How to be a leader at IBM

November 7, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

Fortune sat down with Randy MacDonald, IBM's worldwide HR czar, to learn how the company trains global leaders.

Interview by Richard McGill Murphy, contributor

FORTUNE -- Q: What does it take to lead at IBM?

A: There's a maniacal focus on execution. If you say you're going to deliver, you're held accountable. Leaders also need to create an atmosphere of creativity and innovation, and I think we do that here. We find that a lot of people come here and stay because we do unique things. Our Smarter Planet strategy makes a very interesting statement. The technology that we're creating will help the world become smarter: smarter grids, smarter transportation, green -- whatever examples you want to use.

IBM says it's a company of values, not personalities. What are those values?

Being an IBMer (IBM) is not about a line of business, it's not about a function, it's not about a team, it's not about you. It's about the enterprise. Those values are built around the client, around innovation for both the company and society, around trust and personal responsibility and the way we treat each other.

What are the signs of a future IBM leader?

First and foremost, you've got to understand the business. Two, we look for people who are aggressive in wanting to create new things and do different things and collaborate. We need people with emotional and intellectual stamina. Being a business leader in this world today is 24/7. Do people aspire to that? Do they have a sense of courage about their point of view? Are they persistent? Those are attitudinal things that we see early on.

In the old days IBM was stereotyped as a cultural monolith, the man in the blue suit. What's changed?

What hasn't changed is that we're all IBMers. There's a sense of pride and of being able to distinguish yourself based on that. In the old days we were also known as leading edge, from an HR standpoint, in employment security, job security, paying benefits, and all that. Those things had to change as the world evolved. We changed, but we became leading edge as it related to things like telecommuting, flexible work arrangements, and employment models.

What kind of turnover do you have?

To the best of my knowledge we have the lowest turnover in the tech industry. We've been acquisitive in recent years, especially in software and sometimes in services. If you read most journals, you'll find that acquisitions tend to create a lot of turnover, especially at the leadership level. We retain about 92% of the talent that we acquire. That's unheard of. We acquire not only for the product, but also for the raw talent and leadership that people bring.

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This article is from the November 21, 2011 issue of Fortune.


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