Management lessons from Jack Donaghy

Forget the evil machinations of energy magnate C. Montgomery Burns on “The Simpsons” and the scheming of oil baron J.R. Ewing on “Dallas.” They are mere caricatures. The most subtle, vivid portrait of a corporate executive to ever appear on the small screen is nearing the end of his run: John Francis Donaghy — he goes by Jack — on the NBC show “30 Rock.”

For all of Jack Donaghy’s nutty hijinks and pithy one-liners, there is a surprising set of lessons hiding under the surface of the show, which premiered its seventh and final season Thursday night. The simple fact is that Jack, as portrayed by Alec Baldwin, is a superb executive.

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When not busy managing a complex love life (Donaghy has dated characters played by Elizabeth Banks and Salma Hayek, and Condoleezza Rice as herself) or the travails of his ever-beleaguered employee Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), Donaghy manages to run the East Coast television and microwave oven division of General Electric with remarkable skill.

He has overcome seemingly thwarted ambition, created new products and mentored younger executives with aplomb. He may lack eloquence. (He once proposed a line for a speech honoring GE’s real-life chief executive: “Jack Welch has such unparalleled management skills they named Welch’s Grape Juice after him, because he squeezes the sweetest juice out of his workers’ mind grapes.”) But he is shrewd, ambitious and has a vision for what the company under his command could be.

Donaghy is a plutocrat, but in a proud American tradition — a self-made plutocrat. He grew up the son of a working-class single mother in Boston, put himself through Princeton on a “handsomeness scholarship” and by working “the day shift at a graveyard and the graveyard shift at a Days Inn,” then made his way to Harvard Business School and GE’s management training program.

He has some mighty impressive mind grapes. Pour a scotch, stand wistfully staring out the window and consider some of Jack Donaghy’s lessons that every manager should take to heart.

Have a career plan, but don’t let it stifle you.

Donaghy had spent his professional career climbing the ranks of General Electric, aspiring to be its chief executive. He was disconsolate when the division he headed was sold to Philadelphia-based Kabletown (a thinly veiled take on Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal), and his longtime mentor, GE chief executive Don Geiss (played by Rip Torn), died.

Suddenly, Donaghy was exiled from a company he had long hoped to lead, his dream seemingly shattered. His ambition to lead GE had been the force driving his ascent up the corporate ladder, and that chance disappeared seemingly overnight.

After some brooding, though, Donaghy redirected his energy to dreaming up new products for Kabletown, learning its corporate culture and climbing a new corporate ladder. As disappointed as he may have been about not becoming CEO of “the General,” and there is nothing wrong with that, the key was channeling that disappointment in productive ways — toward making his mark at a new firm, in this case — rather than just moping.

It’s great to have a career driven by the ambition to reach a particular goal; in Donaghy’s case, that surely served as the motivation for years of hard work. But the point of having a goal is not that one can be absolutely certain of attaining it; rather, it gives you a point on the horizon that ensures a career is heading the right general direction over time.

What Donaghy didn’t do was try to ease his way back into the fold at GE when it was clear his moment had passed. The desire to be its CEO was a force that fueled ambition, not an end in itself.

There is an interesting real-life parallel. When Jack Welch was retiring as the chief of GE, there was a three-way competition to succeed him between Jeffrey Immelt, Bob Nardelli and James McNerney. Immelt got the job, and Nardelli and McNerney quickly moved on: the former to run Home Depot, the latter to Boeing. Neither took their failure to reach a long-standing career goal as an excuse to stop chasing something big.

Innovate whether they like it or not

An old friend who worked at Kabletown explained to Donaghy that the cable business is a piece of cake: With all the money that rolls in from pay-per-view porn, the joke goes, there’s no need to “make” anything.

Donaghy found himself in a corporate culture that had little appreciation for the very work that animated him as an executive: creating innovations, turning them into products and bringing them to the marketplace.

The key to emerging from his professional rut was realizing that innovation can bloom even in places that don’t seem ripe for it. It is a state of mind.

Donaghy becomes something of a guerilla innovator at Kabletown, inventing, among other things, what he called “porn for women,” offering a pay-per-view service with handsome men staring deeply into the screen asking women to talk about their day. A funny joke, yes, but one with a broader lesson. Not every company will be a Google or Apple, turning out never-before-seen products. But in any company, there are opportunities to look at old products in new ways or make customers happier.

The best managers find ways to bring that innovation sensibility to their jobs, regardless of their industry or what the environment around them encourages.

Take mentorship seriously

In the first season of “30 Rock,” Donaghy decided to take Liz Lemon under his wing and mentor her. She resisted, seeing him in those early days as a clueless corporate suit. With time, she would come to understand that having Jack Donaghy as a mentor was no small matter.

He sees a big part of his job as preparing his underlings to go out into the world and achieve success as he has done. It is not entirely selfless; Lemon and his other mentees will surely maintain a loyalty to him that could ease his own corporate ascent. But he goes far beyond the mere obligations of a boss, trying to ensure that his mentees reach their every goal.

