Book Review: Winning
How do we win in business? Jack Welch, the former General Electric (GE) chairman, shares his thoughts in his new book, Winning.
Welch discusses a number of topics of interest, from business strategy to people management, sizing up your competition to career management, and work-life balance. Even if your professional aspirations don’t include being chairman of a major corporation such as GE, Welch’s book offers practical tips to help your company get ahead in the marketplace and to help you get ahead in your career. (Welch’s wife Suzy, a former Harvard Business Review editor, served as collaborator.)
Welch begins with a discussion about mission statements. Who hasn’t visited a company—or worked for one—whose mission statement isn’t a thoughtfully worded platitude? Welch says that a mission statement should address one issue: How does the company intend to win at this business. Welch shares an example from his own experience: At GE the mission was to be “the most competitive enterprise in the world” by being either number 1 or number 2 in every market in which it competed. Business units that didn’t meet that standard were fixed, sold, or closed. The advantage of a mission statement this clear Welch writes, was that everyone knew what was expected. “It was specific and descriptive, with nothing abstract going on. And it was aspirational, too, in its global ambition.”
Welch makes it clear that corporate leadership is ultimately responsible for creating the mission statement, though input is welcomed from everyone in the company. “A mission cannot, and must not, be delegated to anyone except the people ultimately held accountable for it,” Welch writes. That means corporate leadership is ultimately responsible. Yet the explicit, accompanying values that complement the mission statement are identified by the people throughout the organization—everyone is accountable for honoring those values through their behavior and performance.
Knowing what’s expected—Welch calls it candor—is another crucial element of his strategy for success. Welch says candor provides three ways to facilitate winning:
- It gets more people involved in the conversation and helps you become idea rich.
- It generates speed.
- It cuts costs because it eliminates meetings and reports.
Candor isn’t as easy as it seems. Organizations, professional and otherwise, often frown on blunt conversation. We can all provide examples from our own experiences. As with other behavioral changes, candor is difficult to develop because one must deal with human nature. We might have learned to be diplomatic or avoid tough conversations altogether over the years. Welch says there is nothing scientific about developing the process. “To get candor, you reward it, praise it, and talk about it,” he writes. “You make public heroes out of people who demonstrate it. Most of all, you yourself demonstrate it in an exuberant and even exaggerated way—even when you’re not the boss.”
Candor plays a key role in working with others. Welch describes people management as separating everyone into one of three categories in terms of performance: the top 20 percent, the middle 70 percent, and the bottom 10 percent. Obviously, where one fits on that scale affects his or her compensation, promotion, or termination. To move up, Welch offers two guidelines. First, deliver outstanding results. Second, don’t use your boss’s political capital to champion yourself.
This is not to say, of course, that following these strategies prevents setbacks. Bad things happen to good people because bad things happen to all people. But it’s important not to let setbacks break your stride. One of the best examples Welch shares (and he shares plenty of examples throughout the book) is of Mark Little, a GE executive who was passed over for a promotion. Instead of putting Little in charge of a larger team, the manager chose to split the team and give Little a smaller group of people to manage. Little was disappointed, but he set to work developing the team, refocusing the business, and delivering exceptional results.
According to Welch, Little’s results were so strong that when a much larger opportunity presented itself, he went to the same manager who had passed him over and asked for the job. Little says he got the promotion thanks to results, attitude, and perseverance.
For technical communicators who are used to producing information products such as user guides, instruction manuals, material safety data sheets, white papers, web sites, and the like, Winning is a wake-up call to consider strategic thinking. Welch describes a five-slide presentation he would give to his teams to clarify and test their strategies.
In the first slide, the team is asked to present what the playing field looks like now. For example, who are the competitors, large and small, new and old? Who has what share of the business? What are the characteristics of the business? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each competitor? Who are the main customers, and how do they buy?
In the second slide, the team is asked to identify the competition. For example, what has the competition done in the past year to change the playing field? Has anyone introduced new products or technologies, or a new distribution channel? Are there new entrants, and what have they been up to in the last year?
In the third slide, the team is asked to consider its own activities. For example, what have you done in the past year to change the competitive playing field? Have you bought a company or introduced a new product? Have you lost any competitive advantages?
The fourth slide challenges the team to visualize the future. For example, what one or two things could a competitor do to hurt your company? What new products or technologies could a competitor introduce that could change the game?
