Big Sam Speaks–And That Doesn’t Happen Every Day
November 17, 2008 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Just after the presidential election two weeks ago, IBM‘s president, chief executive officer, and chairman, Sam Palmisano, gave a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. And for once, he did something you do not see every day–or even every year–from the head honcho at Big Blue: He spoke his mind about the issues facing the country and the world.
They say a man cannot serve two masters, but in my experience in the IT journalism racket, a man who wants to pay his bills usually has to serve two, or perhaps more, masters. So while I was licking my wounds over Penn State’s 23-24 loss to the University of Iowa, I listened to Palmisano’s speech and, more importantly, to the question and answer session that he did with Robert Rubin, the chairman of Citigroup and the former Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton Administration. And because I have to serve two masters these days, my original article on it appeared at The Register.
The speech was exactly what you’d expect from the CEO of a big IT supplier–we need to deploy technology to make the world more efficient, yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah. If you want to skip that part, you can just skim through Palmisano’s written version of the speech (which he more or less stuck to) at this link; you can watch the entire presentation on the Council’s Website at this other link.
The interesting bit to me is that Palmisano speaks like a normal guy. Judging from the Council Q&A session, Palmisano is not a smarmy elitist, or a smart-alec bully, like many CEOs at the big IT players are. Most of them think they are god’s gift to the world, rather than just someone who has the responsibility of not screwing up a business they may or may not have built. He’s been around the block–and indeed, around the world–a few times, and he knows lots of people in high places, and that certainly shows. But unlike the boiler-plate pablum that IBM’s PR team puts into the quarterly financial press releases with Big Sam’s named slapped on the quotes, Palmisano talks like you and me. And he seems to care about a lot of the same issues as we do.
Like President-elect Barack Obama, Palmisano made the case for change, and said that in his opinion, we need to invest in digital infrastructure to solve healthcare, financial, energy, and other issues we face as countries and as citizens. Investing in bridges and roads is not necessarily the answer.
Here’s how Palmisano is thinking as we cope with the global financial crisis. “Let’s assume you have a solid business model and a balance sheet, because if you don’t, you don’t get to play,” he explained. “Assume you have managed yourself reasonably well. You could look at the economic data–we have all seen it–and you could hunker down. I’m not saying everyone is not going to go on a little bit of a diet, because you have to protect your balance sheet, you have to be cost competitive. The other way to play it is to say that these are huge opportunities, because these problems still need to be solved. They need to be solved.”
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