A Peek Inside Her Agenda: Suzy Welch

Best-selling author, Television commentator, business journalist


Jul. 1 2015, Published 3:15 a.m. ET

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Suzy Welch
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“In the end, only kindness matters” are words Suzy Welch lives by. Much of her time is spent as a TV commentator, best-selling author, journalist and businesswoman extraordinaire. Suzy is also a mother of 4, animal-lover and an avid runner. With an impressive resume including bylines at publications including Harvard Business Review, O Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, it’s easy to consider Suzy a ‘super woman.’ However, she doesn’t see herself that way. Suzy tells us, she has “bad days too.” It is through extensive experience and millions of conversations that she brings us important lessons. We’re honored to have spoken to Suzy to hear firsthand how she has become a wonderful teacher of business and life.

Her Agenda: What inspired The Real-Life MBA?

Suzy Welch: Well, we had written Winning 10 years ago and felt like it covered all the territory that we knew about and wanted to cover, but 10 years had past. In those 10 years, we learned a huge amount. We were working so much and Jack started an online MBA program. He also managed 75 private equity companies and I was writing, reporting, in the media a lot and began to serve on a lot of boards. We also traveled the world and spoke to probably 2.5 million people.

On top of that, the world really changed. It got faster, more global and more technology-driven. While many principles of Winning had stood the test of time, the fact was that the context of those principles had been really radically changed.

Frankly, we’re very optimistic, upbeat people and generally not complainers, but we really thought work has gotten a lot harder the last few years. So, we felt like we learned a lot and the world had changed so why don’t we take a look and create some kind of book that we didn’t think existed, like an MBA in a box. This idea that whether you had gotten your MBA, don’t have time to get your MBA and feel like you need one, here’s some fundamentals principles and practices we think could help you do your job better or advance your career more swiftly.

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Suzy Welch via Her Agenda

Her Agenda: Could you talk about your process for taking on big projects like this?

Suzy Welch:  I am a writer by trade, so I do all the things professional writers do. We had an outline for the book, a defined set of ideas and we invented the book as we went along.

We knew what we were going to write and then we used a process that really works for us (worked for Winning and for our columns). We take a topic and we talk about it until we’re drained. We both talk, I interview Jack, he pushes back, I ask for examples, we call people when we don’t know the answer to something, or a friend in the business who might be able to tell us more about something.

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We just take the content and batter it, wrangle it, wrestle it, pull it apart and put it back together again. After we’re done with that and can say no more about the topic, I go into a room that I call “the cave” and write a first draft. That could take a while. When I’m done, I will give that first draft to Jack and he will read it. This is the single most painful part of the process (waiting for him to read the first draft!) Then, he’ll say anything from “it’s great, I love it,” which means there’s about 15-20 more drafts or “ok honey, we have work to do,” which could mean 65 more drafts. There’s one chapter in the Real-Life MBA that had 68 drafts!

[Jack] is so smart and a joy to work with. He’s run businesses and I’ve run a small company and managed people, so we give and we take. He’ll say “this happens” and “that happens” and I’ll say, “tell me more.”

Her Agenda: In the making of The Real-Life MBA, you and Jack spoke to millions of people. Among them were Millennials, which you and Jack point out as great to work with for their hunger and eagerness. However, are there any weaknesses you see among the group? How can we tackle them?

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Suzy Welch: The fabulous thing about millennials is that the first thing they want is their work to have meaning. People often give millennials a bad rap but I love that about them. They really want their work to have social meaning and see how it connects to the universe. They are really attracted to companies that for example, for every pair of shoes sold, they give a pair to someone at a disadvantage. That is fantastic to them and I think that that’s an admirable and authentic thing. I love that about the millennials. However, I wonder if it will stand the test of time when they’ve got tuitions, mortgages, and car loans. Life does gets in the way but I hope those characteristics stay.

I do think there is a sense of “it’s not working out for me, I’m leaving” and it happens fast. People understand that jobs change must faster now. When I was coming up in the world, you wouldn’t dream of having less than 2 years on your resume at each place. Now, that’s really gone as a value in the workplace. So, impatience is something millennials need to be careful with. Sometimes, working through a really difficult work situation is worth it and is where the learning occurs.

Sometimes, you just have a really bad boss. Surviving that boss or learning to work with a difficult boss is a very valuable experience, painful as it may be.  It really teaches you a lot. So, if there’s one thing millennials might consider, it’s don’t flee too quickly from tough situations.

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"Learning to work with a difficult boss is a very valuable experience" - Suzy Welch via Her Agenda

Her Agenda: Given your extensive professional writing/editing experience, do you have any special writing practices you could share?

Suzy Welch: Every writer writes differently and has a different technique. My one piece of advice to writers would be: Writing is hard and you just have to muddle through.

Her Agenda: What would you say to young women who may be stumped by fear or perfectionism?

Suzy Welch: I’m perplexed by that because you’re signing yourself up for a life where you miss out on a lot of stuff. I’ve learned that failure does not kill you. You’ve got to try stuff and you’re not going to succeed at all of it. You’ve got to just openly admit “man, I really screwed that up.” Everyone is very sympathetic.

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The thing that gets you in trouble is when you screw up and try to hide it or cover it up. Everybody who has ever tried anything has made mistakes. If you own your mistakes, then it gets less hard to try things. You realize ‘oh, I don’t die’ and ‘no one hates me.’ Things just move along.

If you own your mistakes it gets less hard to try things - Suzy Welch via Her Agenda
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Her Agenda: What are some specific practices entrepreneurs and team leaders should employ to reward people for embracing their organization’s mission?

Suzy Welch: It is all about embracing the mission and energizing the team. If you’ve got people who are not doing that, then you’ve got the wrong people on your team. Sometimes you really like them and they’re really talented, but if they don’t celebrate the values you’ve put in place to achieve the mission, then they need to find a place where they can do that. You can waste a lot of your very precious energies as a leader trying to get people on to your team. Either they’re on or not.

When it comes to rewards, your top performers get a huge amount of praise, promotions, and compensated well. You give your people everything a good leader gives, which is love, respect, admiration and encouragement. Money also really maters because you can’t eat love and you’ve got to live.

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We actually met a fabulous entrepreneur starting a company and he said to us, “I’m building a team but I can’t pay them very much… so I have to give them intrinsic rewards like the thrill of building a business.” What I admired about this CEO was that he understood the intrinsic or “other” rewards had to be really outside of money. You could also give people equity. If not, you’ve got to understand that nobody is working for their health. For some people, money isn’t a big issue but, it’s one of your jobs as a boss to know your people and know what turns their crank.

Her Agenda: For the many young people just starting out in a traditional, bureaucratic company instead of cool startups, what are appropriate ways for them to infuse lessons from The Real-Life MBA, like teamwork, at their jobs?

Suzy Welch: It’s almost impossible until they are a leader of a team themselves. If you’re just starting out as an individual contributor, you can stay true to your values, try to be innovative, use candor, and not surrender to the values that you don’t like. But, until you have your own team that you can use as your little laboratory to share practices you love, it’s hard. I’m just being realistic.

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There is no way you’re going to reform an organization just coming in as a newbie in a bureaucratic organization. If you’re good, if you’re talented, then you’ll get a team. Then, you can start your own things, do constant feedback and all the things we recommended. Your results will be so good, they’ll cover for you. If people say “hey, we don’t do it that way,” you can say, “well, look at my results.”

The Real-Life MBA by Jack & Suzy Welch via Her Agenda
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Her Agenda: As a business woman, how did you get your voice heard?

Suzy Welch: I think for better or worse, I just refused to ever believe that someone wasn’t going to listen to me because I was a woman. Part of it comes from the fact that I went to boarding school and it had just become co-ed and I was surrounded by guys. I looked around the table and thought, I have to speak up and put myself out there.  I was born with certain personality traits; to describe me as an extrovert is an understatement. I was lucky to have an early experience and learn to put myself out there. And, I was received positively. If I got pushback to be quiet, I just didn’t notice it.

