David Sturt: Did Jack Welch's best advice go to his lawn boy?
Richard Drew, Associated Press
Note: This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
In 1969, Terry Holland was mowing several lawns on his street when he knocked on Jack Welch’s door, hoping to add another client to his list. At the tender age of 13, Holland was excited to get the job, but he didn’t expect what was coming.
A middle manager at the time, Welch would later gain celebrity status as General Electric’s CEO that took the organization from a market value of $14 billion to more than $410 billion. Years later he has become the most studied, most talked about and most emulated senior executive of his generation.
What did the greatest manager of the 20th century say to inspire greatness in a teenage lawn boy?
In an interview with Holland he took me through his first encounter: “First off, Jack asked me, ‘How much money do you want to mow my lawn?’ I told him, ‘I really don’t give a price, I let people pay me whatever they think is fair.’ So Jack started pointing around the neighborhood. He asked, ‘How much do you get for mowing that guy’s lawn?’ I told him three bucks. He pointed to another house. ‘How much do you get paid for his?’ Three and a quarter. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ Jack said, ‘I’ll give you $4 to mow my lawn on one condition: I want my lawn to look better than any of theirs.’”
Years later, Holland reflected on how that invitation to do great work made all the difference.
“A light went on and I said, ‘Oh, here’s a guy that’s not just hiring me to mow his lawn. He wants his lawn to look better than all the other lawns on the street. And he’s looking to me to do it.’ As a kid mowing a lawn, you’re always trying to do a good job, just so you don’t get in trouble. But now here’s this guy who wants it to look really, really good. It’s a whole different game. It changes your focus to know excellence is rewarded.”
Accepting the challenge
Holland did a good job on all his customers’ lawns. But Welch’s house was different. Holland’s higher expectation brought with it a greater opportunity. Welch was on the constant lookout for ways to make Holland love the way his lawn looked. He experimented with new ways of cutting, trimming and sweeping.
“I guess maybe it’s a competitive thing that I have in me,” says Holland, “I enjoy doing stuff that there’s a reason to do. The time I spent cutting Jack’s lawn passed quicker for me than all the others. It gave me a chance to prove something to myself. There wasn’t the same drudgery that usually comes from mowing a lawn. It wasn’t mindless work. It was fun.”
After a few years, the Welches moved away. But when it came time for Holland to get a job referral, he called Welch and he recommended him for a position at GE immediately, no questions asked.
An invitation to make a difference
The way Welch communicated vision to his lawn boy was simple and ingenious. It not only got Welch the best-looking lawn in the neighborhood, it called a young teenage boy to greatness. It helped his lawn boy transcend good work, and discover the incredible experience of doing great work.
When was the last time you invited someone to do something great? Do we worry so much about people just getting the job done right that we’re afraid to invite them to take it to the next level? Is the reason your team isn’t exceeding expectations because you are getting exactly what you asked for?
Next time you ask someone to get a job done for you, pause, and do what Welch did. Call them to greatness and be prepared to see some of the results that Welch saw.
David Sturt is an executive vice president at O.C. Tanner and author of the New York Times best-seller "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw-Hill). You can follow him on twitter @david_sturt or visit www.greatwork.com.
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