. Just fear — and you’ve got to manage fear.

Knowledge@Wharton: That’s where the line between passion and fear plays in, because if you’re passionate about your job, you’re going to probably look to do things within the company that maybe you normally might not do. And to have that fear come in behind you as well, it can come back to bite you if you’re not careful.

Suzy Welch: Absolutely. I mean, I think that fear can be both healthy and unhealthy. Sometimes fear is good. Jack talks a lot in the book about how paranoia — but you’re talking strategically and competitively — that fear of competitors is absolutely essential.

Jack Welch: And getting your organization outside itself, outside internal politics, outside of what we’re doing and looking at what the competition’s doing is absolutely critical. So, laying out the playing field today and what it might look like tomorrow is a war game you’ve got to keep playing.

Suzy Welch: In that context, fear is great. But the kind of fear that makes people incredibly unproductive at work because they’re staring at their navel wondering what’s next and moaning and groaning — that’s the unhealthy fear.

Knowledge@Wharton: So for these corporations that are have a large number of their employees working remotely, or in widely separated offices — and obviously for many companies, that’s a necessity — how should they adjust?

Jack Welch: Well, my school — the Jack Welch Management System — is 100% online. We have 900 MBAs. And we’ve got people all over the globe taking our courses to get an MBA. And our faculty is remote. So, we have to [adapt]. We talk in the book a lot about how you engage remote people. How do you make them feel part of the organization? You can’t let them float out in the ether.

And you’ve got to make them really feel like they’re bonded with you.

Suzy Welch: It’s hard, and it’s time consuming.

Jack Welch: [But it] must be done.

Suzy Welch: And you cannot let it go to chance. You can’t sort of let it be happenstance. I mean, really push hard for it being a discipline. We talk about different techniques for making it happen.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s talk about Strayer, the management institute that you guys are involved with. You both talk about branding and having a brand. How do your personal brands — your history, background, etc. — benefit you in that arena?

Jack Welch: It’s been an enormous benefit. I’ve been fortunate that way. We’re growing 40% a year. Our graduates — 65% of them are being promoted while they’re in school. And these are 38-year-old people. They’re not people that are just fresh out of college, going to graduate school. These are people at mid-career. We’re changing lives. And it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.

Knowledge@Wharton: How important is it to have this vehicle for education available online, compared to the option of getting an MBA on a campus, for example here at Wharton, or at Harvard or elsewhere?

Suzy Welch: We’re just talking about such different demographics. I mean, if you’ve worked for two years at a consulting firm and your parents can afford to send you to a beautiful, leafy business school where you’ve stopped your life for two years, then go. More power to you. If you’ve got that flexibility, great. But if you are a person who has been working for 15 years and you need an MBA because you’re told you need one, or you realize you don’t have that 360[-degree] mindset, then education needs to provide a different model for those individuals. And it is [providing one] with online [options]. That’s what’s coming. It’s going to blow up the old models or exist alongside them.

Jack Welch: You can’t believe what’s happening. It’s so good to see these people grow. It’s a fabulous experience.

“We call it your area of destiny. We urge people to build their careers at that intersection of what they’re uniquely good at … and what you love to do….”–Suzy Welch

Knowledge@Wharton: It’s funny because in some cases flexibility has been seen as a negative — when you have the flexibility of time and being able to work from home — but in this case, flexibility ends up being an unbelievable benefit.

Jack Welch: Every now and then, we say let’s have a meeting and bring everybody in and we’ll have a socialization three days. And people say, “No, the reason we signed up for this school is we wanted to be …”

Jack and Suzy Welch: Asynchronous.

Jack Welch: We want to be able to live our lives, because it’s hard. They’re spending 10 hours a course at night a week — after their job.

Knowledge@Wharton: Could you have seen yourself being tied to a project like this when you were running GE?

Jack Welch: No, but I loved teaching at GE. And I taught every class for 21 years.

Suzy Welch: At Crotonville.

Jack Welch: At Crotonville School [GE’s Management Development Institute]. I love education in that respect. But when we started this online, we had no idea how contagious this thing is.

Suzy Welch: We tiptoed into it. We were approached by some people who said, ”Hey, how about an online business school?” And we were like, “Uhhh….” We actually said no for two years, I think. And they kept on coming back saying, “This is where education is going.”

And then, once Jack began to see how it could transform lives and just all its potential, he went in hands, foot, head, body, jumped in full, covered with mud, and he’s all in.

Knowledge@Wharton: Wharton actually is doing something with Coursera — a company that helps universities offer massive open online courses — where they are providing educational content for Jet Blue passengers.

Jack Welch: You don’t get a degree.

Suzy Welch: But, you know what? That fills another niche. It’s another niche. Power to them.

Jack Welch: But people, unfortunately, need [to earn] a credential. And these courses have a certain half-life.

Knowledge@Wharton: And having that credential, the proof that they’ve done the work, that continues to be an important piece of the puzzle. That’s not going to change.

Jack Welch: No.

Suzy Welch: Some people need a credential. But those courses on the plane, that’s great for people who are just hungry learners — that percentage of the population. It’s wonderful. You take a plane ride and instead of watching “Game of Thrones” for the third time, you learn something you’ve always wanted to learn. I think that’s awesome.

Knowledge@Wharton: What was the enjoyment in terms of just writing the book?

Jack Welch: Well, let me just start out by saying we had a million people’s input.… We had 10 years of knowledge, through a cycle. I’ve got private equity, she’s got a lot of speaking tours and stuff.

Suzy Welch: And we interviewed so many people.

Jack Welch: And we think we can help a lot of people with this book, enrich their lives and their work careers. And so, it’s something we like to do. We like to write.

