Watching the second CEO transition at IBM

Yesterday evening I had just finished a conference call when my phone lit up with slack messages , WhatsApp messages and calls all together about Arvind Krishna being appointed as our new CEO . Obviously a big moment for all of us . This is the second time I have watched a CEO transition here, and there are some good lessons I learned watching our leaders in action – albeit from considerable distance .

I was an account partner at a semiconductor client in Northern California in GBS in 2012 when Ginni became CEO of IBM . There are three things I remember from that time .

1. The CIO of the company telling me “this is the best CEO transition I have seen anywhere”

2. IBM stock price was around $210 or so . I had put 10% of my paycheck every month since I joined (when stock was around $70) in ESPP to buy the stock and I sold everything I had and paid off the mortgage of our home

3. My mentor, John Leffler, telling me about how accessible Ginni is to line leadership

I did not know Ginni at all when she became our CEO . Nevertheless, I sent her a short congratulatory email about 10 minutes after I saw the announcement email . To my utter surprise – she responded in about 2 mins thanking me . I showed that to everyone in the team and we were all thrilled that we have a new leader who would respond so fast to someone a hundred levels below her in the hierarchy 🙂

John later told me that Ginni actually knew a little about me from the SAP CEOs McDermott and Snabe ( they knew me from the SAP Mentor and blogger programs ) , and had asked him about me .

In any case – this one real time response to my note had a big impact on me. I am very prompt in my email and phone responses as well and a lot of that can be traced back to me thinking “If Ginni who has a thousand times harder job than me can be so responsive, I have no excuse to slack” . I have to add that Bill McDermott , CEO of ServiceNow ( and ex-SAP CEO ) is exactly this way too . Every email and call gets returned quickly .

It certainly couldn’t have been easy for Ginni being the CEO for 8 years facing constant criticism from all around . I absolutely admire how Ginni stayed so positive throughout this time and continued to make big bold bets for the future on research , cloud, quantum etc . The largest business I have ever run is a tiny fraction of what Ginni runs . Even at this tiny level – it’s hard to balance short term vs long term and it’s easy to get criticized whatever trade off you make . I can only imagine – barely – what she must go through routinely at the scale of IBM and with constant comparisons to others. I can’t honestly say I handle pressure with her level of ease – but seeing how she does it has certainly helped me learn how to handle it better .

I have only met her directly very few times . One thing I have always noticed is that she zooms into what is important very quickly without wasting any time. She also doesn’t hold back on feedback – good or bad . In one CEO level meeting at a client – she took me aside and asked about my family and what my daughter was learning at school these days . She was happy to hear about her interest in math and computer programming and asked me about how I thought IBM was helping shape the next generation of technical talent in schools . And an hour later she gave my boss and me some pretty hard hitting feedback on what we should improve on . Again, this was something I could learn from on the balance a leader needs to develop .

From time to time, I would get the pleasure of some quick feedback from her on my blog as well – which of course is major bragging rights . This one was about the future of software on New Year’s Eve .

And as of yesterday we have a new CEO-elect in Arvind Krishna , and a new President in Jim Whitehurst .

Right off the bat – I (and many others) cheered loudly when I heard a hard core technologist was chosen as our new leader (and especially sweet for immigrants like me to see it’s a person of Indian origin) .

When I joined IBM in 2006 , Arvind was already quite well known as a visionary technologist and he has been taking on progressively more senior and impactful roles . I have interacted with him only a handful of times – mostly when I led the consulting business in NA for AI, analytics and IOT . He is the most down to earth leader one can meet – and totally stays away from hype and yet communicates the value of technology so effectively. Something I admire and want to get better at myself !

Twenty years ago or so when I landed in USA as a young engineer, there were not a lot of people of Indian origin in senior leadership roles in tech companies that I could look up to . And now we have immigrant engineers from India as CEOs of IBM, Google , Microsoft , Adobe ! It is a great moment of pride as an American of Indian origin (and an engineer) myself – especially since not that long ago I couldn’t have even dreamt of such a scenario . I was not the only one going through this emotion – so many of us were calling and messaging each other well into the night . What a great testament to the education system in India , and what a great example of America promoting top talent with no bias based on the country they were born !

When I saw the news yesterday on a slack channel, I sent a quick note to Ginni – and the only request I had was for her to write a book on her time in IBM . I sure hope she does and there will be a lot for us to learn from it !

Good luck Arvind and Jim ! All of us are cheering for you as you lead us into the future .

Usual disclaimer : As always, these are purely my personal thoughts and not that of IBM . I am not an IBM spokesperson . I do own IBM stock .

Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

6 thoughts on “Watching the second CEO transition at IBM

  1. Hi Vijay – Thanks for sharing the views based on practical experience. I too joined IBM in 2007 and stayed with it for good 9.5 years all with export blue. After reading the blog I went back to the day I landed in Phoenix and started a new chapter of my professional career. unfortunately I didn’t get chance to interact with you during my tenure in IBM, but I have followed you through some of my LinkedIn connects. Let me tell you from a readers perspective – your views are very genuine and one can relate to it. For me you’re a true inspiration and I am sure many more like me will second to it. Thanks again!!


  2. Vijay, I heard about her from other leaders in the leadership programs. I admire her for holding the fence during difficult time for IBMer. The leadership quality to respond to others (100 level down!) is not easy and I am blessed to have few leaders who ad the same quality in my life namely (While I have non-IBMers, listing out only IBMers) Bruce Tyler, Jerry Kurtz, Sai Yadati, Ram Subramanian etc. and you (always!). You are all role models for me. Glad to see Aravind and I am looking forward to see what miracles he will make!. Very nice blog as usual Vijay.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: