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

Part 32

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]

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