An Online MBA Degree Linked To A Legendary Leader

Andrea Backman, dean of the Jack Welch Management Institute

Andrea Backman, dean of the Jack Welch Management Institute

The Welch curriculum is filled with case studies, role-plays, podcasts, business games and video snippets of counsel and advice from a number of leading executives, many of whom reinforce the Welch message and several of whom worked directly under him at GE. They include Boeing CEO James McNerney, who Welch once considered as his successor at GE, and Nielsen CEO David Calhoun, a former vice chairman of GE.

“We are trying to build a repository of people who will resonate with all of our students,” says Backman. “That is a huge differentiator with us. They are not just coming and delivering a message. They are talking about how they applied the principles they teach and with what impact. It’s different than having a guest lecturer come.”


Backman says incoming students are assigned a “success coach” who helps students fit the program into their already busy schedules. “We also have writing coaches for students, especially if they come from an information technology background or speak English as a second language.” That’s because writing is an essential part of an online program, the way to communicate insights and learning. About 30% of the grades at the Welch Institute are based on discussion questions and student responses to them. MBAs also “are expected to reflect on what learning they applied at work during the week in a section of the website called Learning Journal.

And the faculty? The institute says that its professors have taught at such places as Cornell University, Northeastern University, the University of Virginia and Boston University. They have graduate degrees from Wharton, Harvard University, the London School of Economics, and the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “Our adjuncts are usually working professionals who happen to have a PhD,” says Backman. “Almost all the faculty have had industry experience or are in it right now. We expect the faculty to be both coaches and experts, and we have a mix of academics and practitioners.”

Students include a wide range of managers and executives from small-to-mid-sized private companies to such major corporate players as Boeing, FedEx, Home Depot, Marriott, Nielsen, and Verizon. One of the biggest questions would-be students often have is what it is like to study and learn without classmates beside you.


When Thompson signed up for the program, she was initially concerned about whether she could bond with fellow students and faculty who were not in the same room. “It is a virtual experience but it is still intimate,” she says now. “I’m a very social person and that was important to me. I have direct contact weekly with the staff and faculty. The dean is really involved, and the professors go above and beyond to assist and to challenge you.”

And then there is her Sunday morning coffee klatch. Now into her third course—Financial Management I—Thompson still meets with her original study group at 9 a.m., using web conferencing software. Her fellow students are piped in from Egypt, Florida, Texas, New York, and Illinois. “Some of us have moved into different classrooms but we are sharing what is going on at work and what we’re learning. We talk about the biggest moment of the week and obstacles and challenges in our professional worlds. It’s not just book work. It’s real learning you can apply the next day.”

Backman came away with several ideas to improve the program after a recent “blue sky” session with students. She says the institute expects to launch some shorter five-week courses, introduce more business simulations in classes, and explore the possibility of a graduation ceremony where Welch hands out the diplomas in person as enrollment continues to climb. “There are no limits or constraints in thinking,” she says. “We do have a lot of ideas on the student networking side of things, to find meaningful ways for students to connect via social media. We have circles of students outside of the classroom. We want to do more to connect students.”

During the recent videoconference, Welch was asked by one student for advice on how to best accept criticism from his boss. In typical Welch tough-love fashion, he told the manager to suck it up. “You have to sit back and show the person giving you the candor that you are receptive and that you are not trying to get ready on the edge of your chair to combat the arguments,” Welch instructed. “The only person that counts in this discussion is your boss. You have to show your boss that you are wide open to suggestions and you really want to learn. Suck it up and try to deal with the criticisms, even if you don’t think they are valid.”

Welch then pauses and offers this reflective aside. “I got a lot of candid feedback in my career: Most of it was, ‘You are too damn abrasive, you are too aggressive, slow down, be patient.’ I never got all the way there but I got a lot better at it.”