Watching Leadership Transitions at IBM and SAP

I “grew up” in IBM – and one thing IBM does really well is how to transition responsibilities from one leader to another . Although not at very close quarters , I watched how smoothly Sam Palmisano transitioned over to Ginnie Rommety . And what I still remember the most from that time is Sam saying Ginnie got the job because she earned it fair and square , not because she was a woman . I had watched Ginnie with a lot of admiration as she moved from running global services to global sales and then on to CEO .

No one that I know – employees , customers or partners of IBM – ever mentioned to me that they were worried with the transition . There was no chaos or confusion .

Ginnie was well groomed for the job – and inherited an awesome team. She made several leadership changes too at all levels of IBM. Proof of the pudding is in the eating – and here Ginnie has had a mixed year with some bad quarters , unlike her predecessor who went from strength to strength (from a financial point of view that is ). Yet, I never heard someone asking – “what would Sam have done ?” .

As Sanjay Poonen recently wrote in his SCN blog – there is no success without successors . I have a faint memory of a teacher mentioning this in my high school class in the context of sports -so I am guessing this is a biblical phrase . I can’t agree more – the hallmark of a great leader is how little he will be missed when he walks away from his current role . Any one who knows the guy taking over from Sanjay – Steve Lucas – would get what I am saying here .

My managers in IBM groomed me well too ( and I am eternally grateful) for my next steps up, and I was always encouraged to watch out for my team . It was extremely gratifying to see my pal Gagan Reen take over the innovation team after I left and never missing a beat . And I know he is grooming others too . Words cannot express how cool it is to watch the cycle propel itself by paying forward .

This is not to say all transitions are smooth . I worked in a small company before that got acquired . It was anything but smooth . I went from a position where my boss and I could talk on any topic at any point in time , to me needing an appointment with his EA to get an audience . Long story short neither me nor my boss stayed there for long . I later figured almost all of the acquired team dispersed because the transition wasn’t well managed . This was before I joined IBM . I also heard the big company that bought us did not get much repeat business from old customers we had .

And then I joined SAP about seven months ago. When I was considering the offer , I happened to run into Sanjay Poonen . Sanjay invited me to sit in his leadership class for a day in Palo Alto, at the co-innovation lab area. In my entire career – there are only two classes that I found useful for me . Sanjay’s was one . The other was done by Bill Smilie at IBM ( a program called Cornerstone). It was clear to me that Sanjay and Bill were both very good with mentoring the next generation of leaders by practical examples . Neither one preaches – it is learning by open discussion . If anyone who reads this has an opportunity to learn from these two guys – don’t think two times about it , Just DO IT !

A big reason I decided to join SAP was the faith I have in the leadership team . I had known Bill, Jim, Vishal, Sanjay,Rob Enslin, Steve Lucas and many other leaders from before – either via IBM or via the blogger program at SAP. So I had no doubts that I will be joining a company that had tremendous executive bench . Of course, I had no clue that people like Sanjay and Jim will be leaving the company so soon to begin their next adventures .

But having seen how smooth transitions can happen – I figured quickly that SAP won’t miss a beat either . Sanjay and Jim are leaving SAP in great hands .

And there is plenty of continuity – development is under the best possible guy – Vishal . And Hasso is deeply involved in technology direction. These are no ordinary people – and combine vision and execution very well . Bill has been Co-CEO for a while now – and is more than capable of running the show solo . And the strategy that SAP executes to now was formed by the leadership team that included Bill . That should ensure stability of plans .Look at the transition plan – Jim will continue for almost a year. The CFO transition also has a long time line . In short – this is as well planned as it could be .

So as a relatively new employee – I am as comfortable about this as I was when Ginnie took over from Sam when I worked at IBM . In fact, I am even a little more comfortable – given I know these SAP leaders a lot better than I knew the IBM leaders . And it is not just the very top levels – SAP has solid leadership talent right below these folks as well.

And just as no customer expressed any concern about IBM leadership changes – I am confident no one will ask me about SAP leadership changes either .

Last but not least – Sanjay and Jim, I wish you the very best .