Monday, March 29, 2010

You Are Right, Jack

How would you like to be on the receiving end of this blast from Jack Welch: "What, are you stupid!?"

Mary Stengel Austen was — and survived this encounter with a boisterous Welch quite nicely, thank you. So much so that on March 11 she was recognized with the 2010 Paradigm Award for her role as a major corporate leader in the Philadelphia metropolitan region. Austen (pictured above at the award event) is president and CEO of Tierney Communications, a leading advertising and PR firm. "Ms. Austen is truly a remarkable business leader and an amazing asset to our region," declared Rob Wonderling, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the organization that presents the Paradigm Award.

Now, as to that bump-up against Jack Welch. Here is the story in her own words, which she recounted unabashedly in her award acceptance speech:

"I was at a two-day conference in Boston — billed as 2 Days with Jack — several years ago. I was fortunate enough to be in a room with only a handful of other CEOs. So I was able to get into this great conversation with Jack and he asks me, 'Mary, who's your mentor?' I paused and said, 'Well, I really don't have a mentor.' Without skipping a beat, Jack Welch looks me in the eye and barks, 'What, are you stupid?!' "

"Not my proudest moment," Austen admited.

This character-building moment ended up being a career-enhancing moment. She explained to the 800-person crowd packing the Marriott ballroom that turned out to see her get the Paradigm Award what happened next: Welch "went on to say that people are usually flattered when others ask them for advice or to serve as a mentor. They expect it, and chances are they relied on mentors themselves and see it as an opportunity to give back." Now, said Austen, "I have many mentors."

That's an important lesson in the vital formation of a leader. And Mary's story serves as a useful reminder that a role of a board member is to be a mentor to the CEO and management team. That is a role not often analyzed in the governance literature or emphasized in board-management interaction. In a quick search through the almost 35-year archives of Directors & Boards, I can point to at most a bare handful of articles that touch on this role of the board.

With so much hard-earned — read "hard-learned" — wisdom residing at the board level, it is, in Jack Welch's inimitable phraseology, "stupid" not to channel that into a mentoring relationship with the organization's managers. Who knows, that might be just the ticket to honing a future award-winning business leader like Mary Stengel Austen.