“WHEN THE GODS . . . punish us, they answer our prayers,” wrote Oscar Wilde. In other words, be careful what you wish for.
In the fall of 1988, I had no interest in becoming executive assistant to John F. Welch, the Chairman and CEO of GE. In fact, from my job as administrative assistant in GE’s Corporate Human Resources department, I was praying to get a promotion to an entry-level management position that had just opened up in GE Supply. In retrospect, perhaps my prayers conveyed mixed messages. On one hand, I wanted to move up the ladder, but on the other, I liked my boss, my colleagues, and the work I was doing. The two wishes may have canceled each other out.
At the time, I had been at GE for more than twelve years in a variety of administrative assignments. Corporate Human Resources was one of the better gigs, with lots of responsibility and opportunities to deal with senior executives and some of the company’s hottest businesses. One of the advantages of being in HR was that it let you get involved in many different areas instead of being stuck doing the same old thing. I know HR can be dumped on for being too “back-ofﬁce” or “touchy-feely,” but that’s a bad rap. A good HR department goes beyond handing out beneﬁt booklets and is the driver of successful employee development.
The broad experience I gained in HR is what gave me a shot at the posted open management position. That job entailed managing a group of regional sales facilities for products distributed by GE Supply. I actively campaigned for the job and overcame most of the personnel hurdles. Jack Peiffer (senior vice president of Corporate Human Resources and my manager at the time) agreed to the move. He was a wonderful boss with a down-to-earth demeanor, and his blessing on my candidacy was important not only politically but personally. Nonetheless, I was having trouble bringing the ﬁnal offer to closure, so I went to him to ask what was going on. Instead of giving me a straight answer, his usual approach, he tap-danced around, ﬁnally saying that on further reﬂection he didn’t think the position was right for me. I was shocked and angry, and left his ofﬁce determined to get the promotion or quit. Being single and not having children, I had—and still have—the luxury of independence and a few rash acts. I was happy working at GE, but I was not going to be stiﬂed and held back. I wanted out. A few days later, Mr. Peiffer took me aside and explained what was going on: Jack Welch’s executive assistant, Helga Keller, was leaving to get married. My name had been tossed into the hat as a possible candidate, and I was on the short list.
I brieﬂy considered taking my name off the list, but I didn’t want to embarrass those who had obviously been singing my praises. I was also curious to see what the hiring process was like at the CEO-level of a company as enormous as GE. Maybe I’d learn something new. I agreed to be screened and, if I made it that far, interviewed by Jack Welch. It may seem like a pretty ﬂimsy rationale for not pursuing the management slot, but at the time it made sense to me. But I’ve never kidded myself into thinking that Mr. Peiffer and the company got out the scales and carefully weighed the beneﬁts of Rosanne the manager against Rosanne the executive assistant. HR had a paramount goal: ﬁll the position in the CEO’s ofﬁce with someone who had a reasonable track record and was likely to stick it out for a while. Jack Peiffer was enough of an HR veteran to know how tricky it is to match a senior executive with an assistant and how costly a mistake can be in terms of wasted time, aggravation, and lost productivity. A successful match also comes from pure personal chemistry. Filling the position of the executive assistant to the CEO was a more crucial task for HR than ﬁlling an entry-level management position at GE Supply. It was easier for the HR team to disappoint me temporarily. Looking back, if I had been in Jack Peiffer’s shoes, I would have made the same decision that he did. Besides, I wasn’t disappointed for long.
Ms. Curiosity and Miscalculation
At the time, I didn’t think there was a chance I would get the job.
Because I really didn’t want it. But I realize in retrospect that my “not a chance” mind-set gave me a tremendous advantage over the other candidates. I wasn’t afraid, and I didn’t overprepare or oversell myself in my one-hour interview with Jack Welch at a subsequent lunch several days later.
Also, the Jack Welch “cult” was only in its infancy, or more accurately, adolescence. After seven years as CEO, he’d had his share of media attention, much of it critical, or at least tough and skeptical. At the time, the Welch cost-cutting, downsizing, and deal-making style was fodder for columnists and commentators, but at GE headquarters he was simply the CEO rather than a legend or icon. Jack Peiffer and the other department heads, whom I dealt with day in and day out, were far more immediate and real to me. Jack Welch was a blip on someone else’s radar screen.
I’m probably going to regret these comments. But please don’t misread me. Jack Welch was deﬁnitely shaking up GE. Yet at the time he was not held in awe by most GE headquarters employees any more than Reg Jones, his predecessor, had been. The glory years of GE’s being the largest and most valuable company in the world were still to come.
While I didn’t do anything special to prepare for the interview, I wasn’t as lackadaisical as I sound. At that level and with such a large company, there are literally thousands of issues and functions involved. I could have crammed for weeks without scratching the surface—and probably wouldn’t have really lighted on anything even resembling a surface, for that matter. Putting aside my underlying belief that there was no way I would be offered the job, it would have been crazy to try to bluff my way into it.
