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If it’s just about you, nothing will outlast you

Dec 05, 2011 Business Daily, Success

“The I.B.M. lesson, Mr. Palmisano said, is never become wedded to what you make, but to the values the corporation stands for. After all, I.B.M. started out making clocks, scales, punched card tabulators, and cheese slicers (“the world’s fastest at the time,” he noted).
“The history of business is a bone pile of companies that had an extraordinary initial success,” Mr. Palmisano said, “but were unable to achieve a second act.” Mostly, he added, the bone pile companies “could not get beyond an emotional attachment to the past.”
The enduring corporate values Mr. Palmisano had in mind were not ethics or corporate responsibility, though those are certainly values, but a company’s lasting goals — in I.B.M.’s case, satisfying customer needs, building long-term relationships and pursuing breakthrough innovations.”

New York Times (3 November 2011)

I wrote about IBM’s centenary on this page recently:

“IBM’s ability to survive is driven less by being ahead of an ever-changing curve, and more by its ability to stay bonded with its customers in its role as their trusted advisor. Put that one in your pot, good people, and cook it to your own specification. It’s less about your business genius, and more about your ability to stay true to some enduring beliefs and practices. Mostly, it’s about building a unique culture inside the company, and very strong loyalties outside.”

Few companies last the longer race. Most die out after some short-lived successes. The art of longevity in business is the art of exercising wisdom over shrewdness; it is the art of valuing relationships over transactions; it is the art of cherishing values rather than products.

So it was good to hear Sam Palmisano, IBM’s outgoing chairman and CEO, confirming this message recently. In the excerpt shown, Mr Palmisano tells us that many businesses can have a successful first act: they can have a hit product, be at the right place at the right time.

To have a successful second, third and fourth acts, however – that takes some doing. IBM shows us how.

It is NOT about being wedded to your products. Sony did that, and has not produced a hit product in years now. Microsoft did that, and is now scrambling to make up lost ground as its desktop-based software suites lose relevance by the day. RIM did that, but its hit BlackBerry phone is now looking like an also-ran – its stock hit a seven-year low the other day.

It is NOT about being shrewd at the expense of your customers. Have you ever wondered why you almost never see long-lived restaurants in Nairobi? Why so many appear, offer great food and ambience – and then fade away and disappear? How many favourite restaurants from your childhood are still present? Long list? Most commit the following fatal mistakes: they cut corners on quality after their initial success; they take customers for granted; they fail to build a distinctive working culture. And so they die.

Mr Palmisano’s message is to focus on enterprise-specific culture, values and goals: to be, for example, the best relationship manager; the most innovative product developer; the most trusted supplier. Those sorts of things create long-term success – and they require consistent leadership that cherishes and deepens them.

Mr Palmisano’s final message was perhaps his most telling. A CEO, he said, is merely a “temporary steward of a great enterprise.” This humility is necessary if you are going to steer a durable enterprise. It’s not about you: it’s about keeping the great ship on its course, and then handing over to younger, better hands.

Now there’s a lesson many, many leaders need to learn. It’s never about you; it’s always about the greater good and the bigger deal. In yourself you are nothing. If it’s just about you, nothing will outlast you.

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