Jack Welch says: forget it. You can’t balance business and personal life

If you haven’t heard of Jack Welch, he’s the famously successful former CEO of General Electric who created a world class corporate culture that helped GE remain one of the most successful companies of all time. He retired, then flamed out when he had an affair with Suzy Wetlaufer, editor of the Harvard Business Review. Bad move, Jack.
That’s not what I want to talk about in this article, however, I just want to share his recent commentary on finding a balance between your work and family life, an excerpt that should send chills up your spine if you, or your spouse, work in Corporate America.
This excerpt is from a cover story that hawks Welch’s new book “Winning”, co-authored with his new wife, in the April 4th issue of BusinessWeek.
” If there was ever a case of “Do as I say, not as I did,” this is it. No one, myself included, would ever call me an authority on work-life balance. For 41 years, my operating principle was work hard, play hard and spend some time as a father…

“It’s clear that the balance I chose had consequences for the people around me at home and at the office. For instance, my kids were raised, largely alone, by their mother, Carolyn. And from my earliest days at GE, I used to show up at the office on Saturday mornings. Not coincidentally, my direct reports showed up too. Personally, I thought these weekend hours were a blast. We would mop up the workweek in a more relaxed way and shoot the breeze about sports. I never once asked anyone, “Is there someplace you would rather be—or need to be—for your family or favorite hobby or whatever?” The idea just didn’t dawn on me that anyone would want to be anywhere but at work.
“My defense, if there is one, is that those were the times. In the 1960s and ’70s, all my direct reports were men. Many of those men were fathers, and fathers were different then. They did not, by and large, attend ballet recitals on Thursday afternoons or turn down job transfers because they didn’t want to disrupt their kids’ sports “careers.” Most of their wives did not have jobs with their own competing demands. All that changed, of course.
“I have dealt with dozens of work-life balance situations and dilemmas as a manager, and hundreds more as the manager of managers. And over the past three years, I’ve heard from many people—bosses and employees—about the complex issue of work-life balance. I have a sense of how bosses think about the issue, whether they tell you or not. You may not like their perspective, but you have to face it. There’s lip service about work-life balance, and then there’s reality. To make the choices and take the actions that ultimately make sense for you, you need to understand that reality: your boss’s top priority is competitiveness. Of course he wants you to be happy, but only inasmuch as it helps the company win. In fact, if he is doing his job right, he is making your job so exciting that your personal life becomes a less compelling draw.
“Most bosses are perfectly willing to accommodate work-life balance challenges if you have earned it with performance. The key word here is: if.
“Bosses know that the work-life policies in the company brochure are mainly for recruiting purposes and that real work-life arrangements are negotiated one on one in the context of a supportive culture, not in the context of, “But the company says …!”
“People who publicly struggle with work-life balance problems and continually turn to the company for help get pigeonholed as ambivalent, entitled, uncommitted, incompetent—or all of the above.
“Even the most accommodating bosses believe that work-life balance is your problem to solve. In fact, most know that there are really just a handful of effective strategies to do that—staying focused on what you’re doing and saying no to demands outside your work-life balance, for example—and they wish you would use them.”
My thoughts on this: while Jack Welch, with the help of his new wife Suzy (yes, she formerly worked at the Harvard Business Review but was terminated for her affair with a magazine interview subject) is busy trying to clean up his reputation and sound like a tough, but nice boss, the fact is he’s completely out of touch, clueless, and heartless too.
For him to enjoy working on weekends and never even think that he wasn’t around for his own kids, let alone keeping other employees away from their children, tells me that he’s completely disconnected from what’s really important in life (and, hint, it’s not making money), and even years later he says that he regrets not being more involved with his children, but still doesn’t say that he should have been aware of missing his own children’s weekends.
But here’s the scary part: Welch is someone that many executives model themselves after. So next time you go into your office and ask for a revised schedule so you can manage your family life and career, realize that this sort of attitude is what you’re up against. It reminds me why I work for myself, even when the cards aren’t coming up very well.

6 comments on “Jack Welch says: forget it. You can’t balance business and personal life

  1. Dave, your comments really resonate with me. I’m a public school teacher fortunate enough to work short half days so I can be home by 11:30 AM with my baby. I can’t imagine working full time, getting up early to put baby in daycare, then commuting for an hour back to daycare to rush home and put baby to bed. The thought depresses me.
    Yet that’s how some people live. That’s how some folks prioritize their lives: work first, family second. I know a very high-profile lawyer couple who let a nanny raise their daughter. Neither parent, despite two luxury homes, two BMWs, and fancy vacations, could let their careers “slide.”
    It’s sad. It sends our children a cynical message – that material gain is more important than time spent together, that things are more important than love. And these General Electrified parents (and corporate CEOs) can’t appreciate the joy that surrounds and evolves from the daily, mundane, caretaking tasks of child-rearing. Poopy diapers, soothing tantrums, and preparing meals won’t give anyone a competitive edge, but those daily tasks evolve into something a whole lot more lasting than a raise.

  2. It is hard to have a balance of work-family. You have to put one first.
    My husband and I, along with our nine and a half month old baby wake up every morning for our long day at our cafe. We love that we are together for the day. We choose to make sacrifices, we don’t have fancy things, no TV (what a time waster) but we have what is most important, time with each other.
    Even though we are spending much of our time working at our businesses, we are more or less with our child all day (we have a sitter for our morning rush – which until recently he would sleep through on my husbands back). It’s the best, we are loving life. We may not be making the big bucks, but we are surviving and we are a connected family.

  3. Nice article. I’m male, and I don’t have kids but even I had a problem fighting against this philosophy. I am very close to my large family and even though I love making money and being successful, I value time with my loved ones 1000 times more. I was always amazed at my bosses and co-workers’ complete detachment from their kids (male and female). If we wonder why kids today have so many problems, this may be one of the reasons. Parents expect other people/schools to raise their kids into healthy adults so they can make more money. For the last 8 years, I’ve worked for myself and even though I’m not a gazillionaire, I have never been happier.

  4. Great article, here is some more food for thought.
    Listen to Mr. Welch’s podcast released Jan 16, 2009. He defends boards members of companies by saying they cannot have enough time to properly direct companies because they have too many other responcibilities. “A board member has 1 or 2 days a month…to give their attention to a company…they got a life outside of the company.”
    Jack Welch is full of nonsense…the lower ranks work all for the benefit and pleasure of the higher ups. Mr. Welch is the definition of what is wrong with American business CEOs. IMHO, if you work for any manager that cloes themselves after Mr. Welch, then you work for an idiot.

  5. I don’t think Jack is asking anyone to sympathize with him, or to agree that what he is expressing is fair. What he is saying is that your work/life balance is a personal decision, not a corporate one. Yes, if you choose to spend more time with your family, you will not be as successful at work. That’s the way the world is – someone with less of a personal life is going to be more bang-for-the-buck when it comes to salary vs productiveness than someone with a family and need for time outside of the office. You have personal goals, and the company has it’s goals – the answer is to find the point where those two meet, not to force a company to accomodate your needs.

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