Of resting and rusting...

Written by Etienne Borg Cardona, 22 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher’s recent passing away, and the consequent reappearance of her political and personal life and legacy in the media has predictably stirred a range of emotions both at home and abroad.

The diametrically opposed opinions and strong feelings we have witnessed have re-emerged for all to debate, with her being described as a saviour, reformer and visionary, and as a tyrant, bigot and dictator.

Her supporters hail her political achievements as the transformation and salvation of Britain and, further afar with a little help from her friends, the dismantling of the Communist block. They evoke her crusade for the advancement of entrepreneurship, privatisation, self-reliance, personal responsibility and individual empowerment.

With equal conviction her opponents take the view that the decimation of entire communities, a heartless disregard for the poor and disadvantaged, and the drive toward deregulation as the advent of greed and the abandonment of the norms of proper and ethical behaviour in business should be remembered as the hallmarks of her legacy. The end does not justify the means.

Margaret Thatcher’s personality, her ideals and the conflicting emotions she evokes always bring to my mind another big and controversial personality in the world of business – Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric. During his tenure as Chairman and CEO of GE between 1981 and 2001 (Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minster between 1979 and 1990), Jack Welch effectively transformed GE.

With striking similarity, his advocates would highlight his dismantling of the old GE Bureaucracy, the elimination of unprofitable business lines including sacred cows such as the appliances business synonymous with GE’s brand image at the time, the introduction of the six sigma quality program, the relentless drive toward efficiency and profitability, and GEs shift from manufacturing to financial services. The vision? To be number one or number two in every business line that GE was present in.

His many critics, both from inside and outside the world of business, conversely contest his methods as the most excessive form of unbridled capitalism, his emotionless and surgical decision taking (Jack Welch in his biography Jack terms it “candour”), and his lack of compassion in regard to GE employees, and in particular his insistence that mangers fire the lowest 10% of performers in every financial year, which he also defends in his biography as actually being in the interests of the employee in the medium term. I doubt those employees saw it that way.

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