Written by: John Byrne
Source: This article was originally published on Poets&Quants
Within days of Jack Welch’s death on March 1, the emails and phone calls began pouring into the Jack Welch Management Institute. The heartfelt tributes, often highly personal and detailing the impact the legendary ex-Chairman and CEO of General Electric had on people, came in the hundreds, largely from students and alumni who were drawn to his teachings on leadership and management.
“Jack was more than a businessman, more than a teacher, a mentor or an adviser,” wrote Danette Hilton, a manager at Intel who earned her MBA from JWMI two years ago. “My story is not far from many of the others that have come to JWMI and for a brief time and allowed Jack to touch their lives, careers and advise them. A great mentor has moved from a physical presence to that of eternal life, but the Jack Welch legacy will live on.”
“You taught me what a leader was and how to be an effective one!,” added Jose Gamez, a marketing brand manager in healthcare who earned his MBA in 2014 from JWMI. Gamez recalled that when he first met Welch at the end of 2014, “you knew my name and called out some of my accomplishments during your talk to students and faculty, I was flabbergasted. Alas, it was another lesson you taught me to praise your people in public! Your spirit will always continue to live inside of me Jack.”
“The Jack Welch legacy is ours to carry on and I knew we will all carry on and make him proud.”
“The Jack Welch legacy is ours to carry on, and I know we will all carry on and make him proud,” wrote Kelly Abcarian, a general manager at Nielsen who graduated from JWMI in 2018. In her email to the leadership of Welch’s school, Abcarian went on to say she knew they were helping Welch to build a legacy. “I know how proud Jack was of his school and that was because he knew he had put the best players on the field, all of you.”
It is not typical for students and alumni to be so effusive in their praise nor is it entirely likely that many other MBAs have been profoundly touched by a single person who they largely met online, in videos and live-streamed lectures. But the online MBA program at JWMI is unique in teaching the fundamentals of management that made Welch a massive success. In the 20 years that he was CEO of General Electric, he and his team built the company’s market capitalization by more than $450 billion. In the process, Welch established himself as the most admired business leader in the world, dubbed the “Manager of the Century” by Fortune magazine.
The school is his legacy. From a standing part in the winter of 2012, the school has since grown to a current enrollment of some 2,000 students. The alumni base, moreover, is quickly approaching 5,000 graduates. The online MBA is not only one of the largest in the world by enrollment, but it is also the only highly ranked investor-owned program not administrated by a traditional university. In Poets&Quants ranking of online MBAs, the JWMI program is solidly in the top 25 at a rank of 23. But the school ranked first in several student satisfaction metrics, including students’ assessment of the “overall quality of professors,” “the accessibility of the faculty,” and “satisfaction with the opportunities to create connections with faculty.” JWMI also ranked second in alumni’s ability to immediately apply what they learn to their jobs and third in an evaluation of coaching and career support from the school.
“Will you let me run the school for you?”
For Welch, the institute and its curriculum were not a mere hobby or side venture. After the first term, Welch approached Robert Silberman, then CEO of Strayer Education, Inc., which has a 60% interest in JWMI with the remaining 40% now held by the Welch estate, with a surprising request. “Jack came to me and said, ‘I’ve got one more favor to ask you,’” recalls Silberman, now executive chair of Strategic Education, Inc. “‘Will you let me run the school for you?’ I said, ‘Is this an intelligence test because Jack it’s a tiny little thing.’
“And he said, ‘I really want to do it.’ So I said, ‘Great!’ We assigned some academic and operational leadership along with a governing board and for the last nine years, he did run it almost full-time. The amount of time he spent on that school was absolutely phenomenal. What that meant was he was able to handpick and hand mentor all the faculty, all the administrative staff and oversee the development of the curriculum.
“Even up until the end,” adds Silberman, “you didn’t teach at the Jack Welch Management Institute until you were interviewed by Jack. He would bring the faculty down to Palm Beach twice a year. They would have workshops and he would address them. It was just like what he would do at Crotonville (GE’s learning center). It was his thoughts about how to run a business and be a leader encapsulated in academic content. Over time, we put together thousands of hours of video with him and all his friends who worked for him and who are now CEOs of big companies. They teach all of the methodologies that he had come up with at GE. This is how you run an organization. This is how you think about leadership. This is how you think about decision making.”
“Jack would get reports three times a day. He was like a dog with a bone.”
Welch was always obsessive about metrics and he applied many of them, particularly measurements of student satisfaction, to the school. He was especially interested in net promoter scores, a metric that measures the percentage of customers who would recommend a product or service to their friends and relatives.
