Thomas J. Watson, Sr., IBM President, 1928
IBM’s legendary leader Thomas J. Watson, Sr. has long been recognized as one of the world’s great businessmen. As IBM’s president from 1914 to 1952, one of his critical leadership objectives centered on creating a culture of collaboration. In a 1928 speech to employees, he said “I know it is not necessary for me even to suggest cooperation to you, because you know enough about this business to realize that the cooperation that exists throughout our organization is one of the things that have made it the institution it is today.”
For Watson, empowering the individual was key to creating a culture of collaboration. Rather than foster a directive, authoritarian managerial ethos at IBM, one that could restrict individual development, he created a culture of unbounded helpfulness that would free each and every employee to better reach their potential. ““A man, to be a success over other men, must always consider himself not as their boss but as their assistant. … We have no bosses; we do not need them. We could not get along unless we helped each other.”
This assistant ethos to Watson was a two-way street, with benefits for both the helper and the helpee. “Do not be afraid to help the man alongside of you. The best way to grow is to help somebody else grow, because you learn something when you do.” To drive the point home, he once took the unusual step of sending IBM’s sales managers into field to provide hands on assistance to the salesmen in their charge. While these managers were out of the office, Watson had their secretaries to fill in as ‘acting sales executives’. He advised these secretaries to keep their letters short, eliminate red tape, and use this development opportunity as a springboard to better jobs.
Watson very much included himself as one of those assistants. “Whenever you meet me, I want you to come up and talk to me about anything that is on your mind, and that goes for all the executives in the business,” he once said. “The best way for you to learn more about this business is to talk to people who have been in it longer than you.”
The principle of collaboration was one he strove to implement across the entire organization – not just vertically between workers, foremen, and upper levels of management, but horizontally between business units and geographies too. It was a cultural characteristic, he felt, that was one of the things that made IBM great. “All the success of the IBM is not due to me nor to any other man or small group of men,” he said. “It is due rather, to the fine support, cooperation, brain power, and ability in every department of this business.”
Paul Lasewicz, IBM Corporate Archivist
The January 2013 theme for The Greater IBM Connection is ”leadership”, and The Greater IBM Connection will be sharing various tips, tools, and resources on this topic.