Here’s an interesting observation: For an industry that’s as crucial as learning and development to the fabric of business, there can be surprisingly little controversy running through it. Politics is built on controversy. News media outlets market controversy. In other industries, controversy fuels the fires of debate on everything from industry-specific pressure points to universal hot-button issues.
Personnel matters, from executive excesses to inter-office dating, often raise some eyebrows and fire up some tempers. But by and large, we labor in an industry with a noteworthy amount of consensus, a willingness to share best practices and a common drive toward a shared goal.
But then there’s Jack Welch—a firebrand, a visionary, a sometimes-divisive icon in enterprise education.
For those of you who aren’t keeping track, Jack Welch stepped down as chairman of General Electric nearly half a decade ago. Old soldiers may fade away, but Jack’s mystique as a business icon continues to grow in his “retirement.” He has another book out now, “Winning.” I certainly don’t need to tell you about Jack, except to say that he’s back in the limelight.
I saw Jack on the cover of USA Today recently, defending one of his pet theories on workforce management. Love the idea or hate it, you have to admit the man knows how to make waves. And waves, of course, clear the shore for new lines of thinking.
As the article pointed out, Jack has devoted part of his newest book to a discussion of the controversial “differentiation” policy he enacted at GE. Proposing a formula of 20-70-10, Jack suggested nurturing the top 20 percent (the star performers with the brightest future and presumably the most to offer the company), while nursing along the 70 percent majority of solid workers who make up the crucial middle ground. Things don’t fare so well for the bottom 10 percent of performers in Jack’s plan, but the company emerges stronger, and even the weakest workers know where they stand.
Leave it to Jack to set a table with food for thought. Listen to his defense of the policy that naysayers call “rank and yank”:
“This is taking care of your very best, being sure the valued middle is cared for and weeding out the weakest,” Welch said. “I don’t say this is the only way. But it has proven results. You can spend a lot of time working on the bad seeds rather than nurturing the winners and those who are growing.”
I’ll take the journalist’s safest path here and not express an opinion. As is often the case in spirited debates, both sides can win small skirmishes while the battle continues. Over the years and throughout my business career, I’ve seen variations of the theme work and not work. It’s like any idea: You apply it to your specific situation or company culture, and tailor as necessary until it fits as best it can.
Care to share your thoughts on the issue? My e-mail address is below, and as always, I urge you to include us in your dialogue. The corporate education community is precisely that—a community—and sharing ideas is the first step in understanding and advancement.
“You never have a perfect system,” Jack said. “Tell me a better one. Don’t tell me what’s wrong with this one.”
Anyone have a better system to share with the class?
Editor in Chief