3 Lessons in Professional Growth from IBM's First 100 Years

3 Lessons in Professional Growth from IBM's First 100 Years

In business, change is a given, for both businesses and the executives that lead them. That's especially true at a high-tech company like  IBM, which celebrates its 100th birthday this month.

IBM has long been in the information business, starting with scales, tabulators and clocks. The company has been a pioneer in the IT industry, designing and developing products to record, process, communicate, store and retrieve information. As the market changes, so does the company's technology-related solutions.

Today, Sharon Nunes is the vice president of IBM's Smarter Cities, one of IBM's pivotal growth businesses. The Smarter Cities initiative provides measurement and monitoring of information on city operations, such as traffic flow and water use. Before heading up that initiative, Nunes had been up, down and all around the global corporate giant -- starting in R&D, launching new business units like  Big Green Innovations and  Advanced Water Management, leading worldwide teams, engaging clients -- all the while traveling the world visiting scores of IBM's more than 170 sites worldwide to effect sustainable innovation.

Sharon NunesShe's an example of making change from the inside out, and for those looking to learn from her experience, she's a model of how to go about learning the ropes of sustainability while climbing the corporate ladder of a sprawling global company.

Part and parcel of IBM's sustainability-driven strategy, the organization Nunes heads recognizes that smarter cities will be economic growth engines of the 21st century and seeks ways to apply the company's unique set of capabilities to create, manage and run intelligent and interconnected infrastructures and systems for urban centers in every major geography.

As Nunes explained  at WNSF's clean tech advantage summit in California last November, "to create value, it's important to encourage systematic social innovation," reinventing relationships, and re-evaluating values. That's part of what the company seeks through its collaborative, nine-member  Green Sigma Coalition of corporate partners, which brings collective business expertise to its Smarter Cities program.

Lesson 1: Don't Be Afraid of the Detour

Part of successful innovation -- and progress -- is flexibility, she believes. "It's funny because people are always trying to plan for success," Nunes says. "I look at them and say 'it's great to have a plan, but I hope you're flexible, because taking a left or a right turn might lead to interesting results you wouldn't have experienced if you'd stuck to the plan.'"

Nunes' career path exemplifies the innovation inspired by flexibility, with more than a few left turns along the way. Trained as a materials scientist, she began her career in research and development, working for a decade on projects like electronic packaging for modules of IBM's high-end computers, then supporting the director of research with strategy and alignment with other IBM groups.

"That's when I realized the breadth of what the company was doing and moved into software," she says. "It was the transition point for me, walking into a new area of research, putting together groups, aligning strategy with business opportunities and learning non-tech disciplines."

Lesson 2: Reach Outside Your Role

Nunes admits it hasn't always been a breeze to segue. "Some transitions were easier than others, but I tell my mentees they should take a risk, because you never know what you can or can't do until you try."

In her current role, Nunes gets to think about heady issues like the unit's strategic direction, driving business progress, upping sales and generally working across the company to grow the expanding market.

That means plenty of opportunities to work with others who may not have sustainability at the core of their role. There are only 15 people who report directly to the Smarter Cities team, but Nunes manages to matrix some 500 other IBM employees, from around the world, into critical projects. That gives those employees the chance to keep things interesting and expand their role, she says.

Lesson 3: Like What You Do (and Who You Do It With)

Nunes also reminds her mentees that it's a good idea to check in with yourself, follow your passion. "I like working on the cutting edge," she says. "I like both the technology and the business components. But leadership styles are very different in different organizations, and you have to learn the differences."

More importantly, perhaps, "You have to find the people you trust, so you can bounce ideas off them and learn from them. […] I've had a great informal network of people in the company I can go to and ask how to approach various problems."

In the end, though, flexibility, whether personal or corporate, is the key to successful innovation, she says. "You have to be flexible, change your style, adapt to different people, different circumstances, different personalities. It's fun and challenging -- and it keeps the company's engine oiled."