All the information gleaned from these slides leads you to think of what your winning move will be. What can you do to change the playing field (whether by acquisition, new product, or globalization)? What can you do to make your customers stick to you more than ever before?
For technical communicators, asking these questions about strategy provides value to our employers in two ways. First, in a technical communication context, we can see how competitors develop their documentation. How can we develop and deliver content faster and at less cost? Second, in a business context, we develop a competitive intelligence by answering these questions. We can look at how we maximize our strengths, minimize our weaknesses, and add value to our employers and our careers. We can begin to identify how our information products can improve usability and customer satisfaction, increase sales, and reduce support calls—all of which are measurable business targets.
Budgeting is another topic for discussion. Because many people consider technical communication a cost center, not a profit center, Welch provides examples of how not to prepare budgets. Most companies follow these examples, sometimes at great cost. Then he suggests a budgeting process that focuses on two questions:
- How can we beat last year’s performance?
- What is our competition doing, and how can we beat them?
“If you focus on these two questions, the budgeting process becomes a wide-ranging, anything-goes dialogue between the field and headquarters about opportunities and obstacles in the real world,” Welch writes. “Through these discussions, both sides of the table jointly come up with a growth scenario that is not negotiated or imposed and cannot really be called a budget at all. It is an operating plan for the next year, filled with aspirations, primarily directional, and containing numbers that are mutually understood to be targets, or put another way, numbers that could be called ‘best efforts’.”
Because Winning covers a wide variety of topics, the most valuable chapters really depend on the reader’s particular interest. Perhaps the most important chapter in the book concerns work-life balance. When Welch began his GE career, the concept of work-life balance didn’t exist. Welch writes of how he loved his job so much that he would regularly show up for work on Saturdays and his colleagues—all men—always seemed to be in the office as well. We aren’t likely to see this situation in today’s environment unless there’s a pressing deadline or a crisis requiring immediate resolution.
The key to work-life balance is to set priorities and understand the trade-offs. “Work-life balance is a swap—a deal you’ve made with yourself about what you keep and about what you give up,” Welch writes.
What, then, should employees know about work-life balance from the boss’s point of view? To summarize, Welch writes that the first priority is competitiveness, though the boss wants employees to be happy as long as the company wins. Most bosses are willing to accommodate work-life issues, provided the employee has earned it with performance. The work-life policies in the company brochure are for recruiting purposes, with real-life arrangements being negotiated in a supportive culture. People who struggle with work-life balance issues may get pigeonholed in a negative way. Ultimately, your work-life issues are your problem to resolve.
Keeping this in mind, it’s important to develop a strategy for establishing that balance. The most important thing is to understand yourself and your priorities. Welch shares three best practices:
- Keep your head in whatever game you’re at (in other words, compartmentalize).
- Have the mettle to say no to requests outside of your chosen work-life balance plan.
- Make sure your work-life balance plan doesn’t leave you out.
The ideas Welch develops in Winning ultimately boil down to differentiation, or how to stand out. “When all is said and done, differentiation is just resource allocation, which is what good leaders do and, in fact, is one of the chief jobs they are paid to do,” Welch writes. “A company has only so much money and managerial time. Winning leaders invest where the payback is the highest. They cut their losses everywhere else.”
Much of what Welch writes can be classified as common-sense tips for getting ahead. The approachable, straightforward tone of his writing certainly reflects that attitude. Yet, often these common-sense tips should be repeated when it’s time to refocus. For technical communicators and their leaders, Winning provides a good starting point to consider how they can make more of a difference.
It might be easy to think of technical communication as a non-competitive service. “We just design and write the doc, right?” Yet, increasingly, leaders in our profession realize that we can no longer think of ourselves simply as brokers of information. Content accuracy, design, and usability are all givens. Our challenge is to identify the business value of our work, and put that value in a profit-and-loss language that executives understand. Just as important, we must think in terms of how we can do better going forward-we’re not resting on our laurels. Failure to think in these business terms puts people at risk in the next round of layoffs.
About the Author
Senior Technical Writer
The Integrity Group
George Slaughter has been a professional communicator since 1985 and a technical writer since 1991. He is a senior technical writer with The Integrity Group, a technical documentation, training, and multimedia services company. George is active with the Society for Technical Communication and is a past president of the Houston chapter. He earned his M.A. in Technical Communication from Texas Tech University.