Business thought leaders and their relevance to educational technology leadership 02: Jack Welch

This is article 2 of a series of 3.


In this series I am exploring what the educational ICT leader can learn from business leaders and thinkers when it comes to performing the educational technology leader's role.

So what can we learn from Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric? Although schools and GE are very different types of institution, you may be surprised to discover that school leaders could benefit from adopting some of Welch's strategies.

What Welch was about

There are a some basic principles that characterise Welch's approach and philosophy:

He was not prepared to suffer mediocrity. IF GE was not number one or number two in a particular field, he would close and sometimes sell off that section.

He adopted a similar attitude to his staff. He reduced the number of employees at GE by nearly 120,000 in the course of 5 years, because he preferred to have a lean, efficient operation to a bloated, inefficient one.

Still on the subject of staff, he divided them into the top 10%, a middle 70% and the lowest performing 20%. His aim was to develop the top 10%, help the 70% achieve what they wanted to, and minimise the time, energy and resources spent on the bottom 20%. In fact, if an employee didn't shape up, he got rid of them.

Having said that, he did not punish failure. If someone made a mistake, he thought it was important to help them regain their self-esteem. He was, you might say, big on motivation.

He was highly competitive on his company's behalf, and communicated his vision to his team. This manifested itself not only in a desire to be number one or number two in each field in which GE operated, but also in terms of a reputation for quality. Unlike many educational so-called visionaries, Welch had his feet firmly on the ground, so his vision could actually be put into practice.

What it means for you

So how might we translate all this into the context of a school? Clearly, the subject leader for educational ICT does not have the same powers of hire and fire, nor does she have the same ambitions in terms of profits and sales. Or at least, not expressed in those terms. Let's go through the above points.

There is a tendency and certainly a great deal of pressure for schools to adopt new courses and qualifications, or new approaches, before they have the resources in place to make a success of them.

Taking the example of a secondary school in England, are you able to deliver excellent results at Key Stage 3, GCSE, 14-19, and, in the longer term,the ICT Diploma, and possibly A Levels? You need to identify what you are good at delivering, and why, and what you cannot deliver well, and why not.

It may not be feasible for you to pull out of the "market" -- but then again, it might be. For example, is there a possibility of developing links with a neighbouring school or college, in order to each specialise in a particular are? Or perhaps once you have identified where your weaknesses lie, you could share resources.

Sometimes, it is possible to drop courses. In one of my jobs, I decided to discontinue a low-level course in graphics that was, actually, delivering good results. Why? Because I thought the course was so simple that (a) it didn't stretch the students in any sense; and (b), because of (a), I didn't think the qualification was worth the paper it was printed on. I dropped it in favour of a much more challenging course, which proved only slightly harder to achieve the same degree of success in, because students rose to the challenge.

Interestingly, this had a knock-on effect on some of the other issues listed above.

Firstly, the ICT department started to gain a reputation for quality, as it started to attract the hardest working students rather than the idle ones. That, in turn, led to better results which led to more "top" students choosing it in their options. In fact, in the course of two years, ICT went from being a "sink" subject to one for which their was more demand than places.

Secondly, it started to attract ICT experts to teach it. Whereas previously anybody could have taught the graphics course, the new course needed a subject expert. In fact, I managed to persuade the headteacher that the subject, and therefore the students, would be much better served by a tight team of 4 or 5 teachers, all experts in their fields, than double that number who knew just enough to get by -- and, being committed to teaching just one or two hours a week, had no obvious incentive to spend much time developing their knowledge and understanding.

This all raises another issue: how do you measure success? There are the obvious measures, such as examination results, but I decided to judge myself and my team by a harder set of criteria: how many students opted to do the subject once they were no longer obliged to; and, even more difficult, how early in their school career did they make that choice? By adopting a systematic approach, I was able to start seeing students decide to opt for my subjects a full two years before they needed to.

Developing staff is all-important. What professional development does your team enjoy? What responsibilities have you delegated to them?

Vision is important, and here are three questions for you to consider:

  1. Do you have a vision for educational ICT in your school?

  2. Does your team know what that vision is, and do they subscribe to it? Indeed, have they had a hand in shaping it?

  3. Is the vision one which can conceivably be realised, or is it all "pie in the sky"?


Ultimately, although the energy industry and the education service are superficially very different, in terms of what motivates people to do well, and other forces which affect performance, they are not that different at all.

The next article in this series will be published at the same time tomorrow morning.

See also: 

Business thought leaders and their relevance to educational technology leadership: Abraham Maslow