04.16.09

Suzy Welch Dishes

Suzy Welch, journalist, author, and wife of ex-GE powerhouse Jack, talks to Tina Brown about her new book 10-10-10—the formula she invented for solving life's hardest decisions—how she left her first marriage and the day she and Jack fell crazily in love.

Suzy Welch, journalist, author and wife of ex-GE powerhouse Jack, talks about her new book 10-10-10—the formula she invented for solving life's hardest decisions—how she left her first marriage and the day she and Jack fell in love. Read part two of Tina Brown’s interview with Suzy Welch.

Suzy Welch, fortysomething Oprah columnist, former Harvard Business Review editor and co-author with her husband, former GE CEO Jack Welch, of Winning, has just come out with 10-10-10, a book that purports to be a life-transforming idea. The title refers to her strangely contagious problem-solving device: Look at your current life dilemmas and ask how you will feel about your choice of decisions in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years. Sound simple? Not really. Because Welch's point is that the technique is only the beginning of a psychic workout that helps you dig deep and define your own values. You can apply 10-10-10 as much to whether you should take that business trip when the kids don't want you to or whether it's time to take the buyout and jump ship. In a sense, America is in the middle of a giant 10-10-10 moment of its own, forcing itself to look beyond the next 10 minutes.

"On my third question he says, 'Turn that tape recorder off.' I dutifully turned it off and he said, 'Do you have a guy?' That was the end."

On Tuesday afternoon, shortly before her book party, I had lunch with Suzy and we got into it all.

book-cover---suzy-welch-10-10-10
10-10-10: A Life-Transforming Idea. By Suzy Welch. 240 pages. Scribner. $24. ()

Tina: How'd you get the 10-10-10 idea?

Suzy: It was 14 years ago, I was a working mother trying to crack the code—the uncrackable code—of being a loving, present parent and a successful, promotable employee. And got invited to give a speech to a bunch of insurance executives in Hawaii. This was a gigantic deal.

I was senior editor at The Harvard Business Review. I was one of probably 15 or 20 of us. This was this gigantic career achievement. Someone actually wanted to know what I had to say. They were going to pay me 1,500 bucks to go to Hawaii to tell people what I knew. I had arrived—in my own mind. But the problem was these four little children all under the age of seven at that time. I couldn't leave all four of them with my husband and feel good about it. So I thought the perfect solution was to take two of them with me to Hawaii. I mean, completely deranged, of course, in retrospect. The daughter gets sick on the plane. The son gets sun poisoning the first day. But it comes to the absolute pinnacle of disaster when I am delivering the speech to the insurance executives they had paid me to give, and I had put the two children in a hula-dancing class to warehouse them during the speech. And as I am giving the speech, I see these little bodies pressed up against the windows in the back of the room and I'm thinking to myself, "Oh my God, this can't be happening." And then they burst through the door and come running into the room as I'm delivering the speech, in their hula skirts. I finished the speech, I came right off the stage, and they went and clutched onto my legs. Buried their faces in my waist. And the insurance executives were staring at me and I was staring at them and I thought, "Something has got to change."

It's such a great story. We have so all been there. I actually have always found that mixing the kids with the business does not work in any shape or form. And the whole idea—when I read about politicians that bring their kids to work I think, "Who are they kidding?" That is what obsessed me about Sarah Palin. It couldn't possibly have been happening the way she described it.

One thing that kills me when people bring their kids to work is the assumption that other people in the office enjoy it. They want your kids in the office? Who is actually enjoying that? That is a decision you have to make. You have to separate lives. Are you going to blend them at someone else's expense?

Click Below To Hear Highlights From The Interview

At that point you thought, "Something has got to give. I have to get my priorities right." Then you went on to think, "I will never bring my kids again" or, "I will never take a speech again," what was it?

I'm afraid it was much more messy and emotional than that. I knew that my world was falling apart because I was not being honest about my priorities and the life I was living. That night, after I went to the client luau—Can you believe it? I stayed went to the luau—Put my kids to bed, sitting out on the balcony, I thought, "I can't do anything about the past. I have to change the future. I can do it decision by decision. I have to slow it down. I'm making my decisions based on stress and expedience and my gut and who's pouting and who's crying. Who's going to be pissed off next? Who's in the room? Every wrong reason to make a decision. I decided, OK, I'm going to make my decisions based on "there are consequences in 10 minutes and 10 years."

You decided this without therapy?

