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Five Key Drivers Fueling the Rise of new IBM CEO Arvind Krishna

The India-educated executive’s meteoric rise is a tribute to the US meritocratic culture and his brilliance as a technologist.
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   31-01-2020

Arvind Krishna
Arvind Krishna

Incoming Chief Executive Arvind Krishna, 57, is only the 10th CEO in IBM’s 108-year history. Clearly, the iconic company is doubling down on a cloud bet at a time of technology change at Big Blue.

The appointment of Krishna, who heads the company’s cloud and cognitive-software division, recalls Microsoft’s elevation of its cloud chief, Satya Nadella, to run the company in 2014. The bet on the cloud helped drive growth at Microsoft, propelling it to a value of more than $1.3 trillion.

Brilliant Technologist

The massive $34 billion Red Hat deal was departing CEO Ginni Rometty and Krishna’s signature move to accelerate IBM’s growth in the cloud. Krishna, Rometty’s successor, was the mastermind behind the Red Hat deal at the end of 2018. “He proposed the acquisition to Rometty and the board, suggesting hybrid cloud is the company’s best bet for future growth,” reported Bloomberg.

There was some speculation at the time that Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst was the IBM heir apparent, but the board finally went with a seasoned IBM insider for the job, while naming Whitehurst as president.

Rometty, who steps back after more than eight years on the job, endorsed Krishna's appointment, describing him as a "brilliant technologist" with strong leadership skills. “He is well-positioned to lead IBM and its clients into the cloud and cognitive era,” said Rometty.

Clearly, the board went with two engineers who have a deep understanding of cloud and cognitive computing technologies, two areas that are obviously going to be front and center of technology, and areas where IBM needs to thrive.

Krishna’s solid engineering credentials could help IBM as the tech sector undergoes further change. He is overseeing a company that still ranks among the top producers of patents and has co-authored 15 himself. He has already played a significant role in developing IBM’s key technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud, quantum computing and Blockchain.

Return from India Education

Indian American corporate leaders are products of an investment in higher education. A lot of Indians coming of age in the executive suite in America often were educated at one of two iconic institutions founded in the 1950s and 1960s, the now seven-city Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and the six-member Indian Institutes of Management (IIM).

IBM isn't the first US-headquartered global corporation to recognize the high caliber of Indian executive talent. Google CEO Pichai, who was born in Chennai, comes from the same IIT as Arun Sarin, the former CEO of the Vodafone Group. Similarly, former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi who studied at IIM Calcutta, and Manipal Institute of Technology educated Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella are products of an investment in higher education.

Krishna, studied at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and received an electrical engineering doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He comes with a strong technology background that could help IBM as the tech sector undergoes further change.

Adept Manager

Kumar showed his skills as a manager, with an ability to fix problems when he refocused the then-struggling Watson business. “Under Krishna, IBM turned the collection of artificial-intelligence and analytics technologies to practical business problems instead of grander, hard-to-achieve goals it initially set for itself,” said Ray Wang from Constellation Research.

As a manager, Krishna will have his work cut out in reinvigorating a 350,000-person workforce.

Indian Leadership Talent

Krishna is the latest Indian-born executive to reach the top ranks, where he joins Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga, Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri, SoftBank Corp CEO Nikesh Arora, SanDisk CEO Sanjay Mehrotra and Adobe Systems CEO Shantanu Narayen, among others.

Clearly, a generation of Indians have benefited from upbringings in a people-centric culture that puts a store on humility, modesty, close-knit family ties and diversity.

"Indian leaders view sustaining employee morale and building company culture as critical. People are viewed as assets to be developed, not costs to be reduced and as sources of creative ideas," said Michael Useem, Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change at the Wharton School.

Useem who has co-authored the book, "The India Way," says Indian CEOs are generally more adaptable, flexible, and resilient. They have grown up dealing with adversity, unpredictability and scarce infrastructure whether we are talking about power outages or nightmare traffic. A competitive drive emerges naturally in a country with a billion people and limited opportunities.

"They have a personal steeliness and are unflappable," said Useem.

A new cross-cultural survey from Southern New Hampshire University said Indian managers had strong leadership traits. They are future-oriented and had a “paradoxical blend of genuine personal humility and intense professional will,” the study said. “Indian leaders achieved extraordinary results and built great organizations without much hoopla.”

The Likeability Factor

Krishna scores very high on the likeability scale and has the ability to make tough decisions without rubbing people up the wrong way. According to company insiders, he is an “authentic leader” who lives the values of IBM and has taken on ever-increasing responsibilities across the company without any fanfare.

Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Anurag Rana said Krishna spearheaded IBM’s shift toward hybrid, prompting the company to work with rival providers rather than compete against them.

“His openness and ability to work with everybody…is very good for IBM,” said Rana. He has integrity, intelligence and a decency about him according to colleagues who have worked closely with him in the cloud and cognitive-software division.



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