IBM and Thoughts on the Future of Leadership

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Seven Leadership Skills CIOs Need to Drive Results

CIOs must have the right leadership skills in place to deliver on today's heightened expectations.

This week, I'm at IBM's millennial event in New York and the first session is on leadership. Given the lack of leadership we are complaining about in the U.S. government and in many of the more volatile companies and segments, it is an important topic. What is also appropriate is that Sam Palmisano is the opening speaker. IBM is at its peak largely because Sam took the company back to its roots while transforming it to address a changed world. The world, and there are few companies or politicians that seem to get this, let alone have adopted it, is more interconnected than it has ever been - not just at a company level, but between its employees, citizens, leaders and, particularly, its children.


This has created an unprecedented amount of information and resources that could be effectively used to make the world a better place, but often is not because the critical information and conversations often can't be identified and utilized in a timely fashion. IBM's deep cause, its corporate goal, is to address this problem with its technology, and its Smarter Planet Agenda is the most visible part of this effort.


Three Lessons of the Successful Leader


Lesson One: Take advantage of the powerful new capabilities we have available in an instrumented, interconnected and intelligent world. The information is out there and the tools exist to capture and analyze it. This means decisions no longer need be made in the dark. Strong leaders move to get the information they need and then make informed decisions from it. I couldn't help but think of Microsoft during this part of the talk because that company has appeared to do everything it could to prevent its executive staff from getting key intelligence and, as a result, the last decade was peppered with failure after failure even though it is led by some relatively bright people.


Lesson Two: See your organization not only as a fierce competitor, but also as a broad collaborator. The most successfully run firms today are those that focus less on competition and more on collaboration in order to accomplish broad projects. It is less about the single super company and more about the consortiums that are formed to accomplish tasks beyond any one company and talks that are big enough to make the world a better place and result in success for all. It is the idea of the tide that raises all boats as opposed to the competitive focus that forces losers to outnumber winners.


Lesson Three: To make an enduring impact over the long term, you have to manage for the long term. It is not what you create, but what you leave behind that is important. Most companies, all but a few actually, survive more than a few years after their founders leave if they survive that long. This is because they forget what they are about, because they didn't resist the pressure of short-term pressures like optimizing for 90-day earnings and selling off the future to do so. This is true of companies, but it is doubly true of politicians who find it difficult to focus beyond the next election or winning a political battle over advisories and, in so doing, lose the war for the success of a nation. Leaders think long term, and rather than gaming the system, they are building a system that will improve their companies and countries.


Fact-Based Optimism


At the core of this speech is the idea that the future won't be defined by those who scream into cameras and find new and creative ways to piss people off. Those folks are just obstacles to a future we would all prefer. It will be defined by those who aren't just asking why, but thinking why not? Those who are looking under the rhetoric to find the facts and then acting on those facts to create a successful future are finding that success.


The subtle message was that the differences between winners and losers, in business or politics, were those who could look at facts, see the best outcomes, articulate them to build optimism and then execute. Those who don't value information, who don't create an optimistic outlook or can't execute are assuring they fail.


Future Leaders


The first executive session was moderated by an emeritus professor (Harvard), a representative from Kissinger associates, IBM's CEO (Sam) and the CEO of Sony. What was interesting was that both Kissinger and IBM leaders were on the long view and Sony's CEO argued that the short view was impossible to overcome. What made this contrast interesting is that IBM is very successful and at the top of its game, while Sony has been having trouble getting into the black.


IBM can look to the future because it seems to have a concise vision that the company is behind and the infighting at IBM appears to be at a historic low. If Sony has a vision, it is lost in the apparently lack of cooperation between its divisions and that creates a tactical environment where quarterly results are disappointing and it is impossible to think strategically. It suggests a cart-and-horse issue where if you are operating well and thinking strategically, it is easy to do so, but if you aren't, the tactical problems overwhelm your ability to think strategically and lock you into a tactically fueled declining path.


In short, IBM can think strategically because it is in good shape and it thought strategically. Sony can't because it has been so tactical that it is overwhelmed by tactical problems and strategic thinking has become impossible. Kind of fascinating.


Wrapping Up


The big lessons from this session, and particularly the contrast between Sir Howard Stringer from Sony and Sam Palmisano from IBM, showcases both the need for a fact-based vision and the problem in firms and governments where leaders can't lead. IBM is a systematic success because it looks at the future and the company marches together to achieve it. Sony is so complex that it is not even certain the same future can be agreed across the firm, let alone a consistent effort to achieve it.


IBM's final statement was that to solve problems you need to stand together and it means to stand with other companies like Sony to accomplish its goals. For Sony, if it can't first operate as a company, then it can't possibly be a viable member of a team accomplishing something bigger. Sony's problems are shared by companies like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Research In Motion and the U.S. government - all of which are struggling to find a successful strategic vision and are being hurt by tactical thinking at nearly all levels.


In the end, over a few moments, it was clear why companies like Sony are having difficulty winning while IBM can't lose. IBM knows where the goal is and is running like hell to get there, while others are either running in place or in the wrong direction because they don't have the time to locate the strategic goal. Something to think about this week is that Sony could be massively successful if it made some of the hard decisions to get rid of non-strategic businesses IBM did. You wonder if the most valuable thing that Sony's CEO has done this year is be on a panel with IBM.


The moderator's takeaway: Successful companies need to be open, optimistic and on the offensive.