By Jack and Suzy Welch When we started this column a year ago, it felt a bit like setting out on a journey without a map or destination. All we had to guide us, so to speak, was our collective experience and a real interest in answering questions aboutParagraph well, whatever readers wanted to ask about. And ask they did. In 2006 this column received close to 10,000 e-mails from around the world with questions ranging from "Should I take a job at McKinsey or start a company doing something I really love?" to "Will the Chinese ever revalue their currency to reflect its real strength?"
But if the breadth of questions surprised us, we were even more taken aback by the impassioned reaction to some of our answers. Yes, some columns came and went without much noise. But manyfour in particularsparked exceptional sound and fury. And so before launching into another year of questions and answers, we'd like to take a look back at the tallest lightning rods of the one just past.
First, our column "What's Holding Women Back" made the case that the relatively small number of women CEOs today was not, generally speaking, the result of a cabal of sexist male executives but of biology—or put more bluntly, babies. Not that working mothers can't function; many never miss a beat. But many others intentionally remove themselves from the corporate escalator to spend more time at home. Thus, we said, there's no villain in this situation, only the reality that sometimes life requires tough choices, and with those choices, an acceptance of their personal or career consequences.
But not if you're a man, many readers quickly retorted. In fact, many of the e-mails about this column argued that there would be more women CEOs if husbands simply shared child-rearing responsibilities. Still others asserted that the problem lies not with errant husbands but with the male power Establishment, which persists in valuing exactly what working mothers are most hard-pressed to deliver: availability. "The system is rigged against women," one reader wrote. "You let it off too easy."
EMOTIONS ALSO RAN HIGH about our column "Are You a Boss Hater?" in which a reader asked why, in his long career, he had never encountered a manager he could respect. Our reply: Maybe you are just one of those diehards who constitutionally hates people in positions of authority.
Within hours our mailbox was filled with thank-you notes, mainly from managers who had struggled with "boss haters" and were relieved to hear that the ire directed toward them was more ideological than personal. We also heard from people who identified themselves as "reformed" boss haters, or as one reader said, "I (secretly) criticized management until I was made a manager myselfand I realized most everything they did made sense in context." Still, the bulk of the responses to this column came from readers who basically said: "You must live in a bubble. Most managers are self-serving, incompetent idiots, and your so-called boss haters are the only ones out there with the guts to say so."
We were also accused of living in a fantasy world by the majority of respondents to our column on human resource departments, "So Many CEOs Get This Wrong." Yes, HR has its proponents; some even wrote in to support our assertion that HR should play an active and vital role in building great teams. But most of our mail sounded like the letter from the CEO of a small company in New York who wrote: "Where are these insightful, savvy, talented HR people you refer to? I'd have them at the table, making decisions with the CFO and me—if they existed. The truth is, most hr people are only capable of filling out benefits forms and running picnics. That's why they're marginalized."
But nothing, in terms of volume and intensity, compares with the response we received to our column "What's Right About Wal-Mart." At first, we were stunned to see how many people—about 80%—agreed with us that Wal-Mart does more good for the economy and society than most government institutions. But after a few days passed, the tone changed, and you would have thought we'd called for the canonization of Osama bin Laden. Hostile messages accused us of hating labor, poor people, and small business. As one reader wrote: "Wal-Mart destroys freedom and the American dream. What were you thinking?"
Well, not that! But we were also thinking, isn't this great? Every heartfelt question we've received and every passionate response to our answers has not only helped us crystallize our own views but helped us discover what excited, and incited, people in business in 2006.
Will 2007 bring more of the same or a whole new set of issues? We look forward to finding out—from you.
Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to answering your questions about business, company, or career challenges. Please e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org. For their weekly podcast, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm.