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.
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.