Jacked Up: The Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company

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By Bill Lane
McGraw-Hill, 2008, 336 pages

English is a two-tier language, with a lofty Latinate vocabulary overlaid on an earthy, Anglo-Saxon base. For a manager, each of these layers of language has an essential role to play. When communicating “up” and requesting resources and support, the erudite, Latin-based layer lends an air of conceptual sophistication. When talking “down” for prompt commitment and action, only the Germanic layer will do.

Effective executives use both layers, but you would never know it from their writings, where they are usually on their best behavior and looking for resources and support rather than commitment. Bill Lane, Jack Welch’s speechwriter for 20 years, has done readers a service by revealing the plain, rough-spoken, Anglo-Saxon world that General Electric’s best-known CEO created. In Jacked Up: The Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company, he tells the tale of his relationship with Welch and how Lane helped Welch talk a great company into becoming even better. By the time Welch became CEO in 1981, he believed GE had become a place with too many high-flown visions, too much abstract planning, and too many “bullshit meetings.” The rhetorical component of his early “Neutron Jack” era was to do away with the vision “extravaganzas” in favor of “success stories with messages attached.” It is clear that he was ably assisted by Lane, whose combat experience in Vietnam stood him in good stead as the duo “cut through the crap.” The once hushed halls of the thickly carpeted GE executive suite became more like a war zone, with profanity ricocheting off the mahogany walls as vigorous disputes broke out be­tween the mercurial Welch and his like-minded colleagues on one side and their subordinates on the other.

It’s no surprise to learn that much of GE’s executive communication takes the form of presentations, but the extent of the presen­tation culture and the intensity with which presentations are prepared and rehearsed are eye-openers. Lane takes the opportunity to give the readers a number of pointers on how to create and deliver their own presentations: Keep them short, interesting, forthright, and candid, with a ruthless assessment of what worked and what didn’t. One question is, of course, if all the bosses right up to the top don’t practice these values, how realistic is it for you to do so? Lane tries to follow his own prescriptions in the book — with mixed results. The chapters are short, but there are 82 of them. At times the book rambles on and one wishes that the messages were more condensed, but ultimately the war stories about the dynamic Jack Welch are strong enough to carry this load.

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