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How Jack Welch’s Leadership Principles Apply to ESD

By Raj Gupta, Executive Chairman

Can engineers become great leaders? Compared to salespeople, many engineers are introverts: this can lead to poor communication. Also, engineers are trained to be precise: this can lead to indecision due to lack of information.

So you may be surprised to know my favorite leader happens to be a chemical engineer! I bet you have heard of him: Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric.

I have applied successfully Jack Welch’s leadership principles at ESD. They are succinct, easy to understand and very effective. This piece identifies Mr. Welch’s definition of what great leaders do and the four attributes they possess. Also, I provide some lessons learned as I apply Mr. Welch’s ideas at ESD.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Mr. Welch explains what a leader must do:

“(They) create a vision, articulate the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.”

I like this simple but powerful definition. It describes what a leader does to accomplish a goal: create, articulate, and complete.

In his books Winning, Jack and The GE Way Fieldbook, Mr. Welch identifies three prerequisites any potential leader must possess: integrity, intelligence, and maturity. He also describes the four qualities effective leaders demonstrate. They are commonly referred to as the “4 E’s”: energy, energizer, edge, and execution.

Energy: Demonstrates proactive, can-do attitude, optimistic, motivated, wants to do great things.

Energizer:  Motivates through frequent communication; encourages; supports.

Edge: Able to make tough decisions in a timely manner; addresses conflict head on.

Execute: Always delivers on commitments; able to work creatively around obstacles.

I apply the 4 E’s at ESD and offer the following lessons learned:

  • The 4 E’s are easy to remember and articulate. They are used in daily conversation and have become part of the firm’s vernacular.
  • They can be used to probe if prospective employees have leadership capabilities. I made past mistakes by focusing mainly on candidates’ raw intelligence and resumes.
  • According to Mr. Welch, Energy and Energizer are intrinsic qualities while Edge and Execution can be learned. I find this proposition to be true.
  • Look out for leaders who demoralize the staff.  There are two situations that occur often:
    • The first case involves a leader who is smart and likeable but can’t make tough decisions (Edge) and doesn’t deliver consistently on commitments (Execution).  This behavior saps the morale of the staff because everyone wants to be on a winning team.
    • The second situation arises when a leader is great at Execution but tears his or her staff apart to get the job done. This type of behavior may lead to short-term success but almost always fails in the long term because of staff unhappiness and defections.
  • It is possible to pair leaders together where their respective strengths are complementary. I do it with my role.  Our firm’s revenue has tripled since I became the leader.  I need help with Execution.  Fortunately I work closely with our chief of staff who is skilled in operations and once led a division of a Fortune 500 company that is twice the size of ESD. I am able to focus on what I do best and the company is better off.

Engineers can make business overly complicated. I am a big fan of Mr. Welch’s leadership principles. They provide an effective way to grow our people and ourselves.

Executive Chairman Raj Gupta leads ESD’s mission to Improve Society Through the Built Environment. He works on long-term initiatives to support the company’s future, including the expansion of career development paths for employees.