Women, Welch Clash at Forum. By John Bussey
Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2012, page B1
Is Jack Welch a timeless seer or an out-of-touch warhorse?
The former Master and Commander of General Electric still writes widely on business strategy. He's also influential on the speaking circuit.
On Wednesday, Mr. Welch and his wife and writing partner, Suzy Welch, told a gathering of women executives from a range of industries that, in matters of career track, it is results and performance that chart the way. Programs promoting diversity, mentorships and affinity groups may or may not be good, but they are not how women get ahead. "Over deliver," Mr. Welch advised. "Performance is it!"
Angry murmurs ran through the crowd. The speakers asked: Were there any questions?
"We're regaining our consciousness," one woman executive shot back.
Mr. Welch had walked into a spinning turbine fan blade.
"Of course women need to perform to advance," Alison Quirk, an executive vice president at the investment firm State Street Corp., said later. "But we can all do more to help people understand their unconscious biases."
"He showed no recognition that the culture shapes the performance metrics, and the culture is that of white men," another executive said.
Academy Award winning actor Geena Davis talks about the perception of women as seen in the media and about what has and has not changed in the past sixty years.
Dee Dee Myers, a former White House press secretary who is now with Glover Park Group, a communications firm, added: "While he seemed to acknowledge the value of a diverse workforce, he didn't seem to think it was necessary to develop strategies for getting there—and especially for taking a cold, hard look at some of the subtle barriers to women's advancement that still exist. If objective performance measures were enough, more than a handful of Fortune 500 senior executives would already be women. "
"This meritocracy fiction may be the single biggest obstacle to women's advancement," added Lisa Levey, a consultant who heard Mr. Welch speak.
Mr. Welch has sparked controversy in the past with his view of the workplace. In 2009, he told a group of human-resources managers: "There's no such thing as work-life balance." Instead, "there are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences." Step out of the arena to raise kids, and don't be surprised if the promotion passes you by.
Of the Fortune 500 companies, only 3% have a female CEO today. Female board membership is similarly spare. A survey of 60 major companies by McKinsey shows women occupying 53% of entry-level positions, 40% of manager positions, and only 19% of C-suite jobs.
The reasons for this are complex and aren't always about child rearing. A separate McKinsey survey showed that among women who have already reached the status of successful executive, 59% don't aspire to one of the top jobs. The majority of these women have already had children.
"Their work ethic—these people are doing it all," said Dominic Barton of McKinsey. "They say, 'I'm the person turning off the lights'" at the end of the day.
Instead, Mr. Barton said, it's "the soft stuff, the culture" that's shaping their career decisions.
The group of women executives who wrestled with Mr. Welch were at a conference on Women in the Economy held by The Wall Street Journal this week. Among other things, they tackled the culture questions—devising strategies to get more high-performing women to the top, keep women on track during childbearing years, address bias, and make the goals of diversity motivating to employees. They also discussed the sexual harassment some women still experience in the workplace. (A report on the group's findings will be published in the Journal Monday.)
The realm of the "soft stuff" may not be Mr. Welch's favored zone. During his remarks, he referred to human resources as "the H.R. teams that are out there, most of them for birthdays and picnics." He mentioned a women's forum inside GE that he says attracted 500 participants. "The best of the women would come to me and say, 'I don't want to be in a special group. I'm not in the victim's unit. I'm a star. I want to be compared with the best of your best.'"
And then he addressed the audience: "Stop lying about it. It's true. Great women get upset about getting into the victim's unit."
Individual mentoring programs, meanwhile, are "one of the worst ideas that ever came along," he said. "You should see everyone as a mentor."
He had this advice for women who want to get ahead: Grab tough assignments to prove yourself, get line experience, and embrace serious performance reviews and the coaching inherent in them.
"Without a rigorous appraisal system, without you knowing where you stand...and how you can improve, none of these 'help' programs that were up there are going to be worth much to you," he said. Mr. Welch said later that the appraisal "is the best way to attack bias" because the facts go into the document, which both parties have to sign.
Mr. Welch championed the business philosophy of "Six Sigma" at GE, a strategy that seeks to expunge defects from production through constant review and improvement. It appears to work with machines and business processes.
But applying that clinical procedure to the human character, as Mr. Welch seems to want to do, is a stickier proposition.
"His advice was not tailored to how women can attain parity in today's male-dominated workplace," said one female board member of a Fortune 500 company. Indeed, a couple of women walked out in frustration during his presentation.