I was intrigued to see a number of articles recently in various media that all touched on some themes that I find are continually playing out in our new digital world. The trends mirror what I’ve been seeing with my clients as well, but these seem so stunning. What are they? In our change from a physical world to a digital and social one, we are seeing some of our premier companies making that transition under the leadership of women. Apparently there is no glass ceiling in the digital world, and as Martha would say…”that’s a good thing.”
Who are some of these leaders – the heads of IBM, Xerox, and HP. Some of the bluest of the ‘blue chip’ companies and all facing great challenges, and most are doing well…extremely well! I was taken by this trend because I started my career as a sales rep at Xerox in the early 70’s. Xerox then had just recently started then to hire women in the sales force. They were a novelty to most of the managers, all men, who wondered if they should treat them differently than men. Xerox had a culture very similar environment to my old fraternity house. Men got yelled at when they didn’t perform. Could they do the same with women. Could they take them into their offices and counsel then=m, with the door closed? What if they started to cry? The good news is that everyone learned and adapted quickly and within a short period of time, a couple of years, half of all hires were female, and many of the new managers were also women.
At IBM who we competed with in the copier marketplace we noticed a similar trend taking place and I knew a few of the early female sales managers, and they were great, and they prospered and grew quickly up the ranks as IBM was very interested an taking advantage of the new resource.
At HP, the course was a little different and men were still the dominant group and they intended to stay that way. I knew a number of HP managers later on in the 80’s and they still acknowledged that it was still mainly a man’s world. How the world has changed.
In these three organizations, leaders in their fields, are now headed by women, a fact a rarity in the corporate world of giant organizations. All of these women, and many others, too numerous to list here, have changed the paradigm forever. Now, a quick look at these three outstanding women.
At Xerox , Ursula Burns, is now the CEO. She started at Xerox as an intern, then an executive assistant and then succeeded Anne Mulchay in 2009. Now that is amazing, for a woman to succeed another woman in a technology company.
“I took over a company that was solid, but every day was becoming significantly less important in the minds of people,” Ms. Burns said.
This transition happened all while Xerox was moving from selling copiers to selling services and providing backoff support. A big change from 40 years of growth, but they are pulling it off. This is not something easy to pull off – “That transformation is earth-shattering for our company,” she said recently To cement it, Ms. Burns led Xerox’s $6.4 billion acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services in 2010.
“What we do well, unlike these really sexy companies like Googles or Apples that have these great things you can see and touch and feel, we actually work in the back office of large companies,” she said. “So most clients don’t really know we’re there.”
IBM built the computer industry, and dominated the word processing field when it was all about typewriters, and later copiers. Now computers are everywhere, but few are in the ‘clean rooms’ of old where IBM was the dominant player. They now exist on desks, the cloud, your pocket – they really are everywhere, and IBM is leading that charge to conquer the world of ‘big data’. This is now the third wave of computing they will discover and and learn on their own – just like “Watson” the supercomputer that conquered Jeopardy. We are now in the age of cognitive computing!
Leading the charge as CEO and Chairman of the Board is Virginia Rometty who has spent her entire career at IBM. Under her watch IBM’s stock is now at its highest point in its history. IBM is now a consulting company and sifting through all of the ‘big data’ that is spewing forth all over the world. The key for IBM is constant reinvention. A good metaphor for all of us to keep in mind. Change is the new constant.
“Part of it is I get the honor of taking over a company that is a strong company,” she said.
But, she said, she knew she could not coast on their success, and instead charted a clear way forward, including work in cloud computing, analytics and growth markets.
“One of the great things I learned from Sam and Lou is no matter what, you always have to focus on reinvention,” Ms. Rometty said. “Never love something so much that you can’t let go of it.”
Meg Whitman now CEO at Hewlett-Packard, is facing different challenges – survival. After a great career in consulting and early leadership at EBay where she cemented her reputation. Meg Whitman is now heading HP in trying to turn around a company that has suffered over the last several years of a revolving management team and rapidly changing focuses.
HP is struggling to find its focus in software and hardware and to become relevant in a word this is now incresingly mobile focuses and led by Apple and other tablet makers. After launching their own tablet in 2010 they quickly killed it…too soon many said. The current forecast is grim for 2013, and Meg is looking for enough time to turn this around.
Though Meg attempted a run in politics in California, losing to Jerry Brown, she maintains close ties to Mitt Romney. If HP doesn’t work out there could be something in Washington for Meg, if Mitt were to win. She is a continual winner, and given enough time, she will find a way to win.
Why are these women import to this narrative? We have entered a new era, and everything is different. Business is different. Old legacy businesses including all media is rapidly going digital. Mobile communications has changed how we communicate, and when we communicate. Barriers are being broken down that perpetuated the status quo. Through all of this we have discovered whole new ways of living and working, whether we want to or not there is no going back. Women are now fundamentally a part of business, and rightfully a part of management. We are all the better for all of these changes.