Welch’s aide symbolizes executive assistants’ key role

  • Sunday, September 23, 2001 9:00pm
  • Business

The Washington Post

NEW YORK – In every major corporation, there is a parallel universe of power. At General Electric Co., there was Jack Welch and there was Rosanne Badowski.

All the world knew of Jack Welch, who retired this month week after 20 years as chairman, an icon of American management, heralded for his guts and genius in a cutthroat global economy. Few outside GE ever heard of Badowski.

Known simply as “Ro” to Welch, Badowski, 45, served for the past 13 years as his executive assistant, the secretary at the top of the heap of assistants and secretaries to the powerful of GE. Badowski was the gatekeeper, the protector, the human Palm Pilot.

The Rosanne Badowskis of the corporate world have become so valuable that executive recruiters now look at them in trying to assess the competence of prospective management job candidates. Is it the manager or the secretary behind the manager?

The care and feeding of a corporate CEO, especially one as visible as Welch, is never easy, but by all accounts Badowski has long had the process under control.

“I know what he is, and I know what to expect,” she says. “In many ways he’s very easy because you can read him.” But, Badowski admits, “there have been times when I just wanted to murder him.” Just like an old married couple.

At the office, communications in GE’s boundary-free workplace were often loud. When Welch needed something, he would often shout “Ro” from wherever he happened to be. “We don’t use the intercom; it’s always the yelling system,” she says.

Badowski says Welch would usually come to the office every morning “all guns out – he would walk in at full speed. There was not a lot of easing-in time at the beginning of the day.”

Welch spent much of his time at meetings in his conference room. Badowski would lie in wait at her desk, seizing every opportunity to slip into his office and put his desk in order. Welch might have been a brilliant manager, but he was incredibly messy.

Badowski has been amply rewarded for making Jack Welch’s days easier. Asked whether she’s done well financially, Badowski replies: “I’d say so. I’ve done well.”

Executive recruiters told Newsweek magazine last year that many executive assistants earn more than $100,000 a year including bonuses and stock options. Badowski would not dispute the figure. As an executive assistant, Badowski gets stock options and bonuses. Stock options alone over the past 13 years could make Badowski a wealthy woman.

The profits have not been without a price. A single woman, Badowski is always at the beck and call of the job. Whether it’s working a normal day of 8 a.m. to at least 8 p.m., or dropping by the office on weekends, Badowski’s life has clearly been her work.

“It’s somewhat like a family because you spend so much time together,” she says of her work life with Welch. “We spend long days and work weeks together.”

At the start, Badowski almost didn’t take the job.

She came to GE at age 19 with a two-year associate’s degree from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., the hometown of GE’s international headquarters. The daughter of a working-class family from Bridgeport, she started as a secretary in GE’s corporate legal library. She couldn’t stand it. After several months, she says she told the company she was leaving, but her bosses asked her to give them a chance to find her something else.

Something else turned out to be secretary for the senior vice president for human resources, where over the next dozen years she earned her bachelor’s degree in business, going to class at night.

When the chance to go to work for Welch came, Badowski already had an offer for an entry-level management job in GE Supply sales.

Badowski says when the company posted the Welch job, the people she worked for in human resources told her to apply for it. “I thought, no, I want get away from this,” she says. “I just wanted to get out of the secretarial field.” But in the end, she says, “the powers-to-be had a stronger influence” and she took the job.

Once on the job, she never gave serious thought to leaving it, although she says she still doesn’t like the secretary label.

Welch so values Badowski’s work he has asked her to continue after he retires. GE provides each retired chairman with an office and a secretary. Welch plans to continue an active life of consulting and writing, and he wants her to continue at his side.

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