CEOs may not always inspire awe, but they don’t rise to the top without being able to spot phonies. I’m not saying that being prepared is the same thing as faking it. Not at all. But the most impressive preparation is the kind that comes from being fully effective in your present job. It doesn’t come from drills, dry runs, or dress rehearsals prior to an interview. Being fully effective springs from building a reputation for being a team player, demonstrating a willingness to accept responsibility, bringing new ideas to the job, and being productive. Knowing today what was at stake and how much I would have missed out on if I hadn’t gotten the job, I might have done a bit more homework if I were to do it all over again. But even today I’d have to say it’s easy to overdo it. There were several times that I’ve kidded around, small-talked, and tried to calm the jitters in otherwise well-qualiﬁed men and women who came in to interview with Jack Welch. What I couldn’t come out and say was, “This guy knows your record and résumé as well as you do. Now he wants to know who you are. Just go in there and be yourself.”
I know—easier said than done. In my case, despite not wearing a lucky bracelet or pulling an all-nighter, I did have the jitters. Worrying that I didn’t prepare enough would have made them worse. I didn’t shake or stammer; I blushed. When I realized what I was doing, I blushed even more. The red cheeks made a nice contrast to the blue dress I was wearing.
The interview took less than an hour. Then and now, the substance of it is pretty much a blur. He was in the side chair in the sitting area of his ofﬁce, and I was on the couch facing a ﬂoor-to-ceiling window that bathed the room in bright morning light. Half of my brain was thinking, Wow, I can’t believe I’m sitting in this lovely ofﬁce being interviewed by The Man. The other half was saying, Settle down and pay attention to the questions so that you can at least come up with a few mildly intelligent answers. What surprised me was that he didn’t grill me in that machine-gun style that I had heard about, which was a good thing because rapid-ﬁre interrogation is indeed one of his hallmarks. It takes years of getting used to. A Jack Welch business meeting or brieﬁng is best measured not by elapsed time but by QPM—questions per minute.
I’m thankful we clocked up a low QPM rate that day. Most of what he asked was aimed at measuring what kind of commitment I was willing to make to the job. He was obviously trying to ﬁnd someone who could match—or come reasonably close to—his own commitment, which is basically expressed in today’s lingo by two numbers: 24 and 7. I’m a hard worker and believe in being totally involved in what I do, but I didn’t really understand commitment à la Jack Welch.
I do now, though.
During the interview, I was more than a little confused as to what he was driving at, and I told him so. I asked if he was suggesting that we do a trial run to see if we were a good ﬁt. He dismissed that out of hand. He was not interested in trials. I was in it from day one—and so was he—or we could go our separate ways.
Then he dropped on me what seemed like the ultimate interview-killer:
“You remind me of my ex-wife,” he said.
I was stunned into silence.
The best response I could come back with was “Doesn’t sound too good for my chances of getting this job.”
We both laughed. Looking back, I think what he meant was that he perceived streaks of independence that were characteristic of Carolyn. They had divorced the year before after twenty-eight years of marriage.
The way we left it was that at his suggestion I would spend some time thinking about whether this would work and if I was willing to make the commitment.
I didn’t need to do too much thinking. I was hooked. Totally. I had expected a gruff executive barking tough questions that I couldn’t answer. Instead I had found myself in a friendly, informal, wide-ranging conversation with a guy who, while being all business, wasn’t afraid to laugh and speak frankly. I liked him and his obvious sense of purpose. Rather than scaring me off by pressuring me for a commitment, he energized me and pulled me into his orbit.
A week or so later, on December 2, I was invited to lunch in his private dining room. When I arrived, Helga told me that the menu of the day was spareribs with barbecue sauce, and the kitchen had run out of napkins. And then she wished me bon appétit!
Very funny. I ordered a small plate of cut fruit and cottage cheese. My advice to any job seeker at an interview lunch is that if you have to wrestle with it, pick it up in your hands, or slurp it, at best it’s a distraction and at worst a disaster waiting to happen.
Our lunch turned out to be just a get-acquainted session to gauge personal chemistry. Six days later, I was summoned back to his ofﬁce. Helga and Sue Baye, who was Helga’s backup and processed the CEO’s mail, were all smiles.
“Just go in,” Helga said.
Jack Welch was standing beside his desk. “I guess you know why you’re here,” he said.
At the time I thought I did, but I soon found out I didn’t have a clue about what lay ahead.
“Can you start on Monday?” he asked.
There’s not much more to relate. He said I’d get a hefty raise, and that he was thrilled to be working with me. That’s about it.
Oddly, one of the hardest things for me was to tell Jack Peiffer that I was leaving his operation. I immediately went downstairs and broke the news. He congratulated me with genuine sincerity. But I think he was nervous that I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. I cut it short, ducked into an empty ofﬁce next to his, shut the door, and broke into tears. A few days later, at the department Christmas party, my friends in HR gave me a nice farewell tribute and presented me with a lovely gift. I sat at the table and cried again.
For Crying Out Loud
I promised to share my workplace survival skills with you, and what have I offered up so far?
•Go unprepared into a job interview that has the potential to radically alter your life.
