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Published: November 25, 2008

 
 

Best Business Books 2008: Rhetoric

But make no mistake: When he took over from the courtly and distinguished Reg Jones, Jack Welch understood that GE could not become the world-class com­pany he wanted unless he became a world-class communicator. Actions speak louder than words, but Welch knew what actions he wanted to take. What he needed were the right words to express and explain them inside GE and out. That’s where Lane came in.

Lane is an ex-Army officer who was neither intellectual wordsmith nor business brain. But he understood hierarchy, command, communications, clarity of expression, and leadership’s compulsion to control “the most important” message. He was clearly someone who knew how to run a briefing or a presentation for busy and impatient people. Lane became Welch’s chosen instrument not because he was as smart or insightful as his boss but because he was willing to empower the CEO to succeed on his own terms. For better and worse, Lane made it easier for Welch to express his authentic self. (That’s a luxury that Schlesinger’s ghosts rarely had amid the bureaucracy of the U.S. executive branch.)

What makes Lane’s book particularly valuable is its prescriptive descriptions of how Welch reengineered GE’s rhetoric to create internal alignment. What Lane describes goes far beyond “the CEO’s speech as rhetoric” into a realm in which Welch defined himself as both author and editor of every GE leadership theme that mattered. Lane documents how his CEO constantly revised the rhetoric of his followers — his direct reports and managers — to simultaneously scale and impose himself and his vision enterprise-wide. Aristotle would have been impressed.

GE watchers and Welch fans all fondly point to GE’s Crotonville, N.Y., training facility as the firm’s crucible for executive development. Although this is true, it misses Lane’s sharpest point. Jacked Up shows why communications and indoctrination matter as much as or more than mere executive education. Crotonville is where GE’s top talent came to get “on message” (that was Jack’s message) or to get out.

As Lane observes: “Crotonville really works for GE. The drama of a plant being stopped in its tracks based on the recommendations of a bunch of ‘students’ sent a message across the management of the company: ‘They listen to and act upon what we say, so we can’t get up there and bullshit....’”

And Welch himself is quoted as saying, “I want conclusions people can walk out the door with. Not a lot of details. What are the other companies doing? How fast are we going, in their opinion? Fast enough? Too fast? If not fast enough, how do we make it go faster? Where do we need more resources? Do we have the right people? What should specific strategies be? Do they think there is a serious enough commitment across the businesses? How important is it perceived in the organization? I want specific recommendations. Add an officer? Buy two companies? Name those companies.”

Straightforward. Direct. Clear. This was the rhetorical template Welch demanded throughout his com­pany. Performance mattered, but persuasively communicating the hows and whys of ingredients and investments that generated high performance was essential to the new GE. According to Lane, leaders who weren’t superlative presenters simply could not be leaders in Jack Welch’s GE. If you wanted a leadership future in GE, you had to have the ability to persuade Jack Welch.

Although several of Lane’s lessons are, frankly, communications clichés, how Welch’s leadership team reengineered the company around them is a compelling story. Their words were undeniably aligned with their actions.

From Aristotle on, this remains rhetoric’s greatest challenge and opportunity: How do leaders use language to persuade people to take action? How do actions illuminate and animate the words leaders choose to utter? Whether leaders write their own speeches, skillfully edit the prose that pops up on their laptops, or read whatever texts are projected on the teleprompters, the simple truth is that a “call to action” is supposed to result in action. As both this year’s best books on rhetoric persuasively illustrate, history judges whether the eloquence of the call matters more — or less — than the outcomes of the action. 

 
 
 
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