Jewish World Review April 15, 2002/ 4 Iyar, 5762

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Harvard takes off its pants one leg at a time | When Jack Welch, retired CEO of GE, was interviewed by Harvard Business Review editor-in-chief, Suzy Wetlaufer, he cooperated fully. In fact, he took her to dinner at New York's "21" after the interview. From there he took her to the sack, thereby giving new meaning to what HBR itself has called Welch's "magnetic pull on the media." Now Mrs. Jane Welch takes them to divorce court, having come to the realization that retirement has not brought such good things to life. So, the alleged greatest manager of all time, Neutron Jack, must take a third marriage mulligan.

The business press has been beside itself with apologies for management's king, referring to the sordid affair as "a romantic interlude." Romantic interlude was Captain Von Trapp and Maria in the gazebo singing "Something Good." Jack and Suzy engaged in adultery of Old Testament proportions.

Having studied Jack Welch and GE for the past 7 years, I've seen the sensitive notes he sent to employees when he learned their children or spouses were ill. The handwritten thoughts made Mr. Welch an enigma in the GE kamikaze culture.

The enigma was apparently within the man. He touted double-digit earnings and GE's Elfun Society of do-gooders, while harboring a powerful hankering for bimbos.

Even legendary Jack couldn't manage an affair alone. And it wasn't just a tart of an editor who helped. This affair required an entire staff of accomplices-after-the-fact. HBR staffers witnessed Ms. Wetlaufer cavorting about the office with a diamond bracelet from Jack. She had landed a man 24 years her senior with nearly a billion in assets. Anna Nicole Smith and Jackie Onassis brought us the tutorial on these fortuitous finds.

Still, despite her leaping with diamonds dangling, Ms. Wetlaufer's staff of crackerjack journalists was content to let her Welch interview run in the next issue, a collection of the sycophantic musings of their love-struck boss. However, Jack's soon-to-be-ex, Jane, in a very Dynasty move, phoned home wrecker Wetlaufer to raise issues of journalistic objectivity. Jane hails from Pratt Station, Alabama, but the lawyer in her was not afraid to let Mr. Welch fall and break his crown.

Only upon spousal threat did Ms. Wetlaufer 'fess up to her HBR supervisor who demoted her to "editor at large," even as she retained her $277,000 annual salary. Via speakerphone, Mr. Welch netted Suzy a professional comeuppance sans pay cut.

Suddenly, HBR staffers got religion, or at least one commandment therein, and objected to Suzy's retention, resigning in protest. Mind you, they said nothing while she was still their boss. Only one HBR staffer was sufficiently indignant prior to the Jane call to suggest that the bracelet be returned before the interview ran. A better suggestion would have been to return the woman's husband as a prerequisite to publication.

Jane will survive. Her prenup with Jack expired after ten years. With 13 years of Jack, she gets half the Welch fortune. Ah, sweet Ivy League screw-up: Lawyer from small Southern town outsmarts Harvard intellectuals.

I halted my HBR subscription years ago, but this tale of Jack, Jane and Suzy confirms my instincts on the silly magazine. HBR articles have a template: it doesn't matter what the words say so long as the piece has at least two charts with blocks, ovals and arrows. I can name only one piece I read in 20 years that was memorable, but I did develop a profound respect for the variances in names for the ovals, arrows and blocks. Drivers, consequences, factors, strategies -- I saw them all.

Jane Welch performed a service for the nation. She got the halo off both Jack and Harvard. For too long, Harvard has enjoyed unwarranted deference. Those of us out in the land of state universities formed of brick, as opposed to ivory, pay homage to an institution that has its share of folly and mediocrity. Harvard takes off its pants one leg at a time, as it were.

Add Jack Welch to the long list of powerful men incapable of fidelity. He had the gumption to see 10% of GE employees fired each year, the discipline to take GE to the heights of quality via Six Sigma, the loyalty of a wife who nursed him through heart surgery, and the morals of an alley cat.

The bloom is off Jack and, thanks to a staff of complacent editors, HBR. A business icon and leader proved juvenile and untrustworthy right before their eyes. And they said nothing until the wronged wife stepped in, amidst the pain of her betrayal, to remind them of their duty.

Hang in there, Mrs. Welch. Ms. Wetlaufer will get what she deserves: Jack Welch and the privilege of looking over his shoulder for the next diamond bracelet recipient from a man we can't trust. The sophisticated Harvard business types were willing to give it all a pass. Jane, we thank you for your journalistic integrity in your time of pain. Enjoy a long life with your half a billion dollars.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2002, Marianne M. Jennings