Yes. I was sitting out on the balcony by myself. I was about as desperate as a person could be. I had this idea for 10-10. But almost immediately, I started thinking, "You know actually, in the next couple months I'm going to that wedding, I have another conference, I need a mid-term." So, this 10-10-10 came to my mind. I didn't know what it would become. I just knew I had an operating principle that was going to move me forward. I didn't know if it was going to work. I didn't know if it was good or bad. I just knew I had something.

And you decided 10 minutes, 10 months, 10 years.

Just cause I could remember it. Just cause it was sort of a handle. And you know, Tina, at that point I was so low. I was so falling apart.

Why did you have four kids, actually? It's a big handful.

Well to keep the marriage together. Like every other woman in the history of humankind—not every woman. But I am not the first woman who continued to have children every time it looked like the marriage was about to break down. I write about this phenomenon I call "the big black hole," where you are in an unhappy place, where you are not living your values or things seem uncertain, or your life is not what you dreamt it was going to be, you've got this big black emotional void in the center of it. You see women shoveling like crazy to fill it with activities and committees and ever bigger jobs and appointments and kids. I was in a place where I was shoveling and shoveling and I kept on thinking that I could fill it up with love. And I loved my children. But I knew I was living a lie.

That's a horrible feeling when you feel fake about it.

Yes it is.

Now what about your kids? Do you think that is a 10-10-10 decision you can make on their behalf? If they'd been able to 10-10, of course, they would have had their mother and father together for 10 years.

You know, I was able to describe and explain the decision to them with 10-10-10. Then the next thing that happens, my husband and I sat down and we decided to get our divorce. It was very peaceful. We knew we were at the end of the road. I remember I think I said, "I think it's over." I remember him saying, "OK." And we went from there. And I used 10-10-10, even though they were quite young at the time, to say this is why I did it. And they hung on to it. I remember hearing my daughter say to a friend, "My mom couldn't fake it anymore." You know, they trusted me.

Well I guess it's not like they lost you—you were there.

They got more of me, actually. For the next few years, I would always say to them, "It's just the five of us." That was our little refrain. When Jack entered the picture, I had to say, "Well guess what? It's the six of us." It was more shocking in some ways than the end of the marriage, which they saw coming.

Yes of course, I understand that. You had been a single mother for how long?

Three years.

When you broke up with your first husband though you must have increased a lot of your stress in which you would have to 10-10, because it's much harder to be a single mother with the same dilemmas. Usually when you lose the husband as the other babysitter, it's worse.

You know, actually, he wasn't the other babysitter because he had a really big career at the time. In fact, it got easier. Because when you are out of pain, almost everything is easier. Think about when you have a sports injury, you know, and then the injury gets better. Running is easier. In that period, my career really took off and I became the editor of HBR. I went to senior editor. So I did have more stresses. But I had the freedom, I was so centered. I was able to 10-10-10 with more ease. As my kids got older, I was able to make my decision very transparent to them. In fact, those three years were far easier than previously.

So what happened with that interview for Harvard Business Review when you were the editor and you first met Jack eight years ago? That famous first encounter with a tape recorder. You didn't know him before?

Only his reputation. I was terrified. I was as nervous as a human being could be. His reputation preceded him. He had been very resistant to being interviewed by me. He did not like HBR. He thought it was a boneheaded scholarly journal. Nobody he cared about read it. He is not a big fan of academic business anyway. But, we had a mutual friend, a professor at the University of Michigan, who said, "You gotta meet Suzy, you'll love her." Which we laugh about today. So he finally agreed to see me. I called up. He answered his own phone, which was very disconcerting. I said, "Oh, Mr. Welch, I set up this..." He said, "I know who you are, let's just get this over with." So I was set up to have a full-blown heart attack meeting him. I went in, his assistant, Rosanne, who is still his assistant today, had very little patience for me. She thought here he is wasting his time on this interview he doesn't want to do. She wanted to get me in and out the door as fast as possible. Two hours later, she kept sticking her head in the office saying, "You know this interview now is an hour and 45 minutes over." So I went in, we looked at each other and this... corny and hokey, stupid and improbable—

It was instantaneous. You fell in love at first sight. How extraordinary. You had an instant connection. I always thought it was toward the end of the interview when you'd bonded over the discussion.

No. Not at all. I walked in and it was like those things you read about. It sounds so stupid. It sounds like what you read in a romance novel.

Did you articulate it immediately? Or did you sit down and have the interview?

