Sometimes the sight of a single physical thing can wrench free emotions that you thought you had tightened down.
This happened to me recently at the wake of my friend, Bill Lane. His family had placed his Green Beret from his service in Vietnam atop his coffin. When I saw it, my throat tightened and my eyes welled up as I remembered the many hours I had spent with this amazing man during our time at GE.
When I joined GE's public relations team, Bill already was a legendary speechwriter for Jack Welch. Bill helped Jack change the way CEOs communicated. No fancy boardroom talk or financial bullshit -- just plain, powerful, and realistic language without a hint of elitism. They retooled the workingman’s language for Wall Street and investors loved it.
Bill was an officer in the Green Berets during one of the toughest parts of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive. Seeing his Green Beret brought back memories of Bill telling me about his time in Vietnam, not to brag but to shine a spotlight on the idiocy of the mission or the leadership. His stories were always perfectly constructed, without fat, and hilarious and maddening at the same time. And Bill told them with red-hot passion. He’d reach a fiery crescendo and then his mood would improve instantly. He’d smile, shrug his shoulders and say, “Who gives a shit. Let’s get some coffee.”
When Jack Welch retired in 2001, GE put together a book of his 21 annual letters to share owners. Bill's introduction perfectly reflected Jack and the GE culture at the time:
"The letters were often inspiring and uplifting, but could be scary as well, to elements of the management population -- 'and the know who they are.' Startling denunciations and threats were regularly directed at bureaucracy and bureaucrats...from mere 'ridicule and removal,' to annihilation."
Bill and Jack’s writing process was elegantly simple: Jack would dictate the outline of a speech or a share owner letter. Bill would take notes or tape record Jack and then charge down the steps to his office to begin writing on a yellow legal pad with a black felt tip pen. When he was satisfied with what he’d written, Bill would hand the pages to an executive assistant for typing and then would prowl the halls until the document was proofed and sent to Jack.
At times, however, there were a few kinks. Bill and I got a new executive assistant when I joined GE. A few days after she started, Bill needed to get a speech to Jack quickly. He handed a stack of handwritten pages to the new assistant. As Bill hovered nearby, she began typing very slowly -- using only her index fingers.
“Uh oh,” was all Bill said. A few days later, we had a new assistant.
Another time a red-faced Bill came down the hall after meeting with Jack. Our new and very able assistant, Diane Laffitte, asked him how it went. Bill said, “He doesn’t like the photo I picked for the annual report. Says it makes him look bald.” Diane asked, “What did you say?” Bill responded, “I told him he IS fucking bald.”
He did not suppress his sense of humor when dealing with Jack. For example, Bill would listen to Jack give him feedback on a draft of the annual letter and then with a straight face ask, "Do you have any serious comments?"
Bill was direct, gruff, and politically conservative as they came. But he never held it against you if you disagreed nor did he take anything too seriously that was outside his control. Words, however, he could control.
He taught others to try to do the same in the famous “Pit” lecture hall at GE’s "Crotonville" learning center. He’d tell junior executives they had to up their communications game if they wanted to climb the GE ladder. “Forget PowerPoint, it’s a plague,” he’d bellow, urging more personal, less formal communications.
Mind you, several years after I arrived at GE in 1999, Bill was still using overhead transparencies. But the medium didn’t matter – his message of simplicity and clarity was burned into the brains of thousands of GE executives over the years.
I write about Bill because he was one of the most important people in my life. When I arrived at GE, I knew almost nothing about business or GE. Bill took the time to help. I’d drop a proposed statement on his desk and he’d return it quickly with big black edits that made my mundane prose passable.
The most fun was working with Bill rehearsing senior leaders for presentations at GE’s annual strategy meeting. In a dark and cavernous ballroom, Bill would stand at the back of the room, microphone in hand and give direct and blunt “voice of god” comments when the executive was done rehearsing:
“What was all that mumbo jumbo up front? Get rid of it.”
Bill could be quite intimidating until you figured out that he was a marshmallow underneath all the muscles; his warmth and caring for others – particularly his family -- could be as powerful as his writing. Our mutual friend Steve Ramsey, who led GE's environment and safety team, described Bill as loyal and generous and reminded me how much fun it was to be around Bill, and how he would pull your chain just to get a rise out of you.
Once he casually mentioned an op-ed he had written in 1988 for the Wall Street Journal about Vietnam veterans. After he left my office, I looked it up and discovered a war story he had not told. During a firefight during the Tet offensive, enemy fire kept him pinned down behind tombstones in a Buddhist cemetery for a day and a night.
Later, on our way to get coffee, I told him it was an amazing story.
His response was pure Bill (and very similar to a line from the op-ed): He rolled his eyes and said, “Don’t make me barf.”