Yet behind I.B.M.’s relentless progress over the last decade is a game plan that has been anything but conservative. The company shed multibillion-dollar businesses. It chose higher profit margins over corporate size, and expanded aggressively overseas, seeking sales, low-cost engineering talent and quicker organizational reflexes.
Investors, however, haven’t been bored. The company’s stock price has surged. In November, Warren E. Buffett, who typically shuns technology stocks, announced he had accumulated $10 billion of I.B.M. shares, a stake of more than 5 percent.
All of that didn’t just happen. A large portion of the credit goes to Samuel J. Palmisano, who steps down on Sunday after nearly a decade as chief executive. During his tenure, I.B.M. has been a textbook case of how to drive change in a big company — when so much of the study of business innovation focuses on start-ups and entrepreneurs.
This column is a glimpse of the thinking behind some of the major steps I.B.M. has taken under Mr. Palmisano’s leadership, based on two recent interviews with him.
He says his guiding framework boils down to four questions:
• “Why would someone spend their money with you — so what is unique about you?”
• “Why would somebody work for you?”
• “Why would society allow you to operate in their defined geography — their country?”
• “And why would somebody invest their money with you?”
Mr. Palmisano formulated those questions in the months after he became C.E.O. in March 2002 His predecessor, Louis V. Gerstner Jr., recruited to I.B.M. in 1993, had already pulled the company out of a financial tailspin, first reducing the size of the work force and cutting costs, and then leading a remarkable recovery.
In meetings after he took over, Mr. Palmisano told colleagues that I.B.M. was still good, but that it wasn’t the standard-setting corporation that it had been when he joined in 1973. (A history major at Johns Hopkins and a star offensive lineman on the football team, he turned down a tryout with the Oakland Raiders of the N.F.L. for a sales job at the company.)
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