on November 23, 2012
This was a fascinating read. Not only was it about the relationship of the two Watsons with each other, but there was quite a bit of information involving business history, comparing IBM's experiences and challenges with other companies in the past, which I felt added a lot of depth to the story. I highly recommend this book - I couldn't put it down.
on January 2, 2012
This is a description of the founding and maturation of IBM. It described Thomas Watson sr and his background. And it gives an interesting history of IBM itself. I was particularly interested since our local Public Television Station, WSKG has just produced a 90 minute documentary on the same subject. This book provides a fuller description both of the personalities of the Watsons but also of their philosophy of selling and the development of IBM. Having dealt with the company as a customer and as a corporate donor to my institution, it was interesting to learn something of the background. The book is well written and interesting.
Those who have read Tedlow's Giants of Enterprise are already aware of his unique and abundant skills as a brilliant thinker and eloquent writer. In this volume, he focuses his attention on Thomas Watson Sr. and Jr. who established and then developed one of the great dynasties in modern business history. (Watson Sr. was among seven "Giants" Tedlow discusses in his previous book.) This volume consists of several separate but carefully integrated parts: Watson Sr.'s life and career, his son Tom's life and career, and their often volatile personal as well as professional relationship at IBM.
Of special interest to me is Watson Sr.'s career with the National Cash Register company during which he observed first-hand the leadership and management style of its founder and CEO, John Henry Patterson. Tedlow suggests that Watson Sr. learned many lessons from Patterson which later proved invaluable when, after being asked to resign his position at NCR, Watson accepted an offer to head the Computing-Tabulating-Recording company, renamed the International Business Machines Corporation in 1924. By then, Watson had demonstrated his genius as a salesman. "It was, however, his very appreciation of selling that prompted his constant push for better products and his support of engineers and the interest risks of research and development....What made Watson great was his understanding that in order for marketing to succeed, the marketers needed a product to sell which the market would accept....Selling was the art of helping the customer to understand that he did indeed both need and want what you were selling to him." Tedlow leaves no doubt that Watson's years at NCR fully prepared him to thrive as CEO of IBM, choosing the right product to bet on, taking full advantage of any and all opportunities to sell it, and -- meanwhile -- building a culture in which ever-increasing sales and profits were driven by technical superiority and a total commitment to serving each customer's needs.
Also of interest to me is the relationship between the two Thomas Watsons. Theirs was a love-hate relationship, to be sure. Thomas Watson Sr. ran IBM for 42 years and one week, from May 1, 1914, until May 8, 1956. Throughout that period, father and son frequently had "hellacious" arguments. According to Watson Jr., their fights were "savage, primal, and unstoppable" and yet, as Tedlow explains, they deeply loved and greatly respected each other. Following Watson Sr.'s death, he was proclaimed the "World's Greatest Salesman" in a front-page New York Times headline. Watson Jr. was devastated, so much so that he took several months off to cope with his grief. He then returned to his duties as CEO and proceeded to transform IBM into what was then, by all accounts, the world's best managed corporation.
A brief commentary such as this simply cannot do full justice to what Tedlow achieves in this volume. Suffice to say that he draws upon a wealth of historical and biographical information to reveal and explain the full significance of two great corporate leaders, to be sure, but also to reveal and explain them in compelling human terms, warts and all. Eventually, Tedlow observes, IBM encountered in the 1990s, a near-death experience. "The problem with IBM was not Watson principles and practices. It was that those principles and practices had ossified. Rather than being living, breathing, flexible guidelines within which creative people could work and be playful at their work, they had degenerated into mere words which had lost their meaning. They were only limiting, never liberating. The shadow [of the Watsons] remained; the substance had disappeared." Thomas J. Watson Jr. died on December 31, 1993. The next CEO, Lou Gerstner, was the first successor to Watson Jr. who would not have him looking over his shoulder. On Gerstner's watch, IBM survived its near-death experience and is now led by Samuel J. Palmisano, an executive who has spent his entire career at IBM. To say that IBM has returned to its roots is to say that IBM has re-established itself in alignment with the principles and practices of two visionary leaders named Watson.
If you are interested in the lives of the father and son that built IBM, this book is a pretty good place to start. It is an interpretive essay rather than an academic or formal biography. Since the author is basing this book on secondary sources, he carefully lists all the sources he relied on to write this book, He doesn't claim to provide