Leaving home for work the other day, I spotted an SUV with the vanity license plate “6SIGMA.” Could it be that this was a GE employee who has taken Jack Welch’s transformational ethos about building quality from within to heart? After reading Welch’s letter to shareholders in GE’s annual you might find yourself changing your own vanity plate. Welch is a great believer in annual reports as vehicles able to tell as “much about where we can go as where we have been.” GE’s report didn’t make our top 10 list of this year’s best reports (see p. 42), but his message to shareholders rarely disappoints.
This year he describes the “social architecture” of the company as well as the “operating system” by which GE pulls together some 600 leaders within the global enterprise for idea sharing and learning. It’s one of the ways to overcome the so-called traditional handicap of being a multi-business company. It’s also an unusual way for the boss to get across to outsiders what this Fairfield phenomena is all about. Clear and crisp, the message reads true to Welch’s voice. Where else would one find a CEO talking about mentor-mentee interactions resembling that of “Stuart” and his boss in the slightly off-center Ameritrade commercials? If only more CEOs could do this for their own enterprises.
Too bad Bill Gates couldn’t loosen up in his shareholder letter. True, one wouldn’t necessarily have him dwell on the Great Antitrust Action of the Century, but considering it was the headline event of the last few years, omitting it is a bit like Moses offering a year-end report and leaving out that bit about the Red Sea that Microsoft is “customer-centric,” or understands “ubiquitous connectivity?” And how about digging deeper into something called “rich real-time interactivity?” Shareholders might wonder if Bill really talks like his message reads. Fortunately, he doesn’t. Next year, Bill, find your own voice-and can the ghostwriters from IT hell.