It was chaos. We heard a deep rumble, the great ship shuddered, and within hours the deck chairs began to slide as she listed to port. But the band still played, the bar was open, and the ship’s captain assuaged our anxiety with words of reassurance. The Titanic? No ~ IBM in the 1980′s. I joined them in ’83, fresh from the University of Virginia with an engineering degree. The first iceberg we hit was the PC, and later another called the Internet. For 17 years I stayed on-board as concern turned to chaos, and eventually to bloodshed as the company cut its workforce by 60,000 souls. I was one of the survivors.
Those were times when almost any new idea, however unorthodox, was welcome ~ a time when creative, non-linear, entrepreneurial thinkers like myself were heroes. Survivors learned to embrace adaptability and flexibility. We learned to look outside ourselves for survival tactics, and we quickly emulated best practices. Mediocrity was not tolerated. Excellence was cherished. We built a high performance culture. Now I find it hard to work in any other kind.
For years afterward, I thought of myself as “the corporate type.” I mean, what company was more corporate than IBM, with its blue suits, company song, no-alcohol policy, and standard issue haircut? But one day I realized something about IBM in those days, and about myself. A house on fire is not a house, and a sinking ship is not a ship. So when IBM finally righted itself in 2000 and set a stable course ~ I jumped ship. After a nomadic childhood (I attended 13 schools in nine years, some overseas) and a thrilling corporate experience, I learned am not suited to too much stability.
Life at sea can be harsh. I have had my failures and success. Through it all, I learned how to sell consultatively to international executives, how to lead projects integrating diverse people and technologies, and when to trust my instincts and run against the tide. My passion for doing something great is not subdued. Most importantly, I recognize the deep rumble that some ignore as nothing, but we survivors know means something else.
Change is coming.