Guest Post: How IBM Cultivates Leaders

Over the past few years, IBM has continuously been recognized as one of the best companies for leaders.  With so many amazing brand-driven companies like Apple, Google, Amazon and Coca Cola, it is remarkable that a traditionally information technology company that used to produce adding machines and typewriters is the beneficiary of such prestigious recognition.  Yet, as an IBMer, this recognition comes as no surprise to me.  Since the mid eighties, IBM has made our primary business one of continuous self transformation.  We have recognized that technological products and innovative services have discrete and temporary life spans that are often too short.  We fundamentally understand that the world around us is moving far too quickly for anyone at the top to call down plays for the teams below to execute.  Out of necessity, we have learned the value of leadership at all levels of the organization to drive the business transformation necessary to adapt to continuously changing conditions.  We have learned that great leaders are cultivated and grown through a process that often takes years and involves a combination of experiential, formal, and informal professional development.  It is not a process for the impatient and undisciplined.

As a Partner in the IBM’s services organization, I have been privileged to be the recipient of IBM’s investments in me as a leader.  What makes IBM’s approach to leadership so remarkable is not just what they do extremely well, but also what they don’t do.  IBM has exemplary leadership development programs, strong processes for identifying-tracking- supporting our leadership pipeline, and amazing resources for providing our leaders with performance support and mentoring solutions.  Only at IBM could a program for cultivating leaders (our Corporate Service and Executive Service Corps) result in the development of thousands of leaders with direct experience leading teams in emerging markets.  Each of these programs are worthy of their own discussions.  However, what’s more important are the things that IBM does not do.  At IBM, leaders are mandated to lead.

Leaders should lead…of course.  What this means is that every current leader and emerging leader is given a share of corporate responsibility and it is up to us to develop, manage, and grow our businesses and service lines.  We are given the parameters, talent, and resources and chartered to succeed, but we are much like franchisees or owner-operators within the IBM enterprise.  As leaders we must create alliances, establish markets, develop teams, and execute plans.  Though IBM is one of the largest companies in the world, the atmosphere among the teams is significantly more entrepreneurial than one would expect.  We are strongly encouraged to ask for help when we need it, but at all times we understand that the responsibility for success remains with ourselves.  By not allowing the shifting of responsibility and accountability, leaders are allowed to lead and become better leaders in the process.

The lesson to take from IBM is that yes, developing leaders is about formal education and experiences you give to your employees, but it is also about getting out of the way and letting your leaders be just that, leaders.

This post was written by Robert (Bob) Osmond is the Partner and Leader for the IBM GBS Public Sector Organization and People Development Service Area.

Note: This post reflects the opinions of the author and not those of IBM. 


Friday Fast Tip: Career Spring Cleaning

As we move into spring, now is a great time to do a little career “spring cleaning!”  Take stock of the skills you have developed over the last year and identify those that you want to grow further in the year ahead, while re-shifting your focus from those that you do not want to grow.

Top Talent Development

Getting, retaining, and growing your top talent isn’t easy, but it is simple. In many ways, it comes down to two things:  igniting passion and good management. Top employees are motivated by challenging work that helps them to fulfill their professional goals. However, even employees who are excited to come to work can be driven away by bad managers. A simple concept, but as I said, not always easy. So, here are a few relatively easy ways leaders can keep and develop their top talent.


  • Give employees opportunities to be leaders – This has two benefits: First, you will never be able to identify your top talent through micromanagement. They need a chance to succeed and also to fail on their own.  Secondly, ownership increases engagement and commitment.
  • Prevent stagnation – Your top employees need to feel as if they are continually being challenged. Give your employees opportunities to take on new work and special projects. Bring them in to do work that has a larger impact on the organization. These new opportunities will promote innovation and keep your talent learning.
  • Learn your employees’ strengths and interests – I talked about the importance of this and how it plays into employee engagement in a previous post. Collaborative technology gives you a unique opportunity to identify the strengths and interests of your employees beyond their day to day work.
  • Show your employees they are valued – An American Psychological Association survey found that 50% of employees who don’t feel valued at work will look for a new job. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Say thank you more often, ask your employees for their opinions, and implement worthy ideas. Let these small things be part of your daily leadership mantra. 


  • Request 360 degree reviews of managers – Not only should managers review their employees, but employees should review their managers. This feedback can be valuable for improving managers and helping them to identify their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Review retention rates at the management level – Go beyond an organization-wide view, and look at your turnover rates from a department and manager level. If you are seeing a repeat issue in one department, it may be time to look at the management.
  • Implement a mentorship program – Give your employees the opportunity to get the career development advice they want. Mentorship gives employees an additional connection to the organization and can increase the motivation of both parties.
  • Enable your managers – Managers need training too. We can’t expect that everyone inherently knows how to be a people manager. Invest in your managers and their development, because ultimately your managers have the biggest impact on whether or not you keep your top talent.
  • Recognize not everyone should be a manager – While many people can learn to become a better people manager, not everyone is meant to be a manager. There are people who can be great in their technical expertise, who can be great project managers, but who ultimately can’t be people managers, and that’s OK.  The important part is to identify those people who can be great managers and those who can’t.

Managing your top talent can be challenging, but it doesn’t require you to completely change your organization. Start by focusing your efforts on igniting the passions of your employees and developing a successful management team. Do you have any other ideas? Share them in the comments.

Creating Meaning

Daniel Pink said it…

Maslow said it…

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Even Margaret Thatcher said it…

“What is success? I think it is a mixture of having a flair for the thing that you are doing; knowing that it is not enough, that you have got to have hard work and a certain sense of purpose.”

Believing in a purpose motivates us to perform and succeed, and while some jobs may come with an easily defined purpose (think doctors), most do not. As leaders, we must help our employees find meaning in their work. But of course, the question isn’t should you, but how do you create meaning?

Here are a few basics:

  1. Money is not meaning: Money is important, it’s necessary, it relates to worth, but it is not meaning. This includes both the money you pay someone and the money you make as an organization.
  2. Missions should convey meaning: Going back to rule number one, don’t fall into the trap of making your mission about money. You know you’re headed down that path if you use phrases like stockholder value, shares, or maximize. Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer do a great job in their Harvard Business Review blog of showing the difference between missions about money and missions with meaning.
  3. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” This includes your employees. As Simon Sinek  said, people need to understand the “why.” Every time you communicate to your employees, you need to explain the why. “We are rolling out this great new product!” – Why, what’s wrong with our existing products? “We are restructuring the organization.”  – Why is this needed? “We are giving you a promotion!” – Why, what did I do? Ok so maybe they won’t ask that last one, but answering it is still important. Understanding the why helps to drive behavior. It gives meaning to your what’s, who’s, and how’s. If you aren’t sure what your employees think, ask! To stay on top of the employee perspective, I hold regular group discussions with employees at different levels to discuss their ideas and issues, and I don’t just have an open door, I live the open door policy.
  4. Create a culture of meaning: A company’s culture (or any type of culture for that matter) is made up of the shared values and practices of the organization. You can influence your culture through the environment, the people, and the work:
    • Create an environment that reflects your values. If, for example, you value innovation, do your employees have the ability to do this, perhaps through collaborative technologies or Innovation Jams?  I recently posted a question about client interaction to my employees in an Ideation Blog to have them submit their ideas and vote on the best suggestions. This was an easy way to create an environment that encourages collaborative, meaningful discussion among our disaggregated employees. It’s important to remember that your environment is more than a physical space and tools like this can make a big difference.
    • Provide work that is meaningful, challenging, and allows for growth. In order to grow, people need new opportunities and the ability to manage their own work. They need to be responsible for their output and rewarded for their successes. One way we have done this is by systematically moving our employees to new projects after a certain time period, thereby bringing fresh perspectives to other projects while developing the individual’s skills.
    • Lead by example. If you want your employees to be dedicated to your customers, you must, in turn, be dedicated to your employees. Show your employees you are committed to their growth and helping them to achieve their goals.

Creating meaning for your employees is really about creating a successful organization. Meaning drives engagement and engagement drives results. Providing purpose starts at the top, but cannot end there. Executives must drive a meaningful mission and strategy, while managers must show the purpose to every day work. Sure, every task isn’t going to fill your employees with the sense of true accomplishment (wow, that Power Point template could save the world!), but they should always know how what they are doing plays into the bigger picture.