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 .

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10 thoughts on “Watching Leadership Transitions at IBM and SAP

    • Vijay, thank you for your kind words, and I agree with others, nicely written post. One additional and complementary thought – the most gratifying legacies are those that live on through and because of others, not those that die without your personal touch.

      All the best.

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      • Thanks Bill – no one has influenced me in such a short time as you have . I owe a lot to you .

        And I loved what you said . May you long continue to be the guiding light for tomorrow’s leaders

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  1. Life will go on… If anyone thinks that they are inevitable, he/she must be kidding:) As you said, whether it is a leader or anyone at any level, their success is measured how well the guy who is following him or her is able to take it forward from where it was left… I have heard many places “oh man, I don’t think this project will survive a single day without him” – and my response used to be simple “nothing will happen”.

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  3. Vijay, thank you for posting this well written post. I’ve had the pleasure to work closely with Jim and Sanjay at SAP and agree they’re both inspirational leaders – not only in how they do their jobs, but in how they put people first and genuinely care about people. Both Jim and Sanjay have done a great job leading by example and I’m confident that even after they leave the day-to-day work at SAP that their legacy will carry on thru those they mentored and inspired over the years.

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  4. Vijay, I truly enjoy reading your write ups!!! As an ex-SAP employee, I couldn’t agree more on what you said about the leadership potential on the top of SAP and one level below. Having worked for SAP for 10 years in the product management organisation in Walldorf, I have to say that there is a very thick layer of myopic mid-management, who are very far away from being any kind of leaders. It is shame, but I guess in a big oraganisation like SAP this is somewhat inevitable….

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