Veteran IBM Exec Shares Vision from Asian Woman’s Perspective

Don Tennant
Slide Show

How to Create a Culture of Innovation

In a post last week stemming from my recent interview with Inhi Cho Suh, general manager of collaboration solutions at IBM, I expressed the view that Suh embodies what the future of IBM will hopefully be. That assessment is informed not only by what Suh, an 18-year veteran of the company, sees in IBM’s future, but by how IBM is equipping itself to tap the talents of such underrepresented groups as Asian women. So a second post to address those points is in order.

A good place to start is with Suh’s response to my question about how she would rate IBM’s track record and corporate culture, specifically with respect to inclusion and diversity. She chose to respond in terms of the tech industry as a whole, and said it’s good, but it could be better:

I say that both as a woman and as an Asian, as a woman of color. There’s actually not enough of us across both our technical and business leadership positions — there should be more, across the industry as a whole. Different people can look at the same problem or opportunity, and come up with very different conclusions about what the future should look like.

What’s scary is that women represent more than half the population entering universities, and of the population seeking post-graduate degrees, but they only hold 26 percent of the IT jobs. Why wouldn’t we want that higher level of global participation, and that level of imagination and creative capability in leadership across industries and society? My view is, there really still are limitations, and there’s opportunity to do better. Every company — the whole industry — has an opportunity to do better.

I asked Suh if she has noticed any change in the corporate culture at IBM since Ginni Rometty took over as CEO in 2012. She said she has, and cited an example:

Ginni has a very social and engaging style — this is very exciting for me, just because of some of the new spaces that I have the opportunity to lead at IBM. Historically, messages that have been generated by senior management often get pushed down.

One of the first things I saw Ginni do that was really a great reflection of the macro shift in society, was her first quarterly address, at the beginning of the year she became CEO. It was not an email pushed down across the organization. It was actually a video stream that was published on our IBM Connections community, the social enterprise platform we use internally, that every IBMer is engaged on. She just posted this as a video blog, which was a first.

So now you have 400,000 employees distributed across the world actually getting to see and hear directly from her how she feels about the business, what she’s thinking, what her priorities are. Within the first day, and with no notification that was pushed out to alert people that this had been posted, 50,000 people clicked on it. That is very different from what the previous CEOs did, where maybe a message from the CEO came, but it was often emailed out and pushed down.

As for whether, to her knowledge, she has experienced the gender salary gap issue during her career at IBM, Suh said she has. But she indicated it’s complicated:

One element may be, what is the prior experience you bring to the table — we talked about where I started. I had a tremendous educational background, but maybe not in this discipline at the beginning stages. Another factor is the pace at which people move and develop. Sometimes, people develop at a faster clip, and the compensation varies, depending on the individual.

I do think across the industry, the facts speak for themselves — just look at the Fortune 100, or the Fortune 500 CEOs and senior leaders, and board members. It’s probably reflected at various levels. There have been a number of studies, as well. So for me to say otherwise would be counter to the data.

I asked Suh if she can picture herself becoming CEO of IBM one day. She said she can:

The thing that I temper that with, which I have an appreciation for, is that CEOs have a tremendous amount of pressure. They are stewards of institutions that have certain cultural values, certain business objectives, certain behavior patterns. Different leaders can be the appropriate CEO, depending on timing. So in my view the question is, what’s the right timing [for me], and is that the right timing that makes sense within IBM?

What’s wonderful is that the approach IBM takes around all leaders, and leadership development, is really about enabling you as an individual to perform at your best; and, more importantly, to understand what it really means to lead teams and see market shifts. The ability to recognize key market shifts and trends is really an important trait — that’s one of those things you can’t delegate. I’ve had the opportunity to be in unique positions within the company, and to be part of amazing teams. At the end of the day, it takes an entire team.

And if she were to become CEO of IBM, what is the first thing she would change? Suh indicated it isn’t so much about what she would change, as where her head would be at:

It’s really important to see the market shifts — recognizing key market shifts and trends. You’re not always going to make all the right bets. One of the things that is absolutely exciting right now, and on which Ginni is giving absolute focus and clarity of message across the board, is cognitive. And that is a bet that I genuinely believe in. I know that there are both positive and hopeful views about cognitive, and the broader discussions around machine learning and artificial intelligence, as much as there is tension in the industry about it. That’s the constant, vital trend, between man and machine, and man and work. But I do believe we have the ability to augment the human capabilities tremendously — that is a huge bet that I genuinely believe in.

The second piece of that, Suh said, has to do with the value that needs to be placed around how teams are developed:

When I first took the job, one of the first milestones in the life lessons I have learned occurred two or three years into my work at IBM. I had the opportunity to work on a project in IBM Research, with colleagues. The category at the time, in the late ‘90s, was called ‘remote desktop management services.’ At that point, there I was, a young professional in my mid-20s, and I learned in that project that a person, regardless of level, can convene others, including much more senior experts, based on the premise that you share a common purpose to create something bigger, together.

It made me rethink relationship dimensions, from a traditional vertical hierarchy view, to a horizontal and collaborative sharing view. That has formed a key premise of my leadership style. Through that lens, it’s really important to marry that with understanding different market shifts and trends. Those are the things I’ve had the opportunity to experience at IBM, and continue to want to focus on.

Finally, I asked Suh if she could have one do-over since she joined IBM 18 years ago, what would it be. She said she just doesn’t think in terms of do-overs:

I think it’s really important to trust yourself, and trust the teams that you’re on, and don’t over-analyze past decisions. My philosophy is, everyone has the opportunity to make decisions every single day — micro as well as macro, near-term as well as long-term. You’re never going to be 100 percent sure of anything, quite frankly. So the thing you need to be grounded in is, ‘OK, today I’m making the best decision I can, given the facts at hand,’ and then you move forward.

If it’s not the right decision, or things don’t come out the way you want, that’s OK. You just change course. So I don’t know that I would actually change anything. But one thing that I learned later in my career that I wish I had learned earlier is the power of storytelling — Ginni is amazing at that skill. It’s an experience I had with TED, but even before TED, I learned that it takes tremendous preparation. It’s amazing how much insight you can share in just five or 10 minutes. So that’s definitely a skill set that I would love to have honed earlier.

Suh wrapped up the conversation by encapsulating what she sees as the significance of the work she and her colleagues are doing at IBM:

Ultimately, the transformation that you’re seeing in the industry, and at IBM, has to do with the importance of embedding analytics and the understanding of people in the technology, moving forward. The intersection of analytics with workplace applications and new capabilities is really exciting. It’s really a natural extension of our ability to interact. To me, this will actually help accelerate some of the dimensions around diversity of skills and leadership.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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