In the 20th century, a select group of leaders — General Motor's Alfred Sloan, HP's David Packard and Bill Hewlett, and GE's Jack Welch — set the standard for the way corporations are run. In the 21st century only IBM's Sam Palmisano has done so.
When Palmisano retired this month, the media chronicled his success by focusing on IBM's 21% annual growth in earnings per share and its increase in market capitalization to $218 billion. But IBM hasn't flourished because it kowtows to Wall Street. In fact, five years after Palmisano took over, IBM stock was stuck where it had been when his tenure began.
The real story behind IBM's success is the course Palmisano set for 21st century global enterprises. Recognizing that the company's command-and-control culture wouldn't work in the 21st century, he defined leadership as leading by values and created a unique collaborative organizational structure.
In 2002 Palmisano succeeded a legendary leader in Lou Gerstner, who saved IBM from being broken up and put it on a viable course. Whereas Gerstner famously declared "the last thing IBM needs is a vision," Palmisano had a clear vision for the company. He saw its unique strength as offering complete solutions tailored to customers' needs — something no other company could match. To concentrate on customer solutions, Palmisano spun off personal computers and disk drives and acquired PriceWaterhouseCoopers' consulting business.
Executing this strategy required seamless integration of IBM's product capabilities with its geographic reach. This meant abandoning IBM's existing organization, in which product silos and geographic entities operated independently and frequently were more competitive than collaborative. Palmisano reorganized IBM into a "globally integrated enterprise" focused on worldwide collaboration. He cajoled, pushed, and pulled the company into a client-centric, agile structure able to customize delivery of IBM's software assets, hardware assets, and intellectual property.
With 440,000 employees in 170 countries, Palmisano recognized that IBM couldn't be run solely from the top; rather, it needed thousands of leaders operating collaboratively around the globe to fulfill its customers' diverse needs. His first act was to abolish IBM's corporate executive committee.
Palmisano understood that reorganizing IBM's formal structure wouldn't be sufficient; he had to thoroughly transform the company's culture and do so in a sustainable way. His ingenious first step toward creating a collaborative culture was a massive, global collaboration. In 2003 he launched an online, interactive "values jam" involving all employees for 72 hours to determine what IBM's values should be. The three principles that emerged from that event guided decision-making throughout the organization, giving IBM's huge, globally dispersed workforce the discipline necessary to execute the company's new strategy.
Palmisano could not have succeeded at placing values at the center of IBM's operations without strong principles of his own. These are the qualities I believe made him the best CEO, so far, of the 21st century:
Humility and openness. Palmisano has an engaging manner and keen sense of humor. Colleagues say his humility and humor are disarming. In a speech on IBM's 100th anniversary, he said:
The old model of the heroic superman is increasingly archaic. The most active and successful leaders today see themselves as part of the global community and peer groups. They listen as well as they speak. Never confuse charisma with leadership. The first job of a leader is to enable an organization to survive without him or her. The key to that is to build a sustainable culture.
He practiced this by listening intently to employees throughout the organization. He also talked to customers on a daily basis and circumnavigated the globe six times a year to meet customers in person. These relationships were essential in gaining the confidence of customers who had qualms about outsourcing to IBM.
Patience and a long-term view. Palmisano warned against prioritizing shareholders or other constituents, calling this "a false choice," and explaining that "Long-term management is a serious challenge in a world driven by short-term thinking. Forward-thinking leaders are not just achieving measurable success in the short-term. They are innovating in ways that create virtuous circles for a generation or more." He was comfortable making smart bets to position IBM for decades-long growth, such as creating the Emerging Business Organization to incubate new businesses and shield them from P&L pressures. And his time leading IBM's Asia-Pacific business taught him about the value of building long-term relationships, not just doing transactions.
Directness. Palmisano believes the technology industry requires "a high-performance, in-your-face, speak-your-mind culture." He's personable, but blunt. Known for walking out of long meetings to make sales calls, he shortened IBM's two-month annual budget process to six days. Instead of formal performance reviews, he regularly engaged in short conversations, focusing on key initiatives. Many who know him cite his impatience as a strength; it kept him relentlessly focused on execution.
Pragmatism. When the U.S. government cut back on work permits for foreign nationals, IBM had thousands of Indian employees forced to return to their home country. He turned that problem into competitive advantage by relocating most of IBM's software operations to India as its Indian operations grew from 3,000 to 100,000 employees. He also forced partners and distributors to commit in writing to uphold IBM's strict ethical standards. In 2009 he called off the $7 billion acquisition of Sun Microsystems in part due to Sun's egregious golden parachutes.
As Palmisano built IBM into the world's leading information technology company, its competitors dithered. HP suffered from a progression of strategic missteps and failed leaders. Microsoft's enterprise services stagnated. Cisco now sells mostly commoditized products. In contrast, IBM kept laser-like focus on building the global organization to execute its strategy, and financial results followed.
Palmisano once said, "The CEO is not the brand! It is not about you. You are a temporary steward of a wonderful enterprise, so leave it in better shape than you find it." As he concludes his career, he leaves his successor, Virginia Rometty, with an iconic giant poised to dominate its industry for decades to come.
Originially Written for Harvard Business Review on January 18. 2012
This post draws upon several resources, including: the IBM archives; Palmisano's own article, "The Globally Integrated Enterprise" in Foreign Affairst and his speech on the Future of Leadership; aHarvard Business Review interview with Palmisano, "Leading Change When Business is Good;"Rosabeth Moss Kanter's case on IBM and Joseph Bower and Sonja Ellington Hout's case on IBM. The author and Sam Palmisano together serve on the board of directors of the Exxon Mobil Corporation.