Speech: Jon Iwata, 2012 Executive Honoree


MARK HARRIS: So, it’s an honor for me to introduce Jon Iwata to you. It’s like introducing a man, who, in a room like this, obviously requires no introduction, but they told me I had a few minutes so I’m going to use them.

Let me start by telling you a quick story, and this is not unlike what the young woman said about Ryan earlier, but this has happened to me many times, and I’m sure that my friends from IBM and BSA have had similar experiences. But you’re being introduced to someone, and the person making the introduction says something like, and Mark works at IBM communications.

And the person you’re meeting, very often, the first words they say to you are, do you know Jon Iwata? And they say it in that way that’s like, I’m just meeting this guy, but if he does know Jon Iwata, I’m going to have to take him a lot more seriously.

So, we, at IBM, talk about standards, and if there’s one thing I want you to hear about what I say about Jon tonight, it’s that he didn’t impose a standard, he just established a standard for the way we work.

And when I talk to people about Jon, over the years, what I find myself saying is he’s not just the head of marketing and communications and corporate citizenship at IBM. He actually operates more like the head of strategy for the company. And as of this year, that actually has the benefit of being true, because our new CEO named Jon to head her strategy committee on behalf of our company.

And let me give you an example of why that’s right. It’s kind of hard– if you think back, there is a time when everything that mattered in the world was not described as smart, smart cars, smartphones, smart faucets, smart everything, right? But the thing that we now recognize as the rise of a smarter planet, that did not come from a strategy committee or an agency brief or a blue-ribbon commission. That started with a couple of emails. Jon and some of his close collaborators, articulating a point of view about how the infrastructures of the world could be improved and prepared for the 21st century.

And today, the tag line starter planet is not an advertising tagline. It’s not a marketing campaign. It is the strategy of one of the most valuable brands in the world.

But tonight, we’re talking about mentorship, and what I want to convey is, among all the awards that Jon has received and will receive, why he is especially deserving of this particular honor, and what he’s meant to me and me and hundreds and maybe even thousands of my colleagues at IBM. And when you get to numbers like that, that’s mentorship at scale.

And that’s good, because if you know Jon at all, you know he pretty much doesn’t care about anything that can’t be done at scale in the first place. So, we value scale. That’s appropriate for a company that does business in 170 countries with a workforce of 450,000 people.

So, in my mind, mentoring happens– obviously, mentoring happens in very personal one-on-one coaching-type relationships, but mentoring at scale is about standards, expectations, values. It’s about leading by a personal example, and then making it really clear to every person in his organization what kind of work we ought to be doing, what our expectations are of ourselves and the contribution that we should make to the enterprise.

So, when we talk about standards in our function, it is not like we have standards. Man, I’m telling you, we have standards, and the standards were, as I said, not imposed. They were just established by Jon for the kind of work that we ought to do and the expectations that we have of ourselves.

So, let me close with one final story. Some time ago I was at a meeting and it was outside IBM. And I was new to the group, and I asked a guy I trusted there, am I talking too much in these things? And he said, no. It’s good for them to see how you were raised.

And he was not talking about the job that Ma and Pa Harris did back in Huntsville, Alabama some time ago. In my professional career, I, in a very real sense, I have been raised and coached and mentored by Jon along with a couple of generations of people at IBM. And so, it is an honor for me tonight to introduce my boss Jon Iwata and our featured speaker. Thank you.


JON IWATA: Thanks, Mark. Something tells me you’re going to have a great annual evaluation this year.


Really, thank you very much. And thank you to The Plank Center. Thank you, Keith and Bill, Karla, and the board. It’s wonderful to share the evening with people I consider to be mentors of mine. I’ve considered myself to be more of a professional mentee than a mentor.

I learn from everybody. I try to observe people and situations, and that’s how I learn. However, to the degree that I have been and I am a mentor, I would say that it’s a tough time being a mentor today. We’re living through such historic changes. And The Plank Center’s report that came out today, I think a landmark report, simply underscores that reality.

So, if a mentor is a kind of guide to help you understand the unwritten rules of corporate culture, a guide to help you understand a profession and how to build a career, and as you’ve heard from some of my colleagues so eloquently, a guide to yourself, who tells you, with straight talk, perhaps potential that you don’t see or behaviors that could derail your career, and they help you see that, too.

But how do you guide people in a time of great change? There are the eternal truths, and they’re still good– critical thinking, clear writing, good work ethic, teamwork, and every year, come up with one or two things nobody asks you to do, still good.

But how do you answer questions like, what skills will be most important in future? I understand writing and editing, but what is big data? Is social media another tool, or is it something altogether different? Where in the world, literally, should I go to build my career?

I don’t know how to answer these questions, but I think I, like all of you, we are fascinated by the phenomenon that is changing the world and business and society. And people will be studying about this 100 and 200 years from now. We’re living through it today.

So, the best that we can do is to kindle ourselves to trying to understand and to lead change. I, for one, believe our profession– I’m not alone in this– I believe our profession is becoming something altogether different. And I do believe that in a few years from now, the tools and techniques that have served us well for most of our careers will look rather crude and primitive.

And I think in the future, in addition to all the good things that we know how to do today, we are going to add to our responsibilities and our skill sets some new things. We are going to be producers and broadcasters and developers and reach directly, not segments of populations, but individuals by the millions, and we’ll really know them and be able to serve their needs and engage with them on that basis.

I do believe that we will build and operate systems of engagement infused with data and informed by behavioral science. I do believe that we will be curators of corporate character. I think transparency is not to be feared. It’s a good thing, and ultimately, it’s going to compel our businesses and institutions and our leaders to be more authentic.

And our jobs, and I think it’s always been the case, will increasingly be helping our businesses to define themselves and what we believe and stand for, what makes us us, our distinct and unique character, and then the hard work every day of becoming truer, more authentic, and genuine versions of ourselves.

Let me close by saying that I’ve been privileged, not only to be mentored by many, many people over the years but to work for three CEOs of IBM. And that’s pretty remarkable because we’ve only had nine in 101 years. And I’ve learned from all of them, and I’ve learned a lot about what to do during times of great change.

And I’d like to close by sharing with you a few of their words of advice that I try to apply every day. From my current CEO, Ginni Rometty, who I think is going to be one of the greatest CEOs we’ve ever had–


She shares a lesson she learned from her life and her career and that’s this, “growth and comfort do not coexist.”

From Sam Palmisano, who just retired and led the company during very 10 tumultuous years, so many words of advice, but one, “always go to the future,” which, if you think about it too long, it doesn’t actually make sense.


And from Lou Gerstner, who led the historic turnaround of our company, and there would be no IBM today without Lou Gerstner, he said, “no matter how far you go, never stop learning.” And I leave you with that. I thank you for this great recognition and honor, and good evening.


More from Jon Iwata: