When Jack Welch died at the age of 82 in March of 2020, his widow lost not only the love of her life but also her intellectual partner and collaborator.
Ever since the beginning of their relationship nearly 19 years earlier in 2001, Suzy Welch and her husband, the legendary CEO who led General Electric Co, for two decades, had been bound by the hip and the mind. They began each morning devouring newspapers together, debating the motives and the wisdom of the subjects in various stories.
Welch, a former editor of The Harvard Business Review, would ultimately collaborate with her husband on a weekly magazine and newspaper column as well as three books, the bestseller Winning, its companion volume Winning: The Answers, and The Real Life MBA: Your No-BS Guide to Winning the Game, Building a Team and Growing Your Career.
CASTING ABOUT FOR AN ‘ORGANIZATIONAL PRINCIPLE FOR MY LIFE’
“I was casting about for an organizational principle for my life with Jack gone,” Suzy Welch tells Poets&Quants. Was it another book, even a memoir of sorts of her life with Jack Welch? Or perhaps more commentary on TV where she already is a regular contributor on The Today Show? After speaking with a friend who teaches at NYU’s Stern School of Business, her search led to the possibility of entering a classroom to teach MBA students.
She certainly knows a thing or two about MBA education. Besides her real-life MBA in living with Jack Welch, she has on her resume a Harvard Business School MBA, having graduated as a Baker Scholar in the top 5% of her class in 1988. With her husband, she also founded the Jack Welch Management Institute, a highly-ranked online MBA program.
Welch searched through Stern’s course catalog only to find that the school lacked a class that would help students live a more purposeful life in a career aligned with their personal values.
‘I WANTED TO CREATE THE CLASS I SHOULD HAVE TAKEN AT HARVARD’
“I wanted to create the class I should have taken at Harvard,” adds Suzy. “My goal is not that you get to your area of destiny tomorrow. My goal is to take off maybe two years of wrong turns in your career. Everybody has to make mistakes. And everybody has to do that zigging and zagging to go where they want to go.”
“This is a class that invites people to think about themselves. You go to business school and you think about strategy and the digital economy but what about thinking about what you want to do with your life? Most people get to business school to pivot into a new career. If you were happy it would have been full speed ahead. So you get there and you are looking around and the choices get narrower and narrower because of groupthink.
“You arrive big-eyed and you end up squinting. Investment banking and consulting are the two big funnels, or maybe tech. And then there are the optics. People are getting jobs and you want one, too. I had a student who got an offer from McKinsey and he said I think I have to take it. He really wants to be an entrepreneur but McKinsey is dangling a lot of money and they are telling them he could move to any location after three years.”
Dean Raghu Sundaram immediately loved the idea and invited her to take a swing at it. She did just that, writing a detailed curriculum for a seven-week course from scratch called Becoming You: Crafting the Authentic Career You Want and Need. “Our New York City location affords us many extraordinary advantages, not least our unparalleled access to so many top business and thought leaders who bring their real-world experiences directly into our classrooms,” says Sundaram. “Suzy is a superb case in point. When she and I first spoke, she described her thoughts to me of teaching a course centered around self-awareness, authenticity and the central question about one’s true life purpose, I jumped at it. It was an exciting idea. She said she wished she had had such a course when she was doing her MBA; I wish I had too.”
SEARCHING FOR YOUR ‘AREA OF DESTINY’
So Welch went to work. “I sat down and designed a course that would get students to do work on their personal values, aptitude, and skills,” she says. “The premise of the class is that your area of destiny is at the intersection of your authentic values, your personal skills, and economic opportunity. Your life is an iterative journey where you end up in your area of destiny and the outcome is happiness, but happiness is not the goal.”
She built the three-hour classes around classroom exercises and activities, readings from memoirs, TED talks, documentaries about trailblazers as well as classical works about identity by great philosophers and social scientists. “I wanted to make the class vibrant, interactive, relevant, meaningful, and yes, even fun.”
The description of MGMT-GB 2107 in Stern’s course catalog is as ambitious as it is compelling: “The objective of this class is to guide students through the complex, exhilarating, and sometimes surprising journey of discovering the right career for them, one rich with opportunity, meaning, and impact. ‘Becoming You’ grows out of the premise that the happiest, most fulfilling lives are those lived in your ‘Area of Destiny,’ the intersection of your best and most unique skills, your deepest and most authentic values, and the economy’s most rewarding spaces. On many levels, the Area of Destiny construct is intuitive – of course, you should be doing what you’re good at, what you love, and what the world needs. But what’s less intuitive is how often smart, ambitious, and often enlightened people end up with lives and careers that are less deliberate and joyful, and more accidental and stressful, than they’d ever wanted.”
A TOTALLY JACK MOMENT: OBSESSING OVER WHETHER STUDENTS WOULD DROP THE COURSE
When it came time for students to register for the elective, she was as anxious about the sign-ups and drop-offs as a student would be about a grade in a core course. “In a totally Jack moment,” she laughs, referring to her late husband’s penchant to obsess over numbers from Nielsen ratings at NBC shows to quality failures on products, “I was obsessed with drops. I was checking every minute to see if there were any drops. I was worried that I would present the premise of the class and people would get a taste of it and I would lose everybody. I gained two people and didn’t lose anyone.”
Ultimately, both her full-time MBA class and her part-time MBA class were filled to capacity, with 40 students in each, 80 in all. The full-time MBA class finished this week while her part-time course closes in early November. She’s committed to teach at NYU Stern again in the fourth semester starting next April.
While student ratings are not yet in, Welch has gotten plenty of enthusiastic and positive feedback from students. At the very least, she has clearly found an organizing principle for her life after Jack.
‘ONE OF THE MOST GRATIFYING THINGS I HAVE EVER DONE IN MY LIFE’
“It’s been among the most gratifying things I have ever done in my life,” she concludes. “As Jack would say, it’s in the veins. And when you have had a good class and you have students saying this has changed the game for them, that was much more impactful. I never until last year thought teaching was something I would enjoy. But I found out it’s wonderful for where I am in my life and what I have to offer the world.”
Among other things, Welch reconfigured a values exercise developed by a University of Virginia psychologist for use in therapeutic settings, reconstructing it for MBA students. To test it out, she asked her daughter, Eve, to invite 20 friends over to do the values excavation exercise together.
“It starts off where you are writing things that you can’t live without,” she recalls. “And it gets harder and people are groaning and then there is this big reveal. As it was happening I thought I think I have something here. People were powerfully moved. We got to the end and no one would leave. Everyone wanted to stay and talk about what they discovered.”
The next morning, a car pulled up to her house. “It was one of Eve’s friends. She is coming toward me and her eyes are red and she said, ‘You changed my life. My husband and I stayed up all night talking about our values. We had to confront the gaps.’
BRINGING HER WHOLE SELF TO CLASS, INCLUDING WHY SHE WENT TO WORK FOR BAIN
Welch notes that “you have to be vulnerable in this exercise and this class. You have to be honest. You have to share your answers with others. I said this may be too close to your nerve center. We did another exercise asking students to name three people whose lives they wished they had and then what they most admire. It is one of the most powerful exercises we do because it helps people understand the gap between who they are and how people perceive them.”
Students also appreciate that she brought her whole self to the class, freely discussing personal stories, including the time her son was fired from his job or what led to her taking a job in consulting with Bain & Co. after earning her MBA. “In business school, I had one goal and that was getting out of debt,” says Welch, who left a job as a reporter for the Miami Herald to enroll at Harvard. “Bain came along and said if you are a Baker Scholar we will erase that debt right away.”
She signed her offer letter from Bain and began work with the firm as a consultant, not because this was her destiny but rather because she didn’t want to be indebted to anyone for her education.
‘IN THE VEINS! IN THE VEINS!’
“I was not evolved, acknowledges Welch, now 63. “I share all these stories. I didn’t know my values until I was in my 30s. When I skipped the last big party of the year at Harvard, one of the students told me, ‘You know, you don’t value fun.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t. I value getting out of debt and being a Baker Scholar.’
Through it all, Welch discovered that she loves teaching MBAs. “I bet Jack would be tickled by this,” she laughs. “When he helped people, he would say, “In the veins! In the veins!” to convey how helping people grow gave him a high like heroin? I am having an “in the veins” experience with my class.”