“Women have been over-delivering for decades and watching men who do less consistently be given more opportunities for advancement,” is what I told writer Bob Calendra of Human Resource Executive On-line, when he asked me what I thought about Jack Welch’s comments at the Wall Street Journal Conference, Women in the Economy, held in May. I believe my statement is also true for people of color, regardless of their gender.
According to attendees and various reporters Welch created quite a stir when he called corporate mentoring programs for women “victim’s units.” He said women get ahead not because of mentorship programs and diversity initiatives aimed at females, but rather because they work hard and show how their skills can benefit the company.
“Over deliver,” he told the audience. “Performance is it!” But is it really the only thing?
Welch went further by criticizing corporate mentoring initiatives as being “one of the worst ideas that ever came along,” adding that women “should see everyone as a mentor.” Welch advised women wanting to get ahead to grab the most difficult assignments and prove themselves. He also recommended women pay attention to what their bosses say about how they are doing at their jobs. Welch noted that “without a rigorous appraisal system, without you knowing where you stand” as well as “how you can improve, none of these ‘help’ programs that were up there are going to be worth much to you.”
His evidence came from his recollections of a GE forum for women, in which he described the reactions from some of the women who had been recommended for it: the “best” of the women involved, claims Welch, told him, “I don’t want to be in a special group. I’m not in the victim’s unit. I’m a star. I want to be compared with the best of your best.’” He then added, “Stop lying about it. It’s true. Great women get upset about getting into the victim’s unit.”
Where do I get off disagreeing with one of the most successful corporate leaders? Let’s start with a look at the Fortune 500 companies. Did you know that just 3% have a female CEO. Yet a recent survey of 60 major companies by McKinsey shows women occupy 53% of entry-level positions, 40% of manager positions, and only 19% of C-suite jobs.
Could it be possible that so few of these women are rising stars worthy of promotion? Or could it be that men in leadership still tend to choose men who look like them to promote and develop as leaders?
Let’s take a look at Welch’s own career. I actually studied it in graduate school. He joined General Electric in 1960 as a junior chemical engineer with a starting salary of $10,500 – which was pretty good pay at the time. While at GE he was a risk taker. In one project that didn’t go well, he blew off the roof of the factory, and was almost fired for doing it. But someone in management saw a possibility in him so they kept him on.
In 1961, Welch planned to quit his job as a junior engineer because he was dissatisfied with the raise offered to him and was unhappy with the bureaucracy he observed at GE. Welch was persuaded to remain by Reuben Gutoff, an executive at the company, who promised him that he would help create the small company atmosphere Welch desired and shield him from the bureaucracy he hated.
Welch was not in a formal leadership or mentoring program. At the time, GE and most other companies had career ladders that systematically groomed men for leadership. You just had to keep your job and do it well to rise to the top with the help of someone in senior management who could be your mentor or sponsor. Welch became one of the anointed.
He was named a vice president of GE in 1972. He became senior vice president in 1977 and vice chairman in 1979. He became GE’s youngest chairman and CEO in 198. He was smart, talented and effective. But, had it not been for Gutoff’s personal interest and sponsorship so early in his career, we might never have heard of Jack Welch and his accomplishments as the leader of GE.
As for mentoring programs being designed for the “victims,” I agree with Welch. Corporate mentoring programs, and I am willing to bet the program Welch was referring to was among them, were in fact, exercises to address diversity and leadership development for those who were not and never would become the anointed. In a corporate culture like that, I wouldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to participate.
Effective mentoring is not a remediation program for “victims” and the “disengaged.” When set up properly, mentoring programs are interactive, dynamic and empowering for both mentors and mentees. Everyone grows, develops and advances. Participants become fully accountable for the actions they take and learn from their mistakes, their triumphs and everything in-between. In successful mentoring programs mentors and mentees understand their roles, trust each other, are willing to listen and try new things.
Any time a person takes on a formidable challenge, the going will get tough. That’s when a mentor is there to ask the hard questions that provoke their mentee to think more deeply and clearly. They cheer the loudest when there’s a breakthrough, a step toward the seemingly impossible, or attainment of a goal so challenging there could be no certainty of accomplishment until it was achieved. They are also there to point out what could be done better, what contributed to the success that can be reliably repeated and built upon.
Welch asserts that women can get this kind of guidance and feedback from their bosses. In some cases, that is probably true. If we look at the ranks of leadership, we can see it is not translating into results for women in most corporations. Some of that can be attributed to women who are juggling family and work. I believe more of it is due to the flattened corporate structure invented and refined by Mt. Welch, himself. In many companies managers have 30 or more direct reports. They simply cannot spend the time it takes to mentor their stars. Not without help, anyway.
Mentorship programs for the winners those who could become the anointed for future leadership can be designed and delivered. The most successful mentoring occurs when the mentor has the basic skills to be an effective mentor. And when the mentee has the drive to succeed plus the willingness to take coaching, try new things, and strive to master the skills that ensure success. Programs like that can and do work. The most effective mentoring programs occur when there is buy-in from top, investment in design and staffing of the program and a clear path of advancement for program participants. Without that clear path, the program will be perceived as a “victim’s unit” rather than the pathway for the anointed.