It’s been four years since strategist Megan Dalla-Camina left IBM, but she can still rattle off the company’s three defining statements without hesitation.
“They were: dedication to every client’s success; innovation that matters – for our company and the world – and trust and personal responsibility in all relationships,” she recalls from her days as head of strategy for IBM Australia and New Zealand.
Now a consultant, coach and writer, Dalla-Camina (pictured) says those values became part of the DNA for employees of the company, making it a highly regarded training ground for leaders.
This is a real advantage for IBM alumni: “When I’m at a client meeting or a speaking event and [another alumnus] knows that I’m a former IBMer, they still feel that connection — even if it was their dad, or brother or sister that was an IBMer.”
Dalla-Camina says the defining statements were very much part of the conversation when developing strategy.
“In some other organisations, values are an afterthought. With IBM, they were always at the very front,” she says.
Dalla-Camina joined in 2004, just after the company had gone through an exhaustive process of inviting every employee to contribute to writing the statements.
IBM had already transformed its business model to survive a crisis, switching through the 1990s from being a manufacturer of computers to a services and software-based company.
It was a near-death experience, following combined losses of $US15.9 billion over the three years to 1993.
In the aftermath, it was decided to replace the old three “beliefs”: Respect for the individual, the best customer service in the world, excellence.
Around 50,000 employees came together over 72 hours in 2003 in a “values jam” to come up with the words that would encompass IBM’s new vision.
Once those values were established, IBM’s then-CEO Sam Palmisano charged a senior executive with the task of identifying gaps between the values and company practices, collating all the emailed feedback from employees.
“Some of the comments were painful to read,” Palmisano told the Harvard Business Review at the time.
“I printed all of it out — the stack of paper was about three feet high — and took it home to read over one weekend. On Monday morning, I walked into our executive committee meeting and threw it on the table.
“I said, ‘You guys ought to read every one of these comments, because if you think we’ve got this place plumbed correctly, think again’.”
Palmisano told HBR the assessment sparked improvements to business practices, such as the way prices were set. Leaders already knew this needed to be done, but nothing was done until the values-discovery process forced them to confront the issue.
– By Fiona Smith