In 1963, Jack Welch accidentally blew up a factory at GE — and it taught him a lesson about leadership that’s stuck with him to this day

BusinessInsider

  • Jack Welch is the former CEO and chairman of General Electric.
  • Early on in his career there, he was a chemical engineer, and he accidentally blew up a factory.
  • When Welch met with a manager to discuss the situation, the manager coached him through the mistake and what he could have done differently.
  • In the years that followed, Welch treated his own employees the same way.

The first time Jack Welch met his boss’ boss’ boss, it wasn’t to talk about promotion opportunities or about anything impressive he’d done.

It was 1963, and Welch was a chemical engineer at General Electric, the company where he’d eventually become CEO and chairman.

The issue at hand? Welch had inadvertently blown up a factory. Fortunately, no one was killed.

Welch recounted the experience and what it taught him in an interview with Stephen Dubner on the Freakonomics podcast.

After the incident, Welch said, his direct boss “didn’t know me. He made sure he got away from me.”

Instead, Welch was sent from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to New York, to meet with the late Charlie Reed. Like Welch, Reed had a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.

As he drove down in his Volkswagen, Welch told Dubner, “I expected I might get fired.”

To Welch’s surprise, Reed “took me through the Socratic method. You know, ‘Why it happened? What would you do differently? Why did you do that? Why didn’t you do this?’ And he was coaching me, and it was — couldn’t be nicer.”

The meeting taught Welch an important leadership lesson: “Never kick anybody when they’re down. Kick them when they start to swell instead of grow, and whack ’em when that happens.”

  • Jack Welch is the former CEO and chairman of General Electric.
  • Early on in his career there, he was a chemical engineer, and he accidentally blew up a factory.
  • When Welch met with a manager to discuss the situation, the manager coached him through the mistake and what he could have done differently.
  • In the years that followed, Welch treated his own employees the same way.

 

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