I had no idea what was going on. I was a single mother with four children who was resigned to being single for the rest of her life. That's where I was. Not a lot of single guys want to date a woman with four kids who is 40 years old. Besides that, he was married. At that time, I didn't know the state of his marriage. As far as I knew he was married. And I was oblivious to any possibility. So I sit down, and I'm thinking, "Wow, you know, he actually has a very strong physical impact on you when you're in the room." My heart was pounding. But it could have been pounding anyway, I was interviewing Jack Welch. So I turn the tape recorder on. I ask him about leadership and his legacy and he sort of dismisses me. He was completely difficult. He was not giving me good answers. He was sort of staring at me in this really weird way. Like really staring at me. And I'm thinking, "What the heck?" He sort of blows off my question about strategy. He completely dismisses my question about legacy. He's not going to talk about legacy. And then on my third question, he says, "Turn that tape recorder off." I dutifully turned it off and he said, "Do you have a guy?" That was the end.

Pretty direct.

But I didn't know why he was asking me. That's how clueless I was. Oh my God, what a hick I was. I said to one of my friends after the interview, "I know why people like Jack Welch so much. He makes you really feel like he cares about you." That was my interpretation of it.

Well, I had recently been broken up with by a guy who was a doctor in Boston. An emergency-room doctor who was divorced. We had one or two dates and it had not worked out. But feeling very embarrassed I said, "Yes, well I'm sort of dating someone." And he said, "Get rid of him, he's a bore." I said, "He's not a bore." The guy was actually not boring. He goes, "Nah, he's a bore. Get rid of him." "Oh OK." What do you say when somebody says that to you? Then he says, "What happened to your marriage? Why are you divorced?" He was so blunt and so direct I just said, "I married the wrong person. Married very young. My ex-husband would say he married the wrong person too. We faked it for 16 years and we really tried and we both got tired of faking it and we ended it." He went on then and very philosophically talked about how hard love and marriage are. And I responded and we started talking about the nature of love and the nature of marriage. Deeply meaningful, private stuff that you would talk about with a best friend or a spouse. Then we were having a very profound sort of conversation and there was this pause and he said, "You better turn that tape recorder back on." I think we both thought, "What the heck is happening." Turned it on. And then we talked for another hour or so and he made me turn the tape recorder off again. And he restarted this deep conversation again. And then Rosanne kept coming into the office saying, "this interview is over. You have three appointments." He had missed, like, two appointments, then he missed a third appointment.

What time of day was it?

I think I went in at 11. I can't remember exactly when it was. It was supposed to be no longer than half an hour. And then, what happened was, there has been so much crazy nonsense about what happened afterward, we said goodbye and I moderated the McKinsey awards here in New York. And I flew home to Boston. And we didn't see each other again for a month. When I flew down to New York from Boston to have my photograph taken with him for the editor's letter page, where I was going to talk about my interview with Jack Welch. What had happened in the month in between was that we talked on the phone five times a day about the article I was editing. Then we started talking about my kids, about his life and my life and his kids and religion and politics and business. Everything. I remember thinking around this time, "He really has this powerful interest in people. No wonder he built that company."

He has a wonderful curiosity about everybody. That is what makes him great. I was astonished the first time I sat next to Jack at dinner. He was so disconcertingly interested in my life that I realized I hadn't asked him a single question. That never happens if you're a woman, right? It's always the other way around.

And genuinely curious. I thought that was what was happening. It did not once occur to me that there was something else going on. I thought, "This is an amazing person who is fun to talk to. Who is funny, interesting—a little bit difficult. As I was editing the piece, he was a little bit difficult. It's funny that my life has gone on to be his permanent editor. And then I went to have my picture taken and we had our picture taken together and there was this incredible... in the room. And then as soon as the picture was taken he said, "You know, we should really go out to lunch together." And I thought he was blowing me off. I said, "OK, great, thanks." Thinking it was just a classic blow-off. Our work was done. And he said, "No, we really should go out to lunch together." And I said, "OK, that's great. Thanks. Just let me know when it's good for you." And he said, "No, I mean we really got to go out to lunch together." So I dutifully took out my little notebook and I said "OK, when?" And he said, "Ten minutes, I just have to make a phone call." Then we went out to lunch at 21. We were all actually talking about our lunch at the 21 Club on Friday. And we had this incredible lunch. He said to me, "My marriage is over." And I said, "Well, I think you need to fix your marriage." And he said, "There is no fixing my marriage." And I said, "I know that point happens." I had just been through a divorce. So we finish lunch, where many deep things transpired. At the end of lunch he said to me, "What are you doing for dinner?" I said, "Well I'm giving a speech in North Carolina tomorrow. I'm going to go back and look at my notes." He said, "I'll pick you up at 9 o'clock." And then I went back to my hotel room and I called my sister and I said to her, "Why do you think it is that Jack Welch would invite me to dinner?" And there was this long pause, and my sister said to me, "Who is Jack Welch?" And that's where we were in our lives. My sister and I were best friends raising our kids together. And I told her who he was and she said, "I don't know." And I went out to dinner with him and I knew by the end why he'd asked me out to dinner.

