It’s All About the People

By Rudy Karsan.

Debbie Landers, VP, Smarter Workforce Integration.
Debbie Landers, VP, Smarter Workforce Integration.

Can you share something about your career journey?

My entire career has been with IBM. When I was graduating with a computer science degree a number of years ago, I had about seven job offers before Christmas. At the time, jobs in computer sciences were both easily found and well paying. The breadth of capability that IBM had, the global aspect that involved so many countries and cultures, and the thought of building a diverse career in this huge entity were very attractive to me, which is why I chose to join IBM. And my reasoning proved absolutely true. I started at an entry-level job as a programmer—who would have thought that 28 years later I would be a senior leader in an area that’s fundamentally about the future and the way we’ll work in the 21st century? The diversity of work and opportunity I’ve experienced have been phenomenal: I’ve had engineering and R&D roles, planning and product management roles, first- and second-line development roles, marketing, channels, services in Information Management, customer support in Information Management, I handled the Netezza acquisition and the Kenexa acquisition, and now this leadership role with Smarter Workforce. I got into management fairly early on and found I love the people part of it: I love having a team to lead, to be a part of something big,  and I love the variety despite being in the same organization throughout.

You’ve shared your reasons for joining IBM. But did you never think about moving on?

I stayed with IBM through the dotcom boom when there were plenty of other opportunities. What made me stay was a combination of two things: the opportunities I was given within the company and the strong support from within to pursue those opportunities. I really felt I was in the right environment where my skill set and contribution were valued. In 1995, I met the person who I later married and wanted to move to be with him—only, he lived in a small town 350 km away from my office in Toronto. At that time, when this was pretty unusual,  IBM supported me to go and work from home and gave me all the backing I needed. They asked only two things of me: to tell them what I needed to be able to work from home, and to help others who might need to do the same thing in the future. I had just started my executive MBA, which IBM was sponsoring, and I thought I might lose that but they encouraged me to go ahead and complete it. In addition, I continued to receive phenomenal opportunities to further my career—it was never a case of  “out of sight, out of mind.” All these have been huge drivers of loyalty for me; it’s been 18+ years and they still mean enough to me to influence me to stay despite any offers I might get from elsewhere. The impact of something like that is immeasurable!

What is the secret of your success and what are the three most important factors you attribute this success to?

1. I’m a good team player and a good team leader. For some reason I can’t explain, people feel comfortable following me. And I am also always willing to roll up my sleeves and work with my team and to provide them the support to become successful themselves. I truly believe the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and it is the support of the team that has fueled my success.
2.  I have always been willing to try new things and to try to be successful in new arenas.
3. I think I’m a good generalist. I am adaptable and creative in my thinking and I learn things pretty quickly.

What are the most memorable moments of your career, things that make you smile whenever you think of them?

There have been so many of those! But I think the time that made me feel most personally fulfilled was the time in 2007 when I had the opportunity to bring my entire global management team together. It was a really large team, we gathered in California and the senior leadership was there too. It was a special experience for all, and we had a picture taken of the whole group. About two weeks later, the picture showed up at my place, framed, with a personal note from each person on the matting of the frame. I was absolutely blown away by the gesture.

Another time, I received an award from the same team, which said: “In recognition of your inspired leadership and dedication to making Information Management Client Support a world-class organization.”  That was another great moment and I tear up every time I read it.

All successful people have their own rules in life; what have your operating principles been?

1. I believe there is goodness in most people and most things and I am pretty patient about looking for it.
2. I think there are very few things in the world worth fighting over but there are a lot of things worth fighting for. With a little bit of patience and creativity and thoughtfulness, most things can be worked through in a manner that leads to some kind of mutual benefit to all. You don’t always have to win. So many people set out to prove they are better or smarter or “the winners”, and I think you need to look at the bigger picture, the long-term process. You needn’t win at each step; it’s over time that the best is brought out in you. You have to be able to take things in the right context.
3. I really work hard at everything I do. If I’m committed to something, I’m all in. I believe that if you make a commitment, you need to drive it through.

What does Energizing Life’s Work mean to you personally?

It’s actually fun, because the Smarter Workforce has energized my life’s work! This experience has been fascinating, so different from anything I had ever expected I do, and it brought a new level of excitement, in terms of what we’re doing within the company—it’s exciting to have a new category and it drives the opportunity to engage the rest of the company. The level of interest and commitment on the part of the whole company is exciting to see.

The other thing is that the people part of the initiative is really exciting, and  the opportunity to impact the future of the workforce is great..

So, for me, energizing life’s work is about wanting to jump out of bed in the morning and go do something because you really think it matters. You’re helping to do, or create, or drive, or build something that makes a difference, and that ability to impact something in that manner is great.

How would you define meaningful work? What gives your work meaning?

It is fun and enjoyable. I like the people around me and that we work together as a team towards a common goal. The fact that the work I do is moving some kind of needle, e.g. helping the company make a profit or helping to create jobs. Feeling that you are making a difference in some sort of measurable way—even if that measurement is only in your heart. For me, it is also about recognition—not only do I feel like I’m doing something that matters but others feel I am doing something that matters.

Can you tell us about the genesis of the Smarter Workforce initiative?

Well, I think you are really a better person to talk about this, but let me describe what I say when someone, say an analyst, asks me about the Kenexa acquisition. Our previous acquisitions were more about building a capability within an existing portfolio or taking what a company does and putting the IBM label on it and growing its scale or using it to drive other parts of the IBM portfolio. This was not the case with Kenexa—we did not decide to enter the HCM space, buy Kenexa and put an IBM label on it to sell RPO or HCM solutions. We had earned a lot of mindshare in the market on what we were doing with Smarter Planet and with it, we had the systems part but as we became more successful with Smarter Planet, it became increasingly clear that we were lacking in the people part of the equation.

Also, our most recent CEO studies had shown that people are considered the #1 priority and the primary lever for sustained economic advantage. Our clients were asking how we could help them with their people. Also, in ICS we had built a very successful business on social business and we were helping clients engage with their customers and they were saying they wanted the same level of engagement with their people. We had great assets in terms of social, analytics, consulting, and HR outsourcing but we didn’t have that fundamental set of things that would enable the interaction between employee and employer or candidate and employer. So we looked around and Kenexa was one of a few options in terms of companies we could acquire, that specific set of capabilities that would form the heart of the larger piece we wanted to drive. In addition, Kenexa came with its behavioral sciences capability that was really unique. So we came at it from the SaaS angle; from the angle of the phenomenal RPO business model Kenexa had built that could help us with our outsourcing—and nobody else had the combination of these two with the behavioral sciences. And these were the differentiators.

So if you look at the IBM investment around the science of analytics, and the Kenexa investment around behavioral sciences, and the foundational principle that the Social gave us, we knew that it would be an unbeatable combination. Kenexa forms the heart of the overall Smarter Workforce.  I think the science, from both an analytical and a behavioral point of view, is going to be the fuel that drives this initiative. Process improvements are always good, but the ability to put the best candidate in the job they are most suited for, and to have the insights into how you can help your workforce perform better or things you can do to move your KPIs—that is a phenomenal differentiator.

You have conducted two successful integrations; not an easy task. What are the principal areas one needs to focus on to carry out an integration successfully?

I’ll answer this a bit differently. I was contacted by someone at Time Warner who wanted to talk to me about integration, and was told that my name had been recommended by someone who used to work at Netezza. So that was a personal validation from someone who had gone through this integration I had conducted. And here is what I told her: the hardest thing to handle in an integration is the people. Every individual is unique, they have their own emotions, their own stories, career aspirations, problems, and so on. So, it is easier to predict the inanimate factors that comprise an acquisition process than it is to predict this group of random entities comprised by the people. It’s fun, but it’s difficult, and involves getting to know more about the culture, about what makes the people tick and what matters to them. It’s very easy to get caught up in the tremendous amount of work around the process, and not spend enough time on the people factor. So my recommendation to the person from Time Warner was to work hard on the process but focus with your heart on the people. Incidentally, the work that Tony Coe did in mapping the cultures of IBM and Kenexa was a huge help to us in terms of understanding the Kenexans.

What are the primary challenges you faced, and do you think these problems tend to be common to all acquisitions?

Well, as you well know, Rudy, M&As and integrations are always hard—whole textbooks have been written about failed acquisitions. But I think on the whole IBM has a pretty good track record. I would give myself less than perfect marks when it comes to the people part of it, and that is one challenge—to step away from the processes (which are necessary and so exhaustive) and take a hard look at the people angle. And you usually tend to lose a few good people if you can’t address this in an effective manner. It is a huge disappointment when we lose someone who could really help us and who has the potential for a successful career at IBM—and we have perhaps lost them because we didn’t take the time to understand them.

What 3-4 pieces of advice would you give to young people who would like to follow a career path similar to yours?

1. Do something you enjoy. You work far too many years and hours to be doing something you don’t enjoy doing and care about.
2. Build a strong base for success. That is made up of the fundamental skills and expertise you need to be able to execute, whether that is educational or experiential.
3. You need your support network of trusted advisors and mentors, so focus on building that.

What excites you about the future?

In general, my kids, who are now teenagers. It excites me to think about what they are going to be and do in the future, and to be able to watch and be a part of that is the #1 exciting thing about the future. From the work point of view, being able to retire and say that maybe the IBM company was a little better in some small way or achieved something unique because I was there—I’d like to feel that.


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