There is a term used today to describe the men and women who call IBM home: IBMer.
One man’s determination, drive and sheer force of will built this first corporate family; and therefore, a company that became greater than the sum of its parts.
That man was IBM’s founder and first Chief Executive Officer, Thomas J. Watson Sr.
He created the employee-owner.
He created The IBMer.
For Tom Watson Sr., optimizing stockholder profits for The IBM was intertwined with a worker’s wellbeing. This article could easily be a laundry list of all the firsts Tom Watson initiated for IBM employees. Lists are popular; lists of the best places to raise kids or retire, the most popular or unpopular cars, and the best places to work or not. Tom Watson’s employee-benefits list would be impressive. It would include IBM country clubs, One Hundred Percent Clubs, eliminating piece work, free group life insurance and Family Days. Because of everything he did for IBM employees, some still paint Tom Watson Sr. as a paternalistic figure. Watson Sr., in his day, must have heard “paternalism” so often that he clarified his perspective:
Even the IBM Home Office was forecasting either cutting or eliminating dividends. Knowing the effect that this would have on women, his majority stockholders, where could Tom Watson find his mental peace?
It would be awfully hard for any of us to go out and get what we have now from any other company. After we fully realize this as it applies to ourselves, let us get that message into the hearts, not into the heads but into the hearts, of all of the other men in the organization. I want to tell you, your jobs as foremen then would be a real pleasure. When your men get it in their hearts that they have something they could not go around the corner and get, that they have a company back of them that has some heart and wants to help them, and a foreman who is ready to work overtime to help them, your troubles are over."
Their company was their team lead by an empowered first-line manager.
This week, Tom Watson Sr. will speak for himself. These are Thos. J. Watson Sr.’s words, illustrations and maxims from The World’s Greatest Salesman, An IBM Caretaker’s Perspective: Looking Back. These quotes cover the four years from Black Tuesday until two days before Christmas 1933—the first Christmas after the technical end of the Great Depression. For these four years, he would stand at the helm of The IBM—a steady figure steering a path through an economic disaster. It was his moment, his watch and his captaincy.
This week, Tom Watson will discuss the characteristics of an IBMer.
This is Tom Watson Sr.’s list.
There is no place for such men or such thoughts in The IBM organization.
You all look alike to us. As I look at you this morning, I know that this class is made up of men who used to be repair men in our business, men who used to be stenographers in our business, men who are college graduates and have just come into our business. I cannot pick you out as individuals, because as I look into your faces, you all look alike to me. If you can only all feel alike about this proposition, you are going to be real assets to this business and to yourselves as individuals. So cultivate the spirit of democracy—it means real cooperation. Always be willing to spend all day helping another man, even though it makes it necessary to do your own work at night.
That is the spirit that exists at the Home Office."
I had an excellent illustration of just this point last summer on my farm. After a severe local storm I went out for a walk and found one of the largest limbs torn off what looked to be one of my finest maple trees. Its outside appearance had been excellent but to my amazement I found it decayed inside. Its beautiful foliage and fine bark were not able, unsupported by a sound heart, to withstand the stress of storm—just as some men, with fine clothes and important reputations, conceal black hearts.
Strength of character I regard as the most important thing in life."
Contribute to Society
"We need men who can help others.
That brings to my mind this thought: You often hear a man say, “I can go out and make my living anywhere in this world.” Of course you can, but what does that mean? To make a living for himself is what is expected of every man. Some men are satisfied with that alone. But that is not the big point; that is just part of the day’s work. The big thing to keep in mind is to help create something that will aid in making a living for other people. That is where our real satisfaction, our real contribution to society, comes in—to help produce something that will extend through all of the seventy-seven countries in which our products are used, and to help all of the people who come in contact with our business. That is why this business has such a fascination for men who are eager to do something."
Of course, we must always set the right kind of example all the way along the line as to character and good manners. Then you can teach the men anything, because they are with you, they will listen to you. They are not trying to show off or be smart. They get right down to business."
Tom Watson Sr. created from this list a 1930’s business culture that has extended into the 21st Century. He spoke these beliefs, breathed them and lived them. He worked tirelessly to ingrain them into The IBM culture; but he never sat down and transcribed them. These beliefs could have easily died with him, but for Tom Watson Jr. who listened, captured, examined, summarized, polished, proselytized and imbedded them into IBM’s DNA. For over six decades these concepts guided IBM and the individual IBMer. They would be reflected in the IBM Basic Beliefs.
With this list, Thomas J. Watson Sr. created a culture of respect.
His leadership lived in each individual that earned the title, IBMer.
He found his mental peace in the character of his employees.
Peter E. Greulich
Author, Speaker and Publisher
MBI Concepts Corporation