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. 


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