“Jack would get reports three times a day, literally morning, mid-day, and evening. He loved the details. It didn’t matter to him how many zeros were after it. He was like a dog with a bone. He was fantastic about not just knowing the net promoter score but doing those scores per faculty member, per class, and then winnowing out the faculty who had poor net promoter scores. The school routinely had the highest net promoter scores of any of our schools or programs. That was a big, big part of how he measured the success of the program.”
“Welch also was keen on hitting academic measures of success.”
“Jack wanted to get to the core: is a faculty member successful at helping students learn new skills,” says Silberman. “It wasn’t just net promoter scores and enrollments. He got really deep into and got his head around how to ring the bell with regard to academic measuring techniques that accrediting bodies use. Even though he made fun of them, he said, ‘I am going to hit them because it’s part of how to establish my brand.’ And he was incredibly successful.”
Over the years, the effort to get Welch on film for the program came about because adds Silberman, “he and I joked that he wasn’t going to be around here forever so let’s get all of this content down electronically so the curriculum is there. As an executive and leader, he was very disciplined about planning. But then he truly thought he was going to live forever. So we had these discussions but they were completely theoretical in his mind. The last couple of years he was starting to fade, and he recognized that so we spent a lot of time talking about the future.”
In the past two years, as Welch’s health began to fade, he became slightly less involved, leaving it to his wife, Suzy Welch, to attend the annual graduation ceremonies in Washington. D.C. The last time he showed up for commencement was 2018 when he sat in an elevated chair on the stage to hug and congratulate students as they received their diplomas.
To Silberman’s way of thinking, that future is clear. He envisions no major changes to the $46,200 MBA program or its curriculum. The Jack Welch MBA is composed of a dozen courses, each lasting ten weeks long, that can be taken over 18 months or stretched out over three years. The program requires a time commitment of ten to 15 hours weekly and enters new classes four times a year in January, April, July, and October.
“At his core, he was an educator.”
The courses range from “Leadership In The 21st Century” and “People Management” to “Marketing In A Global Environment” and “New Business Ventures and Entrepreneurship.” The subject of Financial Management gets two courses, while there are also doses of “Strategy,” “Organizational Change and Culture,” “Operations Management,” “Business communications and executive presence,” and “Managerial Economics.” The final course–“Business Analytics”–is combined with a culminating capstone experience in which students prepare and present a strategic plan to help their organizations attain a “more profitable and sustainable position of market leadership.”
The courses are chock full of Welch’s thinking, including his more controversial beliefs about winnowing out the poorest performers in an organization on an annual basis, the so-called bottom 10% of the workforce. Throughout, there are video keynotes from Welch and several other top executives. Silberman thinks of Welch’s leadership ideas as timeless. “We are always going to alter and tweak to stay relevant but I truly believe that what made him successful was he was at his core an educator. Before he was CEO at GE, when he was the head of plastics, he saw his role as bringing out the best in people.
“And as a scientist with a Ph.D., he tinkered. He had all these tools, some would work, some wouldn’t, and the ones that would work he would keep using and the ones that wouldn’t he would throw out of the toolbox. So that curricula that has been built was really 40 years of thinking, managing, and executing on how you run a business and mentor leaders. I think it is going to be effective for hundreds of years. I don’t think it is ever going to go out of favor.
“I looked over at him and the tears were just rolling down his cheeks.”
“Over time, there will be less of a personal attachment to him I suppose. But all the students who are there now and all the faculty knew him and talked to him personally. The outpouring of support and loss and grief from him passing away was pretty astounding. There were hundreds if not thousands of students writing in to say how much they loved him and how the considered it their obligation to go out and be successful in their careers as a monument to what he taught.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise for Silberman was the countless number of hours Welch spent on the school. Asked why he thought Welch invested so much of himself into the program, Silberman says simply, “He loved it. He just loved it. He told me, ‘I never accomplished something that has given me more joy.’ I’m no psychologist but you didn’t have to dig deep to find out why he loved it. He would openly say this is the most important thing he has done with his career. He never, ever talked to me about GE. I had to pry stuff out of him. It was as if he felt that was behind him. The only thing he wanted to focus on was what he had learned in terms of mentoring and teaching people and then force that into an appropriate academic setting so that it would have an academic life that would go on long after he passed.”
In the third year of the program, Silberman recalls, JWMI staged a full graduation ceremony for the 500 to 600 graduates at a facility in Washington. D.C. “Jack and I were waiting behind the stage as the academic procession came in with all the faculty and students,” says Silberman. “We stood waiting in a little anteroom to the side of the stage where there was a closed-circuit TV so you could see the graduates marching in. I was looking up at that, and I realized he hadn’t said anything for a while. I looked over at him and the tears are just rolling down his cheeks. I was worried that he wasn’t going to be able to go out and give a speech. I put my arm around him and said, ‘Are you okay?” And he said, ‘This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’”
About The Author
John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants, and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek.com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.