How to create a better world – the IBM way

I’m at IBM’s millennial event in New York – a conference which is focused on attempting to define what makes for great leadership.

It was initially defined by interesting contrasts and a panel with two CEOs: one from IBM who is at the top of his game, and one from Sony who is clearly at the other end of the spectrum.

While IBM’s CEO was trained in a unique program which helps Big Blue maintains a deep bench of folks who could run the company, Sony’s CEO is essentially an outsider who was brought in because the Japanese-based company failed in this task.  

The CEO duo was followed by the King of Jordan who is seen as one of the most forward looking leader in a part of the world often defined by resistance to change. A truly impressive speaker who, in the short time he was on stage, defined both the problems faced in that part of the world, while providing a sense of hope that the near impossible problem of creating a sustainable peace between the Israelis and the Palestinian could be accomplished. Of course, this is off the topic of technology, but still solidly on the topic of leadership.  

In the context of a US government that appears to have lost the ability to lead, the departure of Steve Jobs which has left a painful gap in consumer market leadership, and the global economic disaster which showcases a lack of leadership, this definitely is a pertinent topic I find very interesting at the moment.  

I’ll try to synthesize the core messages without highlighting individual speakers.

Fact Based Optimism

Here in the U.S. we are in the midst of an election year, which means politicians are jumping all over each other promising things they likely can’t deliver. While optimism is certainly a positive attribute, we voted for an optimistic leader last time, and the reality of that false optimism not only has created significant problems, but likely assures President Obama won’t be reelected. This clearly showcases that optimism can get folks elected – but if it isn’t based on real facts, the victory is merely tactical and will likely fade away and fail in the long-term.

IBM’s CEO was strong on the message that information remains critical to a great leader. If it is based on solid intelligence, such information provides the foundation for an optimistic vision that actually can be achieved. This achievement effectively assures the success of the leader and the entity they lead.  

Understanding the Problem

The most compelling speaker about this topic was the King of Jordan who defined the big problem in the Middle East as the conflict between Israel and the Palestnians, as Palestine was relegated to a second (or third) class captured state and Israel wasn’t being treated like a state either. As long as both were held at risk and while Israel was able to move with impunity into Palestine’s territory peace wasn’t a possible. The problems could be defined and once defined addressed.   

Though I think he glossed over several core issues, as Palestinian leadership isn’t well defined and much of it has a primary goal of destroying Israel, while Israel is convinced the latter part of this needs to be eliminated for its own survival. Still, if you can understand and articulate a problem you can resource and possibly address it. If you can’t you don’t know the goal and, as a result, can’t achieve it.   

Sony/IBM Contrast

What I found particularly fascinating was the contrast between Sony’s CEO Sir Howard Stringer and IBM’s Sam Palmisano. Both companies have lasted longer than most, and were at one time or another, dominant in their space. IBM is currently at an all-time high, but doesn’t really dominate technology as the corporation once did. You could argue that IBM’s dominance eventually led to Big Blue’s stagnation and near failure in the 1980s.  

Recreated under Louis Gerstner and Sam Palmisano, IBM is now a firm that is once again seen as well led and at the top of their game. Palmisano attributed this turnaround to unprecedented cooperation and collaboration. In addition, as technology wars rage between Microsoft, Google, Apple, HP, Oracle, Cisco, Intel, AMD, NVIDIA, and Qualcomm – IBM remains on the sidelines. Big Blue is reaping profit by not going to war with anyone, clearly the smarter path and one that the King of Jordan obviously shared.

Wrapping Up and he New Silicon Valley

Mayer Bloomberg was one of the more interesting speakers in this series. He spoke about how he was focusing his efforts on the future of New York City and discussed the notion of importing Silicon Valley, or the core of new tech, from the West Coast to NYC for jobs and tax revenues.

Bloomberg is already prioritizing subsidies and incentives to persuade schools like California’s prestigious Stanford to open up technology centers in the city and drive the next wave of tech companies to open in NYC, rather than the West Coast.  

All in all, each of the executives and politicians (with the noted exception above) were focused not on the next quarter, but rather, on the next decade and making sure the organizations they were responsible for remained positioned for success rather than girding for battle or making some financial analyst happy. I really think we need more people like this, and I believe the world desperately requires more people like this.

One final thought: the primary contrast between HP’s old CEO Carly Fiorina and IBM’s current CEO Sam Palmisano is that Fiorina was famous for making everything about her and trying to displace HP’s founders with herself.

Meanwhile, Sam constantly quotes IBM’s founders and created an event that is focused on greatness in general and not his own fame. Ironically, though perhaps not unsurprisingly, he became more famous and successful by adopting this humble approach. 

The lesson here is that truly great leaders showcase the greatness in others and focus on the job, while the less memorable ones tend to focus on their own fame and benefits. I think more CEOs should learn from Sam.