The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Wednesday, February 04, 2004  

“My Greasy Fingernails” Would Make a Better Title

During my long career in financial journalism and securities analysis, I never bought into the great big Jack Welch myths, all of which were emerging into folklore during that same time. Welch, the former chairman and chief executive officer of General Electric Co., struck me as overrated, overhyped, and overexposed. Meanwhile, G.E.’s financial statements were, if not indecipherable, certainly deficient in their disclosure. And profits at the corporate behemoth grew with a consistency that, considering G.E.’s myriad businesses, was, if I may be kind, suspicious.

I didn’t buy Welch’s first book, Jack: Straight from the Gut. And I know I’m not going to purchase his second work, already in progress and slated to carry the hackneyed title, Winning.

According to the New York Times, Welch, who received a $4 million advance from publisher HarperCollins, will be joined in this latest project by his ethically challenged fiancée, former Harvard Business Review editor Suzy Wetlaufer.

According to Welch, “Winning is a book for the people in business who sweat, get their nails dirty, hire, fire, make hard decisions, and pay the price when those decisions are wrong.”

Yep, it’s the same Jack Welch. You remember Jack Welch, don’t you? The guy with the dirty fingernails? Or as the great one put it to the Times just this week, “my greasy fingernails.” (What, no manicurists in Stamford or Fairfield, Conn.? Or in Lost Tree or Palm Beach, Fla.? Or in New York or in Boston or on Nantucket?)

According to the Times, the future Mrs. Welch said Winning “would be full of practical business advice, divided into three sections: working within an organization, dealing with competitors[,] and handling matters of life and career.” (Um, like what? Marriage and divorce?)

Oh, wow! Sounds fascinating! Haven’t seen that kind of book before, have we?

From where come the ideas to fill so thrilling a tome? Welch says it’s his recent experience on the lecture circuit. (Hence, I suppose, the “greasy fingernails.”)

“I’ve been talking to armies of people,” the disarmingly modest and self-effacing Welch told the New York Times, adding, “And I realized that I had answers to questions about managing that people at lower levels could really use.”

Oh, please. I once managed nearly 50 people. If you’re managing even half that small number and you think you have time to read “management bibles,” just face it, you’re not doing your job.

And God help the gullible C.E.O.-wannabe who shells out $25 or $30 to read what I fully expect will be nothing more than Wetlaufer’s dressing up of Welch’s stump speeches. (And if you’ve read HBR, you know “dressing up” is a relative phrase.)

The publisher, anyway, or I should say, of course, is excited: “This is the book Jack was born to write,” gushed Jane Friedman, president and chief executive of HarperCollins. “This is the one, as a businessperson, that I will follow word for word,” Friedman added, neglecting to explain exactly what, now that she is the head of one of the nation’s largest publishing houses, she still needs to learn.

According to the Times, Friedman, who is strikingly out of touch with young people today, believes the book will be “sought-after reading for high school and college students.”

I can see the ad blurbs already: “Stolen from school book fairs everywhere!”

Said Friedman, apparently without a trace of embarrassment: “Young people grow up today wanting to be a policeman, a fireman, a C.E.O. Jack can teach to all of that.”

That Jack Welch, he’s amazing! Not only can he teach budding C.E.O.s how to massage earnings and manage Wall Street expectations -- Thank heaven for G.E. Finance! -- he can also teach them how to catch bad guys and put out fires and stuff.

Just as the obsequious fawning over corporate “titans” and “giants” and “geniuses,” one of so many absurd excesses of the ’90s, was beginning to die a deservedly ignominious death, along come Jack Welch and Suzy Wetlaufer, the William Agee and Mary Cunningham of the new millennium -- though, fortunately, without a corporation to trash and devour -- to rev up the entire discredited enterprise.

I think I’ll pass.

[Thanks to M.A.C. for the tip.]

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