How IBM Made Me Return to the Corporate World

After leaving the corporate world to join a start-up, IBM Executive Heather Clifton thought she would no longer be interested to go back to a large corporation. But an offer from IBM changed her mind.

by Heather Clifton


My name is Heather Clifton and I am the Chief Marketing Officer for Industry Platforms, an 18-month old business unit within IBM focused on creating industry-specific platforms for financial services. This also includes Blockchain and Watson for Financial Services. I’m originally from Toronto, Canada, and moved to San Francisco twenty years ago, before I made the move to New York to join IBM in January 2017.

Prior to IBM, I had spent 10 years at Visa and a year at a Fintech start-up in Silicon Valley. When I left Visa, I thought I was done with large corporations and that my focus going forward would be the start-up world. I loved the energy, ability to make things happen quickly, the shared mission, the spirit of collaboration… so why did I choose to go back to a large company and more specifically to IBM?

I joined IBM for three reasons:

  • The company is in period of massive transformation;
  • The specific role offered to me was very enticing; and
  • Diversity of leadership in IBM is realized

Let’s dig into each of these a little more…

A Company in Transition

I have found that a company in transition is a huge opportunity to challenge the status quo, get out of your comfort zone and do the best work of your career. Not saying it isn’t chaotic and scary sometimes but as Ginni says, “Growth and comfort don’t go together”.  The best experiences of my career have been where there was little in place and I was building a team or a function from scratch.  Great test of leadership and resiliency felt that I grew tremendously as a leader.  So the fact that IBM was making the transition from a hardware company to a cloud computing company and was right in the middle of that transition intrigued me.

Role: Marketing Blockchain and Watson/AI applied to Financial Services

When I interviewed with Bridget Van Kralingen the business unit lead, she referred to the Industry Platforms unit as a start-up within a large organization.  That sounded like it took the best of both worlds – what I loved about a large corporation – resources, experienced professionals, great brand and the flexibility and mission-driven culture of a start-up.

Moreover, marketing AI and Blockchain meant that I would be on the leading edge of not just IBM but of the world’s technologies. And if there is an industry in desperate need of transformation, it is financial services.

Diversity of Leadership

This is probably the most important reason for my decision. When companies talk about diversity, they often bring out charts that show percentages of women or unrepresented minorities and set targets. These companies go out of their way to hire a diverse workforce and then are disappointed when they don’t work out. The problem is that if you do not have a culture of diversity – one that accepts different ways of thinking, behaving and leading – people who don’t act within the norm struggle to fit in and function effectively. When companies with a single way of thinking, working and leading bring in diverse hires, many leave soon after joining.

So when I saw that my CMO was a woman (Michelle Peluso), my SVP was a woman (Bridget Van Kralingen) and they both reported to a woman (Ginni Rometty) that told me that there was a good chance that this culture was likely one where diversity flourished.

Now, a year and three months later, I reflect on whether my expectations of IBM have been realized or not.

Diversity: Exceeds Expectations

I see a broad range of leadership styles at the executive level. Different ways of thinking are encouraged and leadership across IBM is much more diverse than any company I have worked in. Let me just share a recent example:

Have you heard of the term “Blockchain Bros”? Blockchain is notorious for being dominated by men. There have been a lot of press in the US about this recently but in a couple of cases, IBM has been called out as the exception. In IBM’s Blockchain organization, the SVP is Bridget Van Kralingen, the GM is Marie Wieck, the head of business development is Brigid McDermott, the CMO is me, and I could go on and on. What is most meaningful is that I don’t believe it was a conscious decision to appoint women to these roles. It just seems to have come naturally where gender was not a factor in choosing leadership. It’s a small example but I think it speaks volumes.

Role: Exceeds Expectations

It truly has been that perfect combination of positives of a big company (money, people, infrastructure, tech support, known brand) and those of a start-up.  My boss has told me that if I ever spend more than 48 hours dealing with some process or approval that I should let her know so she can accelerate. I’ve only done it once but she actually came through. That has greatly eased the administrative and bureaucratic hurdles often faced in large organizations.  I try to do the same with my team. My role as a ‘servant leader’ is to clear barriers and overcome blockers.

Company in Transition: Ever heard of the expression ‘be careful what you wish for’?

Despite having had a lot of roles in my career that involved starting teams or functions from scratch, this was a whole new level of challenge. While I realized that IBM was going through a transformation, I wasn’t quite ready for the huge changes that marketing was undergoing; agile, new tools, new ways of working but most significantly, co-location which was bringing people back from 117 locations across the United States.  Most of my team is now working out of an old building in midtown Manhattan and all the marketing teams working there are adopting agile, making data driven decisions and using the new measurement tools—all part of the adapting to change.

I finish on the thing I wasn’t expecting that would make my first year at IBM so great. For the most part of my IBM life, I have been working with smart, passionate, funny, caring, interesting people and a few that are even a little bit crazy—and this is exactly the environment I like.

Is this the kind of environment you would like to work in? Consider a career at IBM.

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