Viewpoint -- Memo To Jack Welch

Dec. 21, 2004
Celebrating won't sustain a recovery.

Guess what, Jack? There may be an economic recovery underway, but your recent condemnation of media reporting on earnings reports and your call for celebrating "damn good news" (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 30, 2003, Page A15) will not sustain the increase in GDP growth. First of all, Jack, the media are not -- nor should they be -- cheerleaders. In their reporting, the media should focus on neither silver nor dingy gray linings, but describe clouds, if they exist, exactly as they are. You can do the cheerleading -- and indeed you do so in your op-ed piece. My second point, Jack, is that good feelings will drive company productivity and consumer confidence only so far. In the absence of active demand for goods and services and the means to pay for them -- and that means jobs -- the recovery cannot continue to advance. You write about America's need to get competitive again but contend that can't happen if "we . . . indiscriminately put a negative spin on what is legitimately good news." Jack, where is the sweeping non-competitiveness you see? You seem to be recalling the U.S. of the '60s and '80s in the last century, not the U.S. in the opening years of the 21st Century. To be sure, there are concerns about China, India and an enlarged European Union as competitors. And there is a legitimate discussion going on about whether it is better to focus on "high-tech" and "advanced" manufacturing industries or concentrate on upgrading worker skills. There is urgency to such actions. The pace of change, which you influenced greatly and positively while leading General Electric Co. for 20 years, continues to accelerate as economies mature around the world, as traditional political boundaries are blurred, and as consumers, better-informed than ever before as a result of the growth of information technology, make more sophisticated choices. But, Jack, the pace of change won't be stopped by some negative spin, whatever its source. In your opinion piece, Jack, you write in Churchillian tones that, "The facts are, companies are not bricks and mortar, but people, with blood and sweat and tears." That's true to an increasing extent. Companies are people with blood and sweat and tears -- and ideas. Whether companies call the latter intellectual capital or not, they ignore it at the risk of their very survival. But Jack, there are millions of Americans who do not hold jobs today, nearly 3 million in manufacturing alone, not because of negative spin but because companies, including the one you once headed, have laid off workers and eliminated lines of business in reaction to altered market demand. Ignoring those facts would be irresponsible journalism--and bad business. In journalism, ignoring those facts would be to tell only part of the story of recovery. In business, ignoring those facts would blind executives to the need now to grow revenues as well as to continue to control costs. The height and breadth of the U.S. recovery from the 2001 recession will be determined by companies paying attention to the fundamentals of cost, demand and the competitiveness that comes from finding better ways to continue to employ throughout the economy people who are constantly encouraged to contribute the better ideas and best practices. Those that do will get plenty of good press. John S. McClenahen is an IndustryWeek senior editor. He is based in Washington, D.C.

About the Author

John McClenahen | Former Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

 John S. McClenahen, is an occasional essayist on the Web site of IndustryWeek, the executive management publication from which he retired in 2006. He began his journalism career as a broadcast journalist at Westinghouse Broadcasting’s KYW in Cleveland, Ohio. In May 1967, he joined Penton Media Inc. in Cleveland and in September 1967 was transferred to Washington, DC, the base from which for nearly 40 years he wrote primarily about national and international economics and politics, and corporate social responsibility.
      McClenahen, a native of Ohio now residing in Maryland, is an award-winning writer and photographer. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently An Unexpected Poet (2013), and several books of photographs, including Black, White, and Shades of Grey (2014). He also is the author of a children’s book, Henry at His Beach (2014).
      His photograph “Provincetown: Fog Rising 2004” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2011 juried exhibition Artists at Work and displayed in the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from June until October 2011. Five of his photographs are in the collection of St. Lawrence University and displayed on campus in Canton, New York.
      John McClenahen’s essay “Incorporating America: Whitman in Context” was designated one of the five best works published in The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies during the twelve-year editorship of R. Barry Leavis of Rollins College. John McClenahen’s several journalism prizes include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award. He also is the author of the commemorative poem “Upon 50 Years,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Wolfson College Cambridge, and appearing in “The Wolfson Review.”
      John McClenahen received a B.A. (English with a minor in government) from St. Lawrence University, an M.A., (English) from Western Reserve University, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where he also pursued doctoral studies. At St. Lawrence University, he was elected to academic honor societies in English and government and to Omicron Delta Kappa, the University’s highest undergraduate honor. John McClenahen was a participant in the 32nd Annual Wharton Seminars for Journalists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During the Easter Term of the 1986 academic year, John McClenahen was the first American to hold a prestigious Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
      John McClenahen has served on the Editorial Board of Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and was co-founder and first editor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown. He has been a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and has been an assistant professorial lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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