AMONGST our long list of Chemical Engineers Who Changed the World is Jack Welch, who led General Electric for two decades from 1981.
Welch went on to earn the nickname “Neutron Jack” after dismissing tens of thousands of employees during his early days of leadership. Yet he has revealed that the moment that most impacted his career involved not being fired by a fellow chemical engineer.
It was 1963, and Welch had just blown up a factory.
“Fortunately, no-one was killed,” he said in an interview with Freakonomics Radio.
“I was called to New York to explain what had happened by my boss’ boss’ boss.”
“I expected I might get fired. I met Charlie [Reed]…it turns out he was a PhD chemical engineer from MIT. So, he took me through the Socratic method: ‘Do you know why it happened? What would you do differently? Why did you do that? Why did you do this?’
It is a helpful reminder of the impact that strong leadership can have when it comes to learning from incidents and sharing lessons... Safety after all is a red thread that runs through everything we do
“He was coaching me, and he couldn’t be nicer. I learned from that never to kick anyone when they’re down. And Charlie did a hell of a job of coaching me through the error I made in blowing oxygen through benzene without enough grounding.”
Asked if it changed the way he managed people, Welch replied that it changed his life forever.
It is a helpful reminder of the impact that strong leadership can have when it comes to learning from incidents and sharing lessons.
You’ll see similar themes play out across the issue. Safety after all is a red thread that runs through everything we do.
Lord John Browne spoke openly with oil executives in April about his biggest regret as CEO of BP (p11). He gave a heartfelt account of visiting the devastated Texas City refinery in 2005 and how he wished BP had spent more time helping people understand safety.
Which leads on to IChemE’s Hazards event held in May. Read Amanda Doyle’s personal account of her induction to the world of process safety (p42). I have already booked a ticket to see one of AKT Productions’ theatre workshops on safety. Finding innovative ways of sharing lessons learned is critical in helping us to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
On that theme, I’d urge you to watch the recording of Ken Rivers’ IChemE presidential address (p8). He spoke passionately about process safety and the need for transformational change to help make “good practice common practice”.
I hope you enjoy reading this issue and it gives you pause to consider how you and your organisation can act and communicate more effectively.