When Lemon resists his initial entreaties, Donaghy presents her with his handiwork: Howard Jorgensen, a vice president of locomotives at GE who — before he met Jack — “dressed poorly, had bad posture, walked around with lettuce in my hair,” as he says. When Donaghy was done, Jorgensen was “earning seven figures and married to a swell Filipino gal.”

One fault in Donaghy’s management style is that he seems to view taking someone on as a binary event: Someone is either worthy of extraordinary time and effort or none at all. When his new wife, Avery Jessup (played by Elizabeth Banks), is uncomfortable about his close relationship with Lemon, he “tries out” other potential mentees, only to find them all wanting.

Of course, no manager can insinuate himself deeply into the lives of all his or her employees (and Donaghy’s relationship with Lemon often does veer toward being a little too close, though not in a romantic way). But mentorship doesn’t need to be the all-or-nothing enterprise that it seems to be for Donaghy, in which there are some worthy of his overwhelming efforts and everyone else is not. There is plenty of room for helping junior colleagues advance in small ways as well as large, and doing so can help assure an even larger network of allies.

But still, it is clear that part of Donaghy’s success comes not just from his own achievements, but in Liz Lemon’s and Howard Jorgensen’s.

Tolerate idiosyncracy

As the executive in charge of a television network, Donaghy oversees a lot of colorful people. The stars of the fictional NBC show “TGS,” Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan) and Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), are self-absorbed, difficult and often unreliable. Donaghy sees them as nothing like himself, a buttoned-up aficionado of power ties and good scotch.

But they are the talents at the core of a TV show that is part of Donaghy’s empire. And to hold onto those first-rate talents, he tolerates the frustrations of working with people whose aesthetic sensibilities and work habits are very different from his own. He assesses their talent, and then adjusts his management style to get the most out of them.

Sometimes that means simply tolerating late arrivals or people storming into his office with odd demands. At other times, he takes a deeper personal role in resolving problems that are keeping his charges from doing their best work.

He went particularly above and beyond in the second season. The conceit is this: Tracy Jordan was stirring up trouble because of unresolved issues with his absent father. Donaghy helps him get through the frustrations during a role-playing therapy session in which he portrays Jordan’s father, a droopy-lipped Campbell Soup factory employee from funky North Philly. The (quite politically incorrect) result is not just among the funniest sitcom scenes of all time. It is also a manager doing whatever it takes to make one of his most talented employees more productive, even at no small cost in terms of personal dignity (and, if it were real life, some unpleasant consequences from the HR department).

Personal touches matter

Donaghy is highly attuned to the personal lives of his employees and what makes them tick. He is a superb giver of gifts, viewing it as the “purest expression of friendship” and invariably selecting uniquely appropriate presents. He may be a coldhearted corporate tactician at times, but he also cares deeply about his people, and does the little things to let them know it.

This, more than any other character trait, appears to be based on Jack Welch, the GE chief executive from 1981 to 2004.

“Do you know why Jack Welch is the greatest leader since the pharaohs?” Donaghy asked in the first “30 Rock” season. “Because he didn’t only involve himself in our work lives, but our personal lives as well. He introduced us to the finest booze, the most restrictive country clubs. He gave us the names of the most discreet private investigators to spy on our ex-wives. He held our hands during our triumphs and our Senate hearings.”

The real Jack Welch may not favor restrictive country clubs or spying on ex-wives, but he has a reputation for taking intense interest in the lives of his underlings. For example, in an interview with BusinessWeek, Bob Nardelli told of Welch once making him work through a holiday weekend that he had been supposed to spend with his wife — and then sending a case of Dom Perignon and an apology note saying, “I was thinking more of myself than you and Sue. Have a toast on me.”

Donaghy practices the same philosophy. He understands that you can get more out of an employee when they know you will fight for them when the chips are down and help them emerge from personal crises or other challenges in life.

Learn from everyone around you

For all his elitism, Donaghy has often displayed an ability to learn lessons from those around him. He has an especially savvy ability to learn lessons and adapt strategies used by people who might seem to have little to offer to an accomplished businessperson.

Never was that more true than in Season 6, when he found himself being outnegotiated by his baby daughter’s night nurse, Sherry. She refused to accept a pay cut when her hours were reduced, negotiating by sitting quietly and eating an orange while Jack awkwardly acquiesced to her demands. He was, as he put it, “reamed by a woman in Winnie the Pooh hospital pants.”

Donaghy, he told Lemon later, violated every rule of negotiation. “I spoke first. I smiled. I negotiated with myself. If I had done that during a mock negotiation in business school, Professor Woodmer would have spanked me in front of the whole class. Bare bottom.”

But a key negotiation over licensing fees between the hapless NBC and its parent company, Kabletown, was shaking Donaghy’s confidence until he learned the crucial lesson that Sherry had taught. When somebody’s helpless baby is in the mix, the usual negotiating strategies don’t apply. And NBC was Kabletown’s baby. By negotiating like Sherry, he prevailed.

Of course, if he had been blind to her effectiveness and the lessons it offered, he might not have found himself on the cover of that month’s “Meetings” magazine.

Have a career plan, but don’t let
it stifle you.

Innovate
whether they
like it or not.

Take
mentorship seriously.

Learn from everyone
around you.

Tolerate
idiosyncracy.

Personal
touches
matter.

 
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