Oral Histories

Joyce Hergenhan

Interview Segments on Topic: Counselor/Counseling Advisor

Joyce Hergenhan Biography

Joyce Hergenhan began her career as a journalist for Gannet newspapers, was Vice President and Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Consolidated Edison Company, and eventually, in 1982, landed at General Electric as Vice President of Public Relations.  Hergenhan also served as president of the GE Foundation.  As GE’s senior communications executive, she worked closely with then-CEO Jack Welch during the company’s transition from manufacturing to diversified technology and services. She remained at GE for 22 years, retiring in 2004.

Hergenhan’s professional recognitions include the lifetime achievement award in public relations from Women in Communications (1999) and a lifetime achievement award from Inside PR (2000).

Transcript

Interviewer: Let’s talk a minute about the GE Corporate Executive Counsel. You served on it?

Hergenhan: Yes I did.

Interviewer: And what were your primary responsibilities? What kind of counsel? Did it help you and in what ways, as a PR Practitioner?

Hergenhan: It was mainly, for me, for most people there, it was really information exchange. Sharing experience. Met quarterly for two days at Crotonville, which is GE’s executive trading center. And it would be the heads of all the major businesses plus senior and corporate staff offices. So there would be oh, between 25 and 30 people there at a time. And each of the businesses would give a report and it wasn’t supposed to be a dog and pony show kind of report. What issues are we facing? And how we were proposing to deal with them, that kind of thing. People would chime in and you know somebody might be facing a certain issue. Somebody else might be facing two years ago and it was a big information kind of freewheeling. The only set part of the agenda was the order in which people were going to make their little presentations. Otherwise it wasn’t like you know ten minutes here or fifteen minutes here. It was very organic as far as, you know, as needed for the conversation. And a lot of ideas were put forward there and we kicked around concepts. It was just for me. I didn’t have to do anything except listen and occasionally someone would say well Joyce what do you think? PR in tact with me or what do you think the reaction. I would make that kind of contribution but I didn’t have a lot of. I didn’t do a lot of talking. I listened. It was incredibly educational for me. Really that’s why Jack had the meetings because he used them to find out a lot of things were going on and get interactions and have ideas exchanged.

Interviewer: So everyone knew what the other was up to?

Hergenhan: right.

Interviewer: Were you ever in an experience where Jack Welch refused your counsel and you felt so strongly about it, that conflicts would arise..

Hergenhan: Well, Jack as I said, has a very strong personality, however he didn’t want yes people around him, he most certainly did not want assurance people around who were just going to agree with everything.  He liked push back. There's no question about it, and so we had some pretty good back and forth, and when I felt that I was right, I mean I'd be tenacious!  Showing him why, and marshalling facts and not just emotion, but facts, and in those cases, he eventually would see my point because I was just so, I knew I was right. I knew I was right because I just had a different perspective than he did and some of them were silly and then some of them were quite serious. But he valued good advice.

Interviewer: Were there ever comments, problems where the argument, the advice, was coming from a woman, and the way every one else would interpret what was happening?  Would it be different if the arguments were between you and Jack Welch than when it would be between another male counterpart?

Hergenhan: Oh he abused all of us. He was an equal opportunity abuser. In a nice sort of way I mean, he was fun.

Interviewer: Well let’s get back to counselors here. The aim of The Arthur Page Center, that's located at Penn State University, is to help individuals become counselors to leadership. How do you prepare yourself for something like that, to be a good counselor?

Hergenhan: Well I think first of all you better have a pretty good knowledge of the subject matter that’s involved in this, whatever industry or whatever it is. I think that knowledge is so important that you have to make decisions from a point where you know something. So I think, clearly, just become absolute experts on whatever is at hand here and I think you have to show that you are a team player. I think that you have to obviously always tell the truth and that’s like he said, always tell the truth in every situation. But I think you have to be candid. You have to know when to fight back. But you have to be armed with facts. It’s really I think, that knowledge and the ability to communicate clearly. First to the leadership that you are trying to counsel, and then subsequently communicate to whatever the larger audience is whether it’s the media or government or Wall Street or employees.  And so I think communication skills. The ability to think and communicate clearly is absolutely, absolutely essential. I am appalled today that so many people really can’t seem to write. I think that I go around saying everybody should take news writing 101. It teaches you how to write clearly and precisely. I used to get all these job applications from people claiming they have great communication skills and great research skills. Well, half the time they spelled my name wrong. Great research skills you have there, kid. And the letters would be so ungrammatical. It was just like, you know, people can’t write today. And I take pride in it. I like it when others do too.

Interviewer: If you were hiring let’s say a student would come to you and they want a position, what characteristics, besides the writing skills, what other characteristics are you looking for?

Hergenhan: High energy. Communication skills, obviously, both written and spoken. High energy. A pattern of accomplishment that they’ve done something and stuck to it. Maybe some actual writing, as in deadlines. I always liked kids who were editors of the college newspapers. I just think that it shows number one, a dedication to the craft, and number two, you know they are not going to edit particularly, so you read and see they can write and can write up to deadline but high energy, and also likeable. You know I always said, I always had my theory that there are probably a hundred people out there or 100,000 people out there who could do this job. Yes, you are going to have lots of people who technically can do this job. But you are going to spend ten hours a day with that person. So make sure it is somebody you want to spend ten hours a day with. True though.