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. 


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.