Harnessing your people for competitive advantage, from Jack Welch

Book: Jack Welch and the GE Way (1999), by R.SlaterAbout 20yrs later, I think a lot of lessons from this book are still relevant in today’s highly competitive, fast changing business environments (notice the “s”) and in the fourth revolution we live in. This legendary leader was (and still is), a visionary. Under his leadership, GE would invest, through acquisitions and other means, during economic downturns or recessions. For instance, in the 1990’s, he did it the US, Europe and in Mexico. Within few years later, GE would grow its +$20bn business by double digits. 

How did he do that? I asked myself. Here is one of the powerful lessons-“Harnessing your people for competitive advantage” to do this he shared these three secrets: 

I. Speed: the delayering sped communications and helped to get products to markets more quickly. E.g. In the early 1990’s, there was a new product announcement at GE appliances every 90days- unthinkable years before that.

II. Simplicity: saw people as performing two simple processes, i.e. Input and output- where he referred to inputs as people, energy and physical space. Simplicity is an art form with different definitions: to an engineer, its clean, functional designs with fewer parts. In marketing, it means clear messages and clean proposals to consumers and industrial customers. More importantly on an individual, interpersonal level it takes the form of plain- speaking, directness- honesty. For leaders’ vision he argued, simple 

III. Self-Confidence: survivors were shaken by the massive changes, and needed a healthy dose of self confidence. “Some get it in their mother’s knee, others through scholastic, athletic or achievement. Some tiptoe through life without it….the root cause of many bureaucracy ills – bitterness, the turf battles, the in-fighting and pettiness so rife in many organizations is – insecurity which makes people resist change as they only see it as a threat than opportunity. To build self confidence, give people a voice, get them talking, listening to and trusting one another. 

If you don’t have self confidence, you can’t be simple, you scared to look simple- so you end up complicating things and favor bureaucracy which bogs down the firm.

Let’s bring it back home, in South Africa where the “PESTEL Analysis” is not so great, to put it mildly. 

My view is if the businesses do well, the PESTEL improves. However, are the business mastering these three lessons above? Do they act with speed? do they make decisions fast, fail fast and learn fast? Do they develop simplified solutions for clients? Are these simplified products co-created with clients (Design Thinking) or at least client centric? Are the business cultures generally allow for change to happen or people lack self confidence hence lowering their firms’ productivity by complicating things and refuse to let go of red tape?


a.) Are the businesses investing aggressively as GE did during tough economics (E) times or they are playing a wait-and-see what the politics (P) of December 2017 conference brings us?

b.) Are the businesses continuing to invest in the social (S) wellbeing through different CSI initiatives or they are waiting for another “Mandela day” where they can seek publicity for 67mins in the black communities they do business in?

c.) Are the businesses playing enough of their role in addressing primary education through technology (T) or maths/ science in order to improve the pool of future black talent for the scarce and critical skills they are now importing from India? 

d.) How sustainable will these businesses be if urban migration pauses risk to the environment (E) in which the businesses is conducted? What does being “technically” out of recession (Q2 GDP of 2,5%) yet still junk mean to business- save more?

e.) Can we really have productive employees if they come from a ” ticking bomb” communities where unemployment (S), inequality (S) and poverty (S) are rife?

e.) Are the businesses worrying themselves about loop holes in the laws (L) and regulations of the land so they lend recklessly and/or collude to cheat the poor (S)?

I wonder how would a leader like JW and firms like GE would answer them in the South African context. It’s not an exam question, not yet.



Sometimes I wonder if we as people, are learning in the same way as we did 20years ago and whether we will be learning the same way as 2015 come 20 years to come. If the answer is ‘yes’, there should be something wrong in how we learn as people. Largely because of fast changing environments we live in, high uncertainties, globalization and technology.

If anyone agrees with me, then how educators teach from primary to tertiary levels should change as well. This may require more and different kinds of investments in financial, physical and human resources, especially in developing country like mine, South Africa. A radical change in focus and priorities is needed soon rather than later.

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