•Don’t wipe your greasy ﬁngers on the tablecloth at lunch.
•Casually toss around terms like cult in connection with your boss.
•And when the going gets tough, have a good cry.
These are all great words of wisdom, but I probably need to expand on the crying thing, since the other pieces of advice are all perfectly sensible and stand on their own. Dealing with stress is a major challenge in any job that matters to you, and on that issue I’m not kidding. On occasion, a tearful moment was my way of handling circumstances that brought on an overwhelming level of stress. It didn’t happen that often, but when it did, I’ve used it to get things out of my system.
I have read just enough about the way the brain is supposed to function to know that tears release neural chemicals that help to sooth raw emotions and restore balance. Well—it’s a theory, anyway.
After all, what are the options? Anger and aggressiveness? Passivity and sullenness? Obstruction and revenge? No, thanks. Find what works best for you to provide that momentary respite that lets you gather strength to ﬁnish the job at hand.
My way tells me that I still care and that I haven’t been totally numbed into emotional nothingness by aggravations and disappointments. The capacity to care is a valuable gift. Business as usual—what a dreadful term—is the enemy of caring. It doesn’t take long for the wrong kind of corporate culture to shrink caring that’s the size of a quilt into a handkerchief.
There are other effective measuring devices, however. Jack Welch’s preferred means of checking out the length and breadth of his and others’ capacity to care was done verbally. He vented, ranted, badgered, and cajoled. And all of it was a sign of how deeply and passionately he cared.
The Welch style was totally infectious. If nothing else, as GE chairman and CEO, Jack Welch was an open invitation to care big time. He cared about people, about the customer, about GE doing its best and being the best company it could possibly be. And he continues to care. The commitment he spoke about during our ﬁrst interview in 1988 was in a large sense a commitment to caring. It meant being willing to show up at the ofﬁce each day ready to do whatever it took to make a difference.
It took a full year to get totally comfortable and up to speed in my new position. Much of the schedule was taken up by recurring commitments such as the shareholders’ meetings, budget reviews, board meetings, and the like. My ﬁrst year was spent learning how to go about dealing with these routine events. But because there were so many unpredictable occurrences, I would say it was difﬁcult to master the job.
To step back a moment, it’s probably worth noting that I was working for the world’s most impatient man, and yet he was willing to tolerate a full year of having an executive assistant who was operating at less than 100 percent. Why was that? Jack Welch may be impatient, but he is realistic. It took that long because it takes that long. Sure, some are born with innate talent and instinctive smarts. The rest of us, though, need time to accomplish things through experience.
I had to personally go through a full year’s cycle so that when the events and responsibilities came around again, I had been there and done that—and could skillfully do it again and, I hoped, do it better. Both sides of an effective working partnership, whenever you are in a company—whether you’re a manager or an assistant, executive VP or CEO—should expect a learning curve at the beginning of the relationship no matter how smart and seasoned each of you happens to be. There is so much to learn, and things are mastered on the run.
One of the requirements they forgot to list on the job description was the need to be bilingual. My ﬁrst real day on the job, I had to deal with the need to translate a “foreign tongue” into English. Jack was out of the ofﬁce for the holidays and off-site meetings when I started the job. When he ﬁnally appeared back at GE’s corporate headquarters in Fairﬁeld in early January 1989, it was like encountering a human tornado. He came through the door of the third-ﬂoor suite so engrossed with a deal he was trying to consummate that he totally forgot I had zero miles on the odometer.
When he called me in to take a letter, I discovered that I needed not only Gregg shorthand but an immersion class at Berlitz. I couldn’t understand his thick Boston accent. I sat there with my pen ﬂying and thought, Oh, no! I’m in trouble. What’s he saying? I’ll never be able to transcribe this!
Meanwhile, he was doing several things at once—dictating a letter, telephoning, issuing orders, reading his mail, and scribbling out handwritten notes. In all my years of working, I’d never encountered anyone who could do ﬁve or six things at once and not miss a beat on any of them—I was amazed. Within a day or two, I knew that operating at warp speed for me was merely cruising for Jack Welch. Fortunately, I am one of the almost-extinct dinosaurs who still take shorthand. I had been the shorthand champ when I was working on my degree in secretarial sciences at Sacred Heart University, and it helped save me on my ﬁrst day on this job. I could just about keep up with his breakneck speed. And I found I had gotten close enough phonetically to the right words that I could go back and piece together an accurate rendering with Sue’s help. She had been in Welch’s ofﬁce since 1981.
I am sure most people feel like that upon starting a new job—excited and terriﬁed. Questioning whether or not we can adequately do the job is a normal reaction. What it really reveals is how much we care about what we do. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help wondering: Maybe they’ll give me my old job back.
As I was swept away by the human tornado, I remember thinking, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”1
•Be bilingual—understand and be able to use the language of staff above and below you.
•Good managers can spot phonies a mile away. Being a phony is a sure path to failure.
•Start building your reputation from day one.
•There is a learning curve for every new job. Expect it of yourself, and those under and over you.
•Work hard at being extraordinarily good at what you do.
From the Hardcover edition.