There was a huge amount of flack. You had all that censure from HBR and a lot of criticism from the media. Didn't you feel that you should have come clean about the fact that you still had a relationship during the editing of the piece about Jack?

We didn't have a relationship. The piece was in the can and ready to be published when I went down to write the letter from the editor. But I called my boss and I said, "I've started a romantic relationship; we need to pull the piece." It was two days before the magazine went to press and they pulled the piece and that was it. I said to my boss, "Am I going to be fired for this?" He said, "I hope not," and I was. I only wish I had been fired sooner and I truly wish I had quit at that moment because it was going to be over for me.

Did you 10-10-10 that one?

No, I totally didn't. I failed 10-10-10. It didn't fail me. If I had deployed 10-10-10, it would have gotten to me where I needed to go sooner and without the incredible pain; but I didn't—I was overwhelmed. There were TV trucks in my front yard; there were people walking up to me in the supermarket saying very random things to me; there were people on TV debating what I should do and who I was. I was like Alice in Wonderland—I had no idea what was going on.

It was pretty unpleasant for quite a long time.

You know, it's interesting, I didn't know what they were talking about. I thought that the world would see my relationship with Jack the way they actually see it now. Anyone who spends any time with us—it's been eight years—understands that it's a great love story. Jack didn't run off on a happy marriage; he had a marriage that was at its end. But at the time it was a wonderful scandal. What could've been better than Jack Welch and some woman with four kids from Harvard?

You've now gone from being a working editor, journalist, hardworking single-mother balancing act etc., to being the wife of the most powerful retired CEO in the world, and mixing a huge amount with the kind of CEOs the world is excoriating at the moment. Has that been difficult?

Because it happened day by day, I haven't had an identity issue around it. I ultimately came back to 10-10-10 and said, "What is it? Who am I?" What I wanted and my No. 1 value was a happy marriage with the person I'd waited my whole life for and I had gone through a lot of strum and drang to end up with him. So every decision became very easy. For instance, the decision to work together: We decided early on, whatever we did, it was going to be together—we were going to write a column together, we were going to travel together, we were going to consult together, we were going to raise the children together; and whatever we did fell into place. Had there been changes? Yes and no. We're actually quite grounded because we're grounded in the relationship and we've added the work.

I wouldn't have seen Jack as a guy who would just pick up four kids and be daddy to them.

Believe me, Jack didn't see that either. He said to me, "You've got these four children and a dog." I said to him, "Look, they're part of the package." He got it instantly. He got it. And so, right after I said they were part of the package, he said, "Well I guess I better go meet them." It was very early on. He came to the house, they lined up and met them, and he's never been out of their lives since. He's been a major force and presence in their lives; and he made the decision to raise them with me. What other move were we going to take? He got me. He understood that there was not a separate Suzy from the Suzy with the children.

It's unusual for a man of that kind of alpha-ness to want to take on that role.

I didn't realize at the time how unusual and exceptional that was because so much was happening and because he just assured me that it was going to be OK. The kids fell in love with him. One of the first things he said to the kids—he said to all four children when I was out of the room—"I promise you, no more harm will ever come to your mother." My kids have seen me go through some years alone, they've seen the time leading up to my divorce, they had seen what had happened after Jack and I had met. And as far as they were concerned, I was under siege. I was crying a lot, I was scared. And here was this man who sat them down and said, "I love your mother and promise you no more harm will come to her." And he was right. They fell in love with him.

And they weren't jealous and competitive?

My oldest son, Roscoe, who's now in college, thought at the beginning that he was the man of the house, and they had to work it out. The two of them had to work it out. They'd much rather be alone together than with me there, so they worked it out. There was one—out of the four, the oldest was like, "Wait a minute, isn't that my job?" But they did. It took a year.

You talk about it quite a bit in the book: that third thing, which is the marriage, which is more important than either of you.

It is the missing thing in good marriages—when you don't have the sense that this is a marriage. There's the two of you and then there's the marriage. The marriage is the special thing.

Read part two of Tina Brown’s interview with Suzy Welch.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.