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IBM Taiwan

Forging T-Type Leaders


With no time for training top talent gradually, IBM Taiwan has initiated a "T-Leadership Course" to quickly make up for a shortfall in junior executives and actively cultivate a high-powered successor team.



Forging T-Type Leaders

By Isabella Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 402 )

Given Taiwan's stagnating economy, foreign enterprises, which depend on growing domestic consumption, are bracing themselves for harder times just like the average consumer. And the managers of the Taiwanese branches of multinationals face even higher pressure, given the brisk business their counterparts in neighboring China are enjoying amid a continuing economic boom.

Yet Sophia Tong, general manager of IBM Taiwan, is not sitting idle. She recently secured funding to be used not for R&D, but for establishing a training academy for cultivating the company's future leadership generation, just like the Whampoa Military Academy produced many prestigious military commanders in its day.

Tong took over as general manager of IBM Taiwan in 2006 after returning from China. She immediately felt that Taiwan's biggest difference from China was not market scale, but "a very big gap in management talent."

After multinationals one after the other switched to matrix management, under which people with similar skills are pooled for work assignments, the work of each individual is globally related, but every employee only sees his own sphere of responsibility. The marketing people in Taipei can directly communicate across national borders with headquarters and other subsidiaries in the Asia-Pacific region, but their thinking is still strictly linear along the lines of marketing, Tong explains.

"In the past when countries were the basic units, the sparrow was small, but it was complete with all its internal organs," says Tong, drawing a comparison. In the past employees still had an integral image of all products and departments, but nowadays they lack such an experience and therefore "they are not able to broaden their patterns of thinking and doing things." Since IBM plans to march toward integrated services, the company needs to tackle these shortcomings, or else it will be unable to communicate with its customers, given their steadily broadening vision. Even if the market recovers, it will not necessarily be reflected in business results, nor will it guarantee a future for IBM Taiwan.

Tong felt there was no time for gradual, step-by-step cultivation of talent. She therefore fought for funding to set up a "T-Leadership Course," which was planned together with supervisors in charge of management development in the Greater China region. The "T" stands for "talent," for the "T-shaped professional" (with a complementary combination of broad management skills and deep specialization), and also for Taiwan. "Like the Whampoa Military Academy, I want to train groups of officers for Taiwan, one class after the other," Tong explains, displaying a deep sense of mission.

IBM Model Managers Join the Program

"Leadership can be learned," Tong believes. Method and devotion are the key points, she says.

Tong selected 59 highly promising people for a 15-month-long leadership training course. Its aim was to train them "to be able to give guidance, to be able to teach, because only then do you have leadership," Tong asserts.

Guidance requires a broad strategy and far-reaching vision. Tong invited several of her predecessors at IBM Taiwan, including Peter Shen, D.C. Chien and David Sung – who all hail from Taiwan, joined IBM Taiwan and went on to take charge of a regional market or even work at IBM headquarters – to return to Taiwan on the same day and take the stage together to share their work experiences, ranging from Taiwan to the rest of the world, in what was a quite impressive event. "I hope that everyone sees that IBM is very broad-minded, that everyone needs to have a broad vision," Tong explains.

Leadership Qualities that Can't Be Taught in School

If you want to teach others, you first need to assume responsibility. Tong, a voracious reader of books on leadership, decided that the T-Leadership Course participants would jointly read the easily digested Monday Morning Leadership, an eight-session mentoring course.

Chapter one, titled "Drivers and Passengers," contends: "A real leader devotes himself to fixing the problem instead of finding whom to blame."

"You need to take ownership," Tong affirms, and view problem-solving and helping subordinates grow as your own responsibility.

After each joint reading session the participants shared their thoughts in an ensuing discussion. Aside from learning how to share experiences, it enabled everyone to observe how people from different backgrounds and different departments think differently, and how people with different career paths have differences in interpretation. Tong also asked veteran supervisors to share their work experiences, to hand them down to the successor generation and to teach by example.

Leadership qualities cannot be taught in the classroom – they must arise from training. The T-Leadership Course also included specially designed practical training and exercise opportunities. Participants were required to serve as IBM ambassadors, which means they had to introduce IBM to different audiences in schools and other institutions.

One T-Leadership Course participant, IBM Taiwan service product line manager Dennis Chao, was sent to National Cheng Kung University to talk about his work at IBM at a graduate recruitment fair. "It was a very special learning experience," Chao recalls. Having worked at IBM Taiwan for ten years, Chao had introduced many IBM products to customers before. But for the recruitment fair Chao for the first time closely studied the company's history and innovations and pondered how he could present the face and values of IBM.

Every leader must be able to tell corporate stories that move people and attract more people to follow in their footsteps.

"I strongly believe in talent cultivation, because I was cultivated myself," says Tong, determination written all over her face. Tong joined IBM 25 years ago, starting out as a secretary. "None of my supervisors back then would have thought that I would make it to the position of general manager," Tong asserts. The T-Leadership Course has just begun, but with lots of seeds sown, IBM will eventually reap growth.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

Chinese Version: 童至祥 將官養成術:IBM黃埔軍校,磨出T型人