THE GREAT JOB TITLE CHASE #2
Three months after my start with IBM, one of the senior managers who had hired me announced he was going somewhere else, and a few other chairs were going to be moved.
I wondered if I had bought a last-minute ticket on The Titanic?
To be fair, my other boss tried to make good of an unplanned situation: “No need to look over your shoulder; there’ll be more change soon enough, and the cards will fall well for you.”
Good to his word, two weeks later I was invited to an ACT* session. Dozens of IBMers from across the organization were locked in a room for three days, fed rations under the door, and encouraged by a facilitator wielding a hurley stick.
(Actually, the catering was better, but the hurley stick was absolutely true.)
At the final session, the EMEA Management Board gave us either thumbs up or threw us to the Compaq lions. I don't remember many maulings.
A couple of days later, an invitation arrived to meet the EMEA leader of the Systems Hardware Division 'for a chat'.
He told me that his head of marketing was moving back home to the US, and based on the ACT and hearsay, I looked a good fit for the job. Was I interested in the EMEA role?
So that day I was appointed and promoted. And from that moment, I was a VICE PRESIDENT.
IBM Vice President! VP!! Like Olympic gold, an Oscar and an OBE all at the same time.
At last, a job title that mattered.
In a large organization, the moment you start in a new job you pick up loose ends from the incumbent. For me, it was attending a global Channel Partner Conference the next week.
Being IBM – at the time still only a few short of the Chinese Army total headcount – the event meant going to New Orleans to intimately meet, greet and eat with six thousand resellers.
I travelled with Danny, who had commitments he had to fulfil (before moving on to his new job) and thought he’d hold my hand so that I didn’t get lost or screw up the good work he’d steered.
Danny (not his real name, but close enough) was a company man through-and-through: worked in prestigious sales his entire career, and after his two-year marketing stint in EMEA , was going back into sales in the mid-West.
“Have you looked at the Agenda for the conference?” he asked, pointing to the spiral bound tome the size of a London telephone directory on his lap.
“It’s in my hold luggage” I replied, not showing forethought but at least honesty.
“Let me talk you through this so when you get your copy, you’ll know what’s what. Do you know that other than the US government, IBM is the largest publisher in the world?”
The thought of 6000 copies of this encyclopedia travelling to New Orleans was evidence enough.
We spent the next hour reviewing the structure of the conference: The Main Room presentations; the conference streams (1 thru' 10); the multiple breakouts-of-breakouts; the ‘small’ presentations to 200 people at a time.
When we finished, Danny’s animated expression become very serious, and he looked me straight in the eye:
“One more question. What’s it like for you now to be an IBM VP?”
I must have grinned like a Cheshire Cat.
“I’m really pleased for you,” said Danny. “It’s great that the company is bringing in new blood.” He flipped his book to the tab at the front, and looked through a few pages.
“Here you are.” He pointed at my name, VP job title, internal email address and phone number. “Rutherford, with an R. You've arrived.” I looked at my name at the bottom of a landscape spreadsheet with 20 lines on the page.
“All the attendees?” I suggested.
“No. Not all attendees. Just the Vice Presidents.”
20 people with the surname R were VPs. He flipped back through the Ps, the Ms … the Hs… the Cs, the Bs and the As. We never looked forward to the Ss and the Ts.
They were all Vice Presidents.
“It took me a while to figure this out when I got promoted,” said Danny “so I thought I’d bring you back to earth now. Before you get to the conference, tell everyone you meet, and expect the Red Sea to part.
“It doesn’t matter. It might impress your mother, but in reality it only changes three things. You‘ll get a better secretary (which I did), you’ll get to play in the executive equity plan (which I did, for a very short while) and you’ll go to meetings where there’s less work and a heap more politics (which was certainly true).
“How you play it is really up to you. My recommendation: Enjoy other people enjoying it. Enjoy it when your wife tells you how she told her friends. Enjoy it when your kids tell you how they told other kids. Enjoy your mother making a special cake.
“But don’t take it too seriously. It really isn’t important."
Yet it took three years, an unplanned departure, and starting over before Danny’s truth started to embed – as you’ll see in Part 3.
*ACT (Accelerating Change Together), a lift and rebrand from Jack Welch/GE’s CAP (Change Acceleration Process). Or not; it was a long time ago.
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