It worked out, too. I went onto Harvard and I spoke my brains out there and it seemed to continue on. I love being a woman and feel very empowered by it.  I’m fascinated by other women, I love women’s literature and admired a huge amount of women journalists who were my heroes. Maybe I’m just stubborn, but if someone was telling me to hush up, I didn’t hear them.

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Suzy Welch via Her Agenda

Her Agenda: You have so many amazing accomplishments already (Harvard Business Review, Harvard MBA, The O Magazine, etc) you’re a super woman! How do you unwind and make work/life choices?

Suzy Welch: First thing, I’m not a super woman! I don’t see myself that way. I have challenges just like anyone else. I know from the outside how it possibly looks like that but I have bad days too just like everyone else.

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That aside, I unwind in a few ways. I’m a runner so I try to make sure I run everyday. If I don’t run, it’s a really bad day. Running is not the answer for everybody but I honestly believe in physical activity: sound body, sound mind. I listen to some very loud music when I’m running. In fact, if I don’t go run by 4:00 Jack will say “can you please go run?” because it makes such a difference.

I am also a devout Christian. My faith is central to my life. I pray or am determined to pray everyday. I don’t know what I would do without that.

Her Agenda: I wanted to rewind to your 2009 publication 10-10-10, where you implement a strategy to make important decisions. (It is where you ask yourself three key questions: What are the consequences of my decision in 10 minutes, in 10 months, and in 10 years?) How do you grapple with the long-term 10-year prediction?

Suzy Welch: No one knows what their life will be like in 10 years. But, you can certainly know what you want it to look like in 10 years. The last 10 years in the strategy is asking you to visualize the life you want.

When you’re trying to make a decision between two options. You say, “this is the consequence in 10 minutes (the immediate), this is the consequence in 10 months” and then for 10 years ask, “what is the impact of the life I’m trying to make?”

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If the 10 years is hard, it’s possible that you’re not yet sure what the life you want to create looks like. Sometimes we don’t know or we’re struggling to decide what we want to create. However at a certain point, you may get an understanding of it and that’s when the final 10 is easier to figure out. You may have to try on a few different versions. The dream of your life is not set in stone but it’s important to have one.

"The dream of your future is not set in stone but it's important to have one" - Suzy Welch via HerAgenda
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Her Agenda: Any time management tips?

Suzy Welch: There is a period in your life where time management is pointless. When I was running HBR, had four kids and was a single mom, I had a lot of techniques. I’m a big believer in technology for helping manage your time. For example, I had a color-coded calendar which helped me see where every kid was.

The #1 time management thing that you can do is to know your values. Once you know your values, it all sorts itself out. What I discovered, and one of the reasons I wrote 10-10-10, is when you’re living by someone else’s values, you don’t have an honest discussion with yourself. That’s when time management is really screwed up because you’re trying to make others happy. It sorts itself out when you say OK, here are my values, here are my choices around my values and that means something is going to give.

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For most people, the reality is that there’s a 15 year period where your work needs all of you and your personal life needs all of you, typically 25-40 years old. Those who are doing this without losing their mind is a result of choices being made based on values (what will grow and what will give).       

Her Agenda: What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

Suzy Welch:  While I was at HBR and just had my fourth child, I was working late one night. I was overcome with guilt, I couldn’t focus on what I was editing and my brain was at home, yet I had to get things done at work. In agony, I called a good friend of mine from business school who had three children herself. I said, “I’m tortured” and she said “Oh Suzy, don’t you realize guilt is a choice?” This was just a brilliant moment for me. I was like ‘oh right, it is a choice.’  I said to myself, I’ve made this choice to work so now I have to build a life so that I don’t have guilt constantly.

Own your decisions and then build your life so you don’t have guilt. That doesn’t mean guilt goes away, it still happens, but you can’t make it your life everyday.

Her Agenda: What is your personal motto?

Suzy Welch:  In the end, only kindness matters. How good we are to each other is the measure of our lives.

Check out more important career lessons from Suzy and her husband Jack Welch on their latest podcast. They’ve team up with to create “Welchcast“ to bring audiences valuable insights from their work.

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