Suzy Welch: Look, we enjoy the process. You know, we wrote Winning together 10 years ago so, we had invented [our] process back 10 years ago. And then we wrote columns for BusinessWeek together for five years. So, we had a process. But no one ever finishes a book and says, ”Gee, that was easier than I thought.” So when you’re writing a book with someone else, you can sort of double that.

We have a process. We talk and talk and talk. We talk day and night. We talk when we wake up. We talk when we go to bed. And then I write, and Jack edits, and we go back and forth, 30, 40 times. I’m not kidding, 50 times. Obviously we like it or we wouldn’t keep doing it. Are we happy we’re done writing the book? Yes, we’re very happy we’re done writing the book.

Jack Welch: But we like book tours.

Suzy Welch: The book tour is a blast. Because we like people.

Knowledge@Wharton: Suzy, what’s the best thing you’ve learned from Jack so far?

Suzy Welch: I have learned everything from him so far. I think that he’s a great leader and he’s made me a better manager. I think when Jack met me, he lovingly called me the worst manager in the world, which is not far from the truth.

“You’ve got to get truth in your company…. You’ll only get that if people trust you, if you’ve been authentic, if they know you have their back.”–Jack Welch

Knowledge@Wharton: Did you sleep on the sofa that night when you said that?

Jack Welch: No, we have constructive criticism.

Suzy Welch: I was terrible. I was a good writer and editor. I did manage a large team. And when he would hear of the ways I would manage it, he would comment [that] along with me being the worst putter in the world, that I was the worst manager in the world. And so I’ve gotten better at both. I’ve gotten better at both. And with his guidance and his instruction and his example.

Knowledge@Wharton: Jack, what’s the best thing you’ve learned from her?

Jack Welch: She tries to filter me — and she does an effective job of it. There’s a saying: The only people you want to listen to in life are people under seven and over 70.” ‘Cause they’ve lost their filters. One doesn’t have [any], and the other one’s lost [theirs].

So, I think she’s a great guide post and she’s so damned smart.

Suzy Welch: I just want to say for the record, I prefer to call my filtering work “editing.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Beyond the book tour, what’s next for you guys?

Suzy Welch: We can’t think that far ahead. [But] I know Jack, Jack’s going to keep growing his school.

Jack Welch: The school is the focus of my life. And both of us are in both ways on it. And we’re going to make a great, great school out of that. That turn on of seeing these graduates that we saw….

Suzy Welch: The one thing we’re not going to do is, we’re not going to retire. I mean, technically Jack could be — Jack retired. And then I got fired when he retired because I ran off with him. So, we’re both sort of technically retired. But we just like to — we’re just people who just don’t sit still. So, who knows what it will be?

Knowledge@Wharton: As a gentleman who led GE for a couple of decades: Leaders today — what are they still missing?

Jack Welch: Look, I think the leadership today — let’s be clear — is so good compared to what it was in my time. People are much more engaged. People are more involved. The process is so much better. And in my day, in my early days in particular, it was briefing books, fat offices. And today it’s not that way. It’s more hands-on, get it done. And there are so many leaders, whether it be Kevin Plank, Jeff Bezos, you pick them. They’re all over the place.

Suzy Welch: Also, there’s a higher cultural value on leaders being authentic. And so, I do think there’s more authenticity. People do bring more of their whole selves to work. But there’s never enough of it.

Knowledge@Wharton: You have to be authentic because people all the way down the food chain in the corporation see when you’re not.

Suzy Welch: Yeah.

Knowledge@Wharton: And that’s that motivation that builds a company, is it?

Jack Welch: Absolutely. Well, in this book, we have what Leadership 2.0 is all about. It distills down to two words — truth and trust.  Twitter You’ve got to get truth in your company. And you’ve got to get rid of the spin and all that. You’ll only get that if people trust you, if you’ve been authentic, if they know you have their back — all of these things. So, it’s so critical to get truth and trust because truth and trust provide a highly motivated team and winning team.

Knowledge@Wharton: I did want to ask you about the GE Capital spinoff…

Jack Welch: Please. What did you say about it? I’m curious.

Knowledge@Wharton: Well, we talked about whether or not it was a surprise or not for it to happen. And the consensus was that maybe the timing was a surprise but the end result probably was not a surprise. The fact that because of how the economy was changed, about how the country — the way it’s set up right now, it’s a lot harder to run a financial services company than it was a few years ago.

Jack Welch: Two words – Dodd-Frank.

Knowledge@Wharton: OK, yeah. Those have been two pretty strong words lately.

Jack Welch: So, you’ve got regulation now coming [down] on this business. You can’t leverage it. It’s a different business. I think it was a brilliant move. Whether you can pick a week earlier, a week later, who knows? But the facts are this was a smart move because of a lot of cash. And it goes back to what we focused on for years.

Knowledge@Wharton: Yeah. And GE’s health care obviously still ends up being an unbelievable, profitable and important piece to this whole puzzle still, as does its energy-related business.

Jack Welch: Power systems. Yes. And aircraft engines. Enormously powerful.

Knowledge@Wharton: So, those pieces as their own entity can still really carry a lot of the weight for GE because the profit numbers, the revenue numbers were off the charts. When you go back eight years for GE Capital, it was, what, almost 50% of the revenue?

Jack Welch: Well, got it up to 50% in 2007. And when we left it was 40%. So, it was a beautiful business. So was the buggy whip, at one time.

Knowledge@Wharton: We go out to Lancaster, Pa., we’ll see a few of those.

Suzy Welch: I know, right.

Jack Welch: Times change.

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