I admit that it’s a trifle self-absorbed to create a blog under my name/picture and then use the platform to write a post about something smart I once did. But if you lead a group of people as part of a larger organization, you may find this helpful. Actually I don’t feel too embarrassed about touting a win here since I’ve used this space over the years to also write about some of my titanic screw-ups (like this one) so I suppose it all evens out. Let me set the stage for you.
I was working at IBM several years ago after they acquired the venture-funded Silicon Valley software company I worked for at the time. When I joined IBM, I joined the part of IBM’s Software Group that deals with database and related information software. Since this was an area IBM had targeted to bulk up, our acquisition was just one of several that IBM was making, so the area I was part of became a mix of long-term IBM employees and a bunch of dazed and confused new employees who only a few weeks earlier had been working for some hot start-up but now awoke to find that they were one of a few hundred thousand IBM employees. Let’s just say there was some adjustments that people had to make.
I ended up leading a group of business development people. IBM was at the time – and I assume still is – heavily “matrixed”, meaning people might have one solid-line boss but really take their direction from a “dotted-line” leader in some other part of the organization.
We were at a sales kickoff for a new year, and I had scheduled a break-out session for the group of IBM lifers and newly-acquired IBM newbies I was leading. This might sound like no big deal, but when I say “sales kickoff” I’m talking over 10,000 salespeople at the MGM in Las Vegas, so getting a room to get the team together was a challenge. Furthermore, it probably would be the only time we would all be in the same room at the same time that whole year. As weird as it sounds, everyone lived/worked somewhere else and had very different responsibilities, so although we might be on weekly phone calls together, we rarely saw one another. In fact, one time I remember meeting an employee in person for the first time after I had hired her ten months earlier.
So I have this room set aside, and the people on our team sorta/kinda know one another, but not that well. Furthermore, I had identified one of the main motivational problems in the group, which was “I know I’m in the boat, but will the boat’s progress be the same whether I’m pulling an oar or not?…do my contributions really matter?”. If you were one of over 300,000 employees in a company, you’d wonder the same thing. So here’s how I approached it.
I started by talking about IBM’s then-CEO, Sam Palmisano. Since I had mostly worked for smaller tech companies, I was used to not only seeing the CEO of my company often, but probably having a beer with him or her as well. But at a huge global company like IBM, seeing the CEO is sort of like seeing the Governor of your state – sightings are infrequent (if ever) and are usually from a great distance. So Sam’s problems were not something that a normal employee would “feel” in the same way you might feel the problem of someone who works in the same office as you.
I pointed out what was going on with IBM’s stock price, talked about how IBM was lagging some similar companies on our valuation as a multiple of EPS (I had the metrics) and how Sam’s job was to improve our valuation so that IBM’s metrics were more in line with other global tech firms. I made sure to personalize it – I described how Sam’s daily thoughts would likely be highly focused on this issue and described the pressure he would be under from investors and what that might feel like.
Then I talked about Steve Mills, who at the time ran all of IBM Software Group. If that group was split out as a separate company, Steve would have been the CEO of one of the largest software companies in the world – so he was a big deal. I talked to the team that while IBM’s revenues were predominantly coming from the Global Services arm of IBM, a disproportionate share of IBM’s earnings were driven by the Software Group we were part of. I envisioned for the group a conversation between EPS-focused CEO Sam and Software-Group-leading Steve about the importance of our Software Group increasing revenues that next year (thus driving earnings and improving IBM’s valuation).
I then did this very specific breakdown from that upper echelon of IBM all the way down to our group and, finally, each individual employee in the room. It actually wasn’t that hard – maybe there were four or six steps to get from the CEO to each one of us. But by the time I had distilled it, everyone understood how their performance in the upcoming year would directly impact the CEO’s challenges. I didn’t draw fuzzy lines with gaps in logic. Every connection was real, direct, and simple to understand.
Afterwards, I had one IBM lifer who had been there for over 20 years tell me it was “the best presentation I’ve ever heard since I’ve been with this company” – a compliment that has stayed with me and is probably why I even remember the story.
Here’s an important thing to remember: there wasn’t anything magic about it. I just helped each of us see how, while small in the overall scheme of things, our roles were important and we had an important mission to drive overall business results. Nobody could pretend that they were just coming along for the ride. Everyone had to pull their oar.
Getting the right people in the boat, and making sure everyone is working together toward the same worthy objective is the essence of leadership.
P.S. Bonus words of wisdom from the subject of this blog post….