There’s no pat formula to this CEO thing. Everyone does it differently, and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. I certainly don’t have a magic formula, but I’ll take a shot at sharing some of the ideas that worked for me. I hope some might be helpful. Pick and choose among them or just toss them all.
A freshman at a Fairfield University Business School forum asked me, “How can you be a good Catholic and a businessman at the same time?” I answered emphatically, “I am.”
The simple answer is: by maintaining integrity. Establishing it and never wavering from it supported everything I did through good and bad times. People may not have agreed with me on every issue—and I may not have been right all the time—but they always knew they were getting it straight and honest. It helped build better relationships with customers, suppliers, analysts, competitors and governments. It set the tone in the organization. Everybody has a view about a corporation’s role in society. I do too. I believe social responsibility begins with a strong and competitive company. Only a healthy enterprise can improve and enrich the lives of people and their communities.
When a company is strong, it not only pays taxes that provide for important services, it also builds world-class facilities that meet or exceed safety and environmental standards. Strong companies reinvest in their people and their facilities. Healthy companies provide good and secure jobs that give their employees the time, the spirit and the resources to give back to their communities a thousandfold.
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Weak and struggling companies, on the other hand, are often community liabilities. They have little or no profits and pay few, if any, taxes. They’re tempted to take short-cuts to save a buck—investing little in the development of their employees and workplaces. The constant threat of layoffs breeds insecurity and fear in employees whose worries about their future affect their ability to volunteer time and money to help others.
That’s why a CEO’s primary social responsibility is to assure the financial success of the company. Only a healthy, winning company has the resources and the capability to do the right thing.
The organization takes its cue from the person on top. I always told our business leaders their personal intensity determined their organization’s intensity. How hard they worked and how many people they touched would be emulated thousands of times over. The CEO sets the tone. Every day, I tried to get into the skin of every person in the place. I wanted them to feel my presence.
When I travelled to remote locations—Europe, Asia or wherever—the days were 16 hours long, allowing me to touch hundreds, if not thousands, of people. I didn’t want to be a picture in the annual report. I wanted to be someone whom everyone in General Electric Co. knew.
Getting every employee’s mind into the game is a huge part of what the CEO’s job is all about. Taking everyone’s best ideas and transferring them to others is the secret. There’s nothing more important. I tried to be a sponge, absorbing and questioning every good idea. The first step is being open to the best of what everyone, everywhere has to offer. The second is transferring that learning across the organization.
Getting the right people in the right jobs is a lot more important than developing a strategy. This truth applied to all kinds of businesses. I sat in rooms for years, looking at promising strategies that never delivered results. We had great plans for ultrasound, but we could never make them happen until we found the perfect person with ultrasound in his veins. We learnt the hard way that we could have the greatest strategies in the world. Without the right leaders developing and owning them, we’d get good-looking presentations and so-so results.
Arrogance is a killer and wearing ambition on one’s sleeve can have the same effect. There is a fine line between arrogance and self-confidence. Legitimate self-confidence is a winner. The true test of self-confidence is the courage to be open—to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source. Self-confident people aren’t afraid to have their views challenged. They relish the intellectual combat that enriches ideas. They determine the ultimate openness of an organization and its ability to learn. How do you find them? By seeking out people who are comfortable in their own skin—people who like who they are and are never afraid to show it.
Don’t ever compromise “being you” for any damn job in any institution.
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Adapted from Jack: Straight From the Gut ( Business Plus , 2001) by Jack Welch.