IBM Alum: Jerry Holl
IBM Tenure: 12 years
Jerry Holl is a sales professional with over 30 years of experience in business, including sales & sales management positions for IBM, Moore Corporation and Piper Jaffray, Inc. From his extensive cross-industry experience, he’s gained a wealth of information on businesses, business models and best practices. Jerry has a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering and an MBA – both from the University of Minnesota.
Jerry recently completed a 3,634 mile solo bicycle journey from Alaska to Mexico. Details of the journey and access to his daily blog written during the journey, a raw unedited stream of consciousness often written laying in a tent at night after a 100 mile day.
When did you join IBM; how long were you an IBMer?
I joined IBM right out of graduate school and was with the business for just under 12 years. I had studied geological engineering in undergrad and then got my MBA. I did some work as an economic analyst for a large oil company, but quickly knew it wasn’t for me.
I wanted a career that would let me engage with people and the greater world. I just knew a sales role best matched my personal characteristics. So, I approached and was hired by IBM as they are the prominent ‘Harvard’ of sales organizations. They also embody the values and practices that are important to me. IBM products and services made a huge impact for the customers in the mid-size businesses where I sold, and were transformative to those businesses. I liked the big ticket (for those customers) big impact aspect of selling into those businesses.
What were some of your roles and duties with the company and what did you find most satisfying?
I worked in field sales and marketing, first as as salesperson, then a marketing manager, and finally as a branch marketing executive serving as an IBM branch leader. IBM was a great match for me. I was there during a high period of growth for mid-range systems …so I was able to deal with all aspects of customers’ business problems and opportunities across all industries. Due to the cross-industry selling, I was able learn about their business models in a high level and fundamental way. It was tremendously educational.
Every day in sales felt like a field-trip. I needed to really understand their business and problems to find solutions that would work. And I got to work very closely and collaboratively with customers to come to the right solutions. This took a certain kind of attitude and curiosity. Customers can tell when you truly have their interests in mind. They will open up and want to do business with you when you are more concerned with solving their problems and capturing their opportunities as opposed to just making a sale.
I was successful in my roles and I attribute that to a combination of putting client first and holding high professionalism standards — doing things on the up and up. It’s essential to follow through and do what you say you will do. I also had a real personal hunger to succeed and a love of the job.
I credit IBM with providing my best foundational business experience. In regards to my career, it was a time of my highest learning and highest growth. Ultimately, I left IBM because I grew as much as I could in the local branch and was committed to staying in Minnesota.
Did you have any mentors? Are you still connected with your former IBM colleagues?
IBM attracted very high quality individuals. Many of them remain great friends today. You couldn’t help but grow and develop strong business practices just being around those individuals. As a sales manager, I was constantly mentoring my team. My style was very hands-on: teaching, developing, getting in the trenches and getting involved in their deals where necessary. Part of mentoring and training is to show people how to advance the ball, not just tell them.
I gained many insights specifically from a couple Branch Managers. When you have a great leader you learn through osmosis as you see how they professionally handle situations. And, I also learned what not to do from less effective managers.
Being so large, IBM had a lot of important structure to maintain standards and control to make things work. But sometimes those structures were too cumbersome and weren’t right for certain customers. That’s when you need to take some risks and push for change. With so much structure, you have to be adaptable and break structure where appropriate to put the client first.
Conversely, in my roles outside of IBM, I experienced what it was like without structure. It was often chaos. I took what I learned from IBM to create the mechanisms and practices that help improve productivity and quality, building structure for a bunch of cowboys.
You want “wild ducks,” but not adverse wild ducks; you want those who use strong judgement to bridge the gap between customer and your own business interests, creating a win-win for all parties. There is never a need or reason to leave a wake of problems in any of your dealings.
What did you want to do after your IBM career? What are you doing today?
I continued to work in sales and sales leadership, then in financial services sales. But after I paid off my house, my kids’ education, and all my major commitments. I needed new ‘explosive’ growth.
I wanted to do something off the wall, something completely different, something where I couldn’t help but grow. As one friend called it to be big, hairy and audacious. And I wanted it to be constructive, healthy, and to test the limits of my capabilities. I wanted it to be remote, solo, physically grueling, and drop-dead gorgeous scenery. So, I decided to take a solo bike journey from Alaska to Mexico.
I conceived of the trip and left in about a 3 week period. Why wait; why over-plan? I hadn’t specifically trained for this journey. I didn’t even think that much about it. I was just confident I could do it. And, if I wasn’t in biking shape, I’d have plenty of time to ride myself into shape! My experience at IBM had given me confidence in my ability to deal with situations that came my way. I used the same ability in this circumstance.
There was risk, but it is what I wanted. And, it would require me to persevere even when I might not want to. I encountered challenging terrain, 20 bears, other wild animals, traffic, brutal headwinds and changing weather. I also re-discovered that people are really-really good! Everybody along the way who saw my exposure and effort went out of their way to try to help in some little way, whether it was giving a candy bar, filling a water bottle, or providing information and directions.
Prior to this journey, I had never ridden my bike for more than 25 miles. And, had never ridden a loaded bike with all my gear. I just had to dig in …and it was very rewarding. Sometimes I ran short on resources, simple things like like food or water, but I always found a way; discomfort is not danger.
When I left on the trip, I was ‘mechanically disadvantaged.” I never took the time to learn the basic mechanics of my bike. Embarrassingly, I didn’t even remember (from childhood) how to change a tire, patch a tube, and had no idea how to fix a broken chain. I broke my bike chain in the middle of nowhere in Alaska and just by blind luck, a female biker rode up who had a manual. She was a godsend as we both figured out how to reconnect my chain with a spare link and repair my bike. I dislike mechanical repairs and figured that during the trip I would just have to figure out the ‘mechanical’ problems as they occurred.
To me, the mechanical issues were discrete problems with known ‘how-tos.’ Although I didn’t (and still don’t) have the mechanical skills that was not a reason to not go. More interesting to me were the mental situations and decision points without discrete how-tos, such as how to read my mental condition, physical condition, strange encounters, road and traffic hazards, frontier bandits, and wild animals, which required constant situational decision-making. In a funny way, all of my IBM experiences contributed greatly to dealing with these mental situations. I couldn’t realistically prepare for most of them. I just had to make judgements as I encountered them, but, I just felt confident and capable of figuring them out as I went.
I kept a daily blog about the trip, and have subsequently written a manuscript which I intend to eventually publish as a book. Basically, I want to encourage people to not let their life just happen to them, but to take control and actively build your own path and future. Although there was occasional real danger, mostly it was exhilarating joy with occasional blissful hardship and discomfort (which is not danger – know the difference). Don’t be afraid and frozen with the prospect of failure, rather, turn it on its ear and look at the tremendous reward if/when you’re successful. It’s intoxicating.
Most people have more skill than they think they do. So, in addition to writing about my adventure, I’ve also written a sales training program. It’s a practical and pragmatic step by step approach on how to conduct complicated large ticket, long sell cycle sales based upon all the lessons I’ve learned in my professional career. My unique training describes the steps of the sales process and the ‘art’ of what the salesperson needs to perform in each step. It organizes the methods for a salesperson to take their intrinsic baseline skills and trains them how to effectively advance the ball and make the sale. All with the customer’s interests at heart.
The bottom line: Don’t fear the unknown. Take your skills and run with them. Don’t over-think and over-plan. Get in the game and adjust. You’re better and more capable than you think you are and, if you never get on your bicycle you will never know if you can do it.
Do you have key advice for those still advancing their careers?
- Find where your heart is. There is money in every profession if you are the best …but you won’t be the best if you don’t love it. Be honest with yourself. Ask yourself if you can get excited about this?
- Get in the game. Go. Don’t over think, over-plan, or worry about others being better. You will always need to get better …and you will.
- Don’t think about specific jobs. Think about what skill-sets you’re developing in your role and how they apply to your passions and future – both personally and professionally.
I’m really passionate about sharing what I’ve learned with others. In addition to sharing my insights via the bog and my sales training, I’ve also started a business to help people who are looking to change careers.
I can help advise anyone who is contemplating or making a career change. I have an advisory service to help individuals shine and differentiate themselves in an interview. I am also available to speak to groups about leadership lessons learned on my solo bicycle journey from Alaska to Mexico.
Finally, I have developed and delivered a very practical and pragmatic sales training program focusing on the interpersonal aspect of persuasion and influence in the sales process …in my view this is the toughest and most rewarding part of the sales process.
You can contact me if you have interest in any of my stories or work via LinkedIn.
- By Jessica Benjamin, IBM Brand System and Workforce Enablement, CHQ