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Published: February 14, 2003


Noel M. Tichy: The Thought Leader Interview

TICHY: “Jack Welch is the greatest CEO GE has ever had” and “Jack Welch is an —

S+B: — Is an asshole.”

TICHY: That’s exactly how people were feeling. He’d only been there a few years. These were the “Neutron Jack” years, right? So I go into a group the next day after Welch has taught. Half the people hate him. Others love him. And I’m trying to teach leadership. I got slaughtered. I go to Jim Baughman, who was running Crotonville at the time, and he says, “Jack and I want to know whether you would consider leaving the University of Michigan and coming to run our center.” And I replied, “Jim, thanks, but no thanks. But tell me a little bit about what you have in mind.”

He said, “Well, Jack really wants to use this place to make change happen, and we want someone who is a change agent.” I said, “I’m going to INSEAD next year. Then I’ve got a U.S./Japan Fellowship.” But I thought about it. I started talking to people. I didn’t know Welch very well. What was his value system going to be? I talked to a lot of people who knew him, and to make a long story short, about six weeks later I’m picking up my family and moving to Old Greenwich.

S+B: That’s a big, sudden kind of change.

TICHY: I teach this when I do career planning. It’s called “planful opportunism.” The “planful” things you can do in life are know your skill set, know your values, know who you are. You don’t know when an opportunity is going to pop up. But if you’ve done your personal homework, you can make the yes/no decision quickly.

S+B: Crotonville is where many of your ideas about “teaching organizations” first gelled. Many executives have heard of “learning organizations,” but the teaching organization may be a new concept to them. How does it grow out of the earlier work?

TICHY: Here’s where I think the emphasis on the learning organization becomes limiting. I went through every sensitivity encounter group. And it’s nice, but it doesn’t get you a winning business. And if Digital Equipment — a great learning organization — goes bankrupt or gets sold to Compaq, what good have we done?

S+B: You believe there’s been an overemphasis on organizational values, to the exclusion of results?

TICHY: You need a performance/values matrix. Jeff Immelt says it very well: Performance, performance, and values. Without performance — I mean, that’s what the game is about. But it’s got to be values helping you to perform. Self-absorbed learning is different from taking my learning and feeling a sense of responsibility to bring it to you. You talk to a Navy Seal, one of the first things he does is teach his buddy because it will save his own life. I want that mentality. If I learn something about a customer, do I run back and teach people? Then can I do that on a large scale? That’s the trick.

S+B: You’re saying that the teaching organization is really the bridge between speed and scale, allowing a company to adapt continuously to changes in economies and markets, at the scale necessary to sustain a global enterprise.

TICHY: Exactly. Look at pure knowledge industries, which are selling nothing but people’s brains. For a consulting firm, or Microsoft, or any of these companies that are cutting-edge now, people need to be smarter every day. Well, what’s the mechanism for making you smarter? It’s some kind of interactive teaching. It’s as simple as that.

S+B: Before discussing who does the teaching, let’s talk about what gets taught. Teaching implies standards, beliefs, systems, a set of organizational goals that transcend individual goals. How do you balance this with the increasing trend toward “bottom-up” collaboration at companies?

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