Ever wonder what it takes to truly become the best of the best? For 100 years?
Earlier this month I spent a few days in Hawaii with the best 0.1% of IBM employees. It was an inaugural event called The Best of IBM, and the people there were being honored not only for their accomplishments, but also the spirit in which they achieved them.
This spirit was described as ‘wild ducks’ and while worthy of another article, the concept is that wild ducks refuse to be tamed. They don’t accept being spoon-fed objectives and directives without adding their own critical and unique contribution. In other words, Big Blue was celebrating their rebels within and asking them not to change.
IBM is a global leader that has soared to great heights and grappled with doomed prospects. As the company celebrated the rare feat of 100 years in business, it may be the strongest it has ever been. The following are three things that every company can learn from IBM to contribute to their own success.
Create a Freak Show
In this case freaks are those rare individuals whose unique insights and approaches create an extraordinary impact and singular working environment. Great leaders are freaks who catalyze extraordinary results. Breakthrough scientists are freaks who change our understanding of possibility. Exceptional salespeople are freaks that every company would be thrilled to have.
By bringing together the top 0.1% of their massive workforce from around the globe, IBM celebrated the freaks who contribute most to the company’s competitive prowess. These people were humble about their individual accomplishments and genuinely interested in each other. As a result, the seeds of community comprised of influential freaks were sowed. Since attendees were pulled from every corner of the planet, the influence of this freak show will potentially extend far beyond the people who attended.
At the event, IBM encouraged its freaks to continue their constructively rebellious ways. The top 0.1% were instructed not to be tamed, but instead to innovate from within no matter how frustrating that may be.
Frustration is passion combined with impatience. For a company to grow and evolve at a healthy pace, both elements are paramount. As a result, frustration has an important place in achieving results, and the frustrated freaks will lead the way.
In speaking with IBM’s exemplary team members, their frustration was palpable. Every one was passionate, engaged, and impatient, genuinely wanting the best for their clients, the organization and themselves. They envision a brighter future and want it now, whether a technical lead aspiring to simplify processes, a manager aiming to create a more effective rate of change, or an exceptional salesman’s yearning to explore scientific breakthroughs.
Commit and recommit and recommit
As part of the 100-year celebration, IBM released a video called 100×100. It counts down 100 extraordinary innovations from adding machine through to the Jeopardy champion, Watson and is impressive to watch.
One hundred years of technical and scientific breakthroughs are a breathtaking aspiration for academic institutions. IBM is a business, which makes it far more subject to the turbulence of financial markets, shareholder demands and competitive pressures than any ivory tower.
Scientific leadership requires unwavering vision and quarterly financial recommitment to push the forefront of research. I know this because the freak I’m married to is a scientist who tests the limits of physics as an IBMer. Certainly his work may result in phenomenal products; however, his discoveries are so fundamental that they would take decades to productize if that’s even possible.
When I’ve watched my husband give talks about his recent breakthroughs, I ask the same question, “What’s the point?” Other physicists quietly gasp as the sacrilege of questioning the importance of beautiful discoveries, but I’m a business woman and I’m engaged with practicality.
IBM is a practical company committed to being the best of the best. The Nobel Prize is awarded for scientific discoveries that change the future of humanity, not for product improvement, nifty design or quarterly results. IBM can claim seven Nobel Laureates, which very few other institutions in the world can. One hundred years of being a business leader for four hundred quarters is another rarely paralleled feat.
What can fast growing companies learn from the best of the best?
Recruit and hire freaks. Once you have them, foster constant creative rebellion in the best interests of the organization. Tap into the tremendous energy borne from frustration. But make sure that frustration is healthy and not toxic by actually improving.
Finally, if you’re going to be the best, commit to it–not once a year during strategy formulation or an annual event, but everyday in your culture, hiring and financial decisions. It’s easy to cut corners that are well justified by market pressures or financial expedience. That’s not what the best of the best are doing.