Thomas John Watson Sr – World’s...
Thomas John Watson Sr (February 17, 1874 – June 19, 1956) was an American businessman. He served as Chairman and CEO of International Business Machines (IBM) for 42 years continuously. He was named as the greatest salesman ever born.
After an unpromising start in various trades and businesses, Watson forged a career for himself as a salesman. While working as Sales Manager for National Cash Register Company (NCR), he tried to galvanise his team by saying, “We don’t get paid to work with our feet. We get paid to work with our heads” and wrote the word ‘THINK’ on an easel.
He later had a small poster made up. The poster and the slogan were taken up by NCR and were later used by Watson at the next company that he worked for, which Watson was to transform into International Business Machines Company – IBM.
New York Times referred to his reputation as “the greatest salesman in the world”. Once, when asked by a reporter if he had any hobbies, Watson replied, “I collect salesmen.”
In 1914, after leaving NCR, Watson joined Computing Tabulating Recording Company (CTR) as General Manager. The company’s most technologically advanced product was punched-card data processing equipment. Watson concentrated on offering customised solutions for larger businesses.
He began to develop his distinctive style of management, insisting that executives be smartly dressed in dark suits and instilling a strong sense of corporate pride and company spirit. There were company sports teams and outings, a dedication to customer service and
good incentives for sales success. In Watson’s first four years, revenues doubled to E9 million.
He expanded into Europe, Australia, Asia and South America. In 1924, he changed the company name to IBM.
With the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Watson maintained employment and allowed inventory to build up in the conviction that, when the economy recovered, he would have a talented team in place and products waiting to fill demand. Despite the economic climate, he negotiated a US $ 40,000 loan to enable the creation, in 1932, of a research facility at Endicott, New York.
The company’s labour-saving devices found a ready market as companies contracted during the Depression. When the US government introduced Social Insurance, requiring employees to make payments towards unemployed, Watson had the machines and the personnel needed to service the contract. IBM became the leading business machine company and one of the most generous employers in the US.
In 1937, IBM was approached by a Harvard university physicist, Howard Aiken, to build the world’s first computer capable of carrying out long calculations automatically. Watson approved the astonishing investment of half a million dollars. The machine – over 50 feet long, eight feet high and weighing over five tons – was donated to the Harvard University in 1944 and became known as the Harvard Mark 1.
It paved the way for the company’s first large-scale digital calculating machine and for the launch in 1952 of the IBM 701, which used vacuum tubes instead of electromagnetic switches, greatly reducing its size and making it the first commercially viable computer — though it was bought at first only by governments and research institutions.
Watson’s policy had been not to sell but to lease all of its machines and in 1952, it faced an antitrust suit from the government, which had calculated that IBM owned some 90 percent of all of the business machines in the US. The company agreed to sell its machines rather than lease them, to supply parts and information to other companies wishing to service IBM machines and to license its patents.
Watson died in 1956, one month after giving control of IBM to his son, Tom Watson Jr. In 2011, IBM celebrated 100 years in business and coincidentally, US $ 100 billion
in turnover. The Forbes magazine asked IBM CEO Sam Palmisano which measure he thought Watson would have been most proud of. “I say 100 years,” said Palmisano. “Watson believed if you really created value and not just technology you could be around a very long time. That is more enduring than just getting big.”
What lessons can we learn from Thomas John Watson Sr?
Watson noted that there are 10 common leadership qualities that almost every great leader should try to develop. Communicate a compelling, positive vision with clear goals:
Great leaders have learned that even when they think everyone on the team is clear on the vision and goals, these two points cannot be over communicated. In the absence of ongoing communication, the vision becomes diluted and the goals lose focus, clarity and alignment.
Hire the right people: Great leaders have all learned that it is impossible to pick the right person on every hire. Hoping the wrong fit will turn around rarely works. Hoping and hinting that the behaviours need to change actually causes the organisation to lose momentum and is disruptive to the team. Talk to the new recruit and tell the truth. Help him to find a career which suits him best. Hold an employee accountable to the goals or desired results: To be a true leader, you need to be respected. And, leaders who don’t hold everyone on their team accountable find it almost impossible to gain respect from anyone on their team. Do not remain a hostage too long: A leader becomes a hostage when they know an employee is not going to change to achieve the desired results and the employee knows that the leader doesn’t have the guts to correct the problem.
Do not allow a problem, conflict or disagreement to go on
unresolved for too long: Conflict doesn’t resolve itself over time. Great leaders have learned that when there are conflicts or disagreements, they need to “lean in” to the conflict and realise that this is their moment to shine.
Practice delegating: The positive results from delegating, such as developing people and freeing up the leader’s time for more important strategic or thinking tasks, far outweigh the risk of the task not being done exactly how the leader would have done it. To delegate, leaders need to trust people. When people feel trusted, they will go out of their way to help both the leader and organisation succeed. Do not evade feedback: Great leaders know that asking for, accepting and acting on feedback has helped them to make the course corrections needed to grow. Do not have a high need to be
liked: While it’s important to be caring and friendly, it’s very difficult to be friends with the people who report directly to you. To make tough decisions, great leaders recognise that some people won’t be in agreement with the decision and some people won’t like the leader for having the guts to make the decision. If your goal is to be liked and make people happy, you would be better off being a clown. Provide enough recognition and don’t fail to celebrate success:
Great leaders truly know that nothing extraordinary happens without a team of exceptional people and because of this, are always focused on helping others feel valued and appreciated.
When a mistake is made, admit it fast, apologise when appropriate and then quickly move on: Great leaders know how to learn from mistakes. Mistakes offer leaders a chance to grow and to change in a way that will benefit both them as a leader and the organisation they lead.
(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired company director with over 30 years’ experience in senior business management. Presently he is a freelance journalist and could be contacted on law[email protected] gmail.com)