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An Evening with John A. Byrne

Last night, Fast Company‘s editor in chief, John A. Byrne, met with about 100 members of the Philadelphia chapter of the Company of Friends and students at Drexel University‘s LeBow College of Business.

Last night, Fast Company‘s editor in chief, John A. Byrne, met with about 100 members of the Philadelphia chapter of the Company of Friends and students at Drexel University‘s LeBow College of Business. Over the course of two hours, John shared his vision for the magazine and what he learned while working with General Electric‘s former CEO, Jack Welch, on the book From the Gut. Here is a rough transcript of his talk:

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George Tsetsekos: Let me welcome you all today. My name is George Tsetsekos. I am the dean of the LeBow College of Business. We are very happy today that we share the co-sponsorship for this event with Fast Company‘s Company of Friends. LeBow has been very close to the local business community. This goes back to the traditional values of the college to educate the future leaders for area businesses. This also goes back to the fact that we strive for quality. We were recently ranked by the Financial Times as one of the top executive MBA programs in the world. We ranked #30 domestically, #56 globally, and #1 in terms of career progression. I am very, very happy about that. Congratulations also to David Wells, who has helped make that happen. Today, the floor is here with the Fast Company people and the outstanding speaker that we have. This is going to be an outstanding discussion and presentation.

Andrew Carr: Valeria Maltoni, who runs the Philadelphia chapter of the Company of Friends, fell ill tonight and couldn’t be here, so she asked me to say a few words. I’ve been with the Philadelphia chapter for four years. Its members are 200 of the most innovative people in local business. Most of us went to business school, but even those who didn’t bring good ideas and experiences. Before I introduce John, let me thank Radek Koslowski from the Company of Friends and Joe Lisello from LeBow. Mr. Byrne.

John Byrne: I know we have two audiences here tonight: MBA students and Company of Friends members. I’m going to try to appeal to both of you, and I might seem schizophrenic. So be it. I’m going to talk about two journeys. The journey of how I came to Fast Company and the journey of working on a book with Jack Welch. I think they intersect in some interesting ways.

Ten years ago, two men came to New York. Their names were Bill Taylor and Alan Webber. They had a dream that was pretty unusual. That dream was to create a magazine that connected with readers in ways that magazines don’t usually connect with readers. They wanted to connect with readers through their hearts, souls, and minds. They had been editors at the Harvard Business Review, and they came to Businessweek to see if they could lure me away. They wanted to give people tools to work smarter and lead better. They wanted to appeal to your minds by sharing ideas that weren’t being addressed otherwise. They wanted to connect with your heart because they believed that work was truly personal. And they wanted to give people tools they could use.

I probably made the wrong decision when I decided to stay at Businessweek. In eight years, Fast Company became the fastest-growing business magazine in history. It stood for something more than reporting news, giving opinions, and offering analysis.

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Here’s what it stands for. There is no greater power in the world than the force of a terrific idea. Fast Company believes that work is the ultimate expression of who we are. Work is not a 9-5 pursuit. It should be an extension of us. Leadership should be inspirational and not dogmatic. Organizations should be meritocracies. And the magazine believes that businesses have more responsibilities than increasing shareholder value.

That’s what we’re about. That informs the journalism in the magazine and makes us different than Fortune, Forbes, and Businessweek. Six months ago, when Bill and Alan came back around and asked me if I wanted to join as editor, I thought long and hard about it. I decided that I could reinvent the magazine for a more serious and sober time — and deliver on the promise we’ve made to readers.

Since I’ve come on board, if you’re a longtime loyalist and reader of the magazine, you might feel lost in it. Still, I hope that when you open the magazine, you feel the passion, belief, and enthusiasm that I and my staff have in the magazine. This is personal. We are reinventing the magazine. It needs reinvention. Yet I believe in the principles that Bill and Alan had when they launched this thing.

And I think I came incredibly prepared for this job because I’d gone through boot camp working for one of the most demanding leaders in the world: Jack Welch. You might not like Jack Welch. There’s a lot not to like about Jack Welch. But no one can deny that he is one of the most extraordinary leaders ever. Having spent more than 1,000 hours with him over our relationship, I learned a lot. My entire career has been spent studying leaders and organizations and how leaders make things happen. All around us, organizations conspire to suppress your passion and dampen your enthusiasm.

That’s why the Jack Welch story is so incredible to me. Here was a guy who was entirely out of the mold — the son of a railroad worker; his mother couldn’t read — and he went into that company and made things happen. We’re more likely to make fun of Jack Welch in the pages of Fast Company than hold him up as a role model, but he’s an incredible guy.

When I first started working on the book with Jack Welch, they were taking bets over how long I would last. Two years before, they’d gone through 98 drafts of an annual report before taking it off the press and doing 108 rewrites. Do you know what that means for someone who is going to write a book with this guy? It means I was going to go through hell — and back. That’s why I’m well prepared for this job.

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During my 1,000 hours with him, here’s the person I saw and what I learned about leadership. I learned that you cannot be successful in life if you do not have an extraordinary focus on people. You can not create anything that will endure without the support of people who work on your behalf to get things done. How do you focus on people in a way that clears the crap out? Here’s what I saw in Welch. I saw a teacher, a mentor, and a relentlessly demanding boss. I saw a man who could just as easily praise you, hug you, and kiss you on the cheek — and just as easily tell you you were full of shit without any problem. I saw a person who spent 60% of his time with the people in his organization, another 30% on his customers, and another 10% on the crap you have to deal with when you lead anything.

Once a month, he would take an afternoon to teach a class. Once a month for 20 years. Then he’d go drinking for the people from General Electric. Think about what happens when those filters are taken away. In the class, he’d ask people to critique him and critique the organization. He wanted to clear away the crap.

He was an incredible mentor to thousands of people in the organization. What’s one example of that? A handwritten personal note. Those notes are a badge of honor. They’re written every day and used as a personal motivator. It’s amazing what a personal note can do. We live in an email world. It can get pretty impersonal. But when you get a personal note from the leader of an organization with 380,000 people, that means a lot.

Something else that was important was selective interventions, what Jack called deep dives. Two months before he was set to retire from General Electric, he had a team come to New York from Louisville to show him the storyboards for an advertisement for a refrigerator. Two months before his retirement, he was looking at storyboards to sell a refrigerator. Two weeks later, they came back to New York with new storyboards. Can you believe that?

There’s a story about when he was making a visit to a customer. A customer in the healthcare industry told him that the bulb in GE X-ray machines didn’t last as long as those offered by a competitor. He brought in an engineer from France to work on that. Every week, this guy would send an email report on his progress. Jack would respond four layers below. Sometimes the notes said, “Too French. Too slow. Move faster.” And sometimes they’d say, “I love what you’re doing. Good job.” Now GE’s X-ray bulbs last 4-5 times longer than those offered by competitors.

When Jack did that, people didn’t feel like he was micromanaging. They felt that he was committed fully to their work — and that their work was important. Welch became Jack to those people, and those stories would reverberate throughout the organization.

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The other thing I saw about Jack that was remarkable was passion. I love passion. I’m glad I work for a magazine about people who have passion. I hate people who don’t care. And that’s what Jack was all about: Passion. You could walk into a room and feel the energy. Passion was what Jack Welch is all about. It’s why two months before retirement he’s looking at refrigerator ads. It’s why every Friday he replies to an email memo. It’s why he took the afternoon to teach a leadership class every month for 20 years.

Another thing I saw with Jack was a terrific ability to communicate. He was able to take complex ideas and communicate them in simple ways through an entire organization. We’re going to be #1 or 2 in a market. If we’re not #1 or 2, we’re going to fix it or close it. Simple as that. Simple, clear, perfect. That’s what strategy should be.

I mentioned his incredible focus on people. He had high demands of his people, and they had high demands of him. Every year, he’d have his managers rank their leaders from top to bottom. And every year, he’d let go the bottom 10%. We’re going to do that year after year. And every year the bar would get higher. Pretty draconian, huh? But think about it. Business is about performance. Business is about getting things done. The people who are the players — who get things done — should be hugged and rewarded. Those who don’t should go somewhere else.

There are a lot of cultures that don’t promote that. There are a lot of cultures where performance is rewarded. That happened to Jack Nassar at Ford Motor. He tried to do that at Ford Motor, and people brought in lawsuits. Why? Ford Motor is not a high-performance culture. You can’t impose a system like that on a culture that won’t accept it.

One of the exercises I did when working on the book was watch video tape of Jack Welch over 20 years. God, was that awful. But it was interesting how from year 1 to 5 to 10 to 20, the overall messages were basically the same. The tactics may have been different, but it was the same thing again and again and again.

The people from Fast Company will tell you I’m not Jack Welch. I’m too mellow. I’m too much of a softie. And I don’t believe of letting go the bottom 10% of my staff. But the truth of the matter is it never really happened at GE. Jack Welch knew that he needed to take extreme positions. He knew that if he didn’t ask for 10, he wouldn’t get 5. When someone says that they can’t do something and you know that they can, you need to challenge them. You need to help them get there, sure.

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That’s part of my job. At the magazine, we have horrible IT support. We’d just moved to New York. We’re closing an issue of the magazine. And the system crashed. It’s 9 o’clock at night. There was no support number to call. None. The next day, I had the IT guy in my office and said, “I want your home phone number.” He says, “I don’t give out my home phone number.” I said, “Bad answer. See those people out there? If they need coffee, I’ll get coffee for them. My job is to do everything I can do to help those people do what they need to do. That’s your job, too.” He gave me his home phone number right away.

Question: In the book, you talk about superficial congeniality. Could you talk about that?

John: Generally, people are not confrontational. We hate confrontation. In organizations, when people disagree, you smile, you turn the other way. But at the same time, you’re undermining them. That plays out in organizations and in life all the time. Let me ask a question: How many of you really believe they’ve had a truly honest, fair, candid performance appraisal? Maybe a dozen people? What is that, 5-8% of the group? We’re not honest with people because we’re superficially congenial. Confrontation and discomfort are necessities of life. There’s some value in that, but it needs to occur in a culture where that’s the norm. Otherwise, it’s impossible.

Question: A lot of management books and courses focus on being a leader and inspiring people. But everyone’s accountable to someone. Jack had the board of directors. Not everyone’s at the top. People end up motivating up as well as to the side. How did Jack motivate the board?

John: I think it comes down to engagement and communication. The more you let people know what you do and the more you engage them, even if their opinions aren’t important, it brings them into your circle so your work is important. That’s what Jack did. He consulted the customers. He created a safe place for them to say bad things. That’s the job of the writer, really. My job is to make you feel comfortable so you can be honest. You can’t just listen and not act, though. There has to be some action that shows that you listened.

One of the things that distinguishes our magazine is that even if we’re doing just a great story, we bring out the actual actionable takeaways that you can act on immediately that same day. Our magazine is also about different perspectives. If you read our magazine, you’re going to learn about what a dance choreographer has to say about creativity: Twyla Tharp. When you read the magazine, you’ll read about a football coach who’s outgunned but hasn’t lost a game in 11 years. We’ll interview a rock band, Fountains of Wayne, which just came out with an album about work and management and ask them what they think. That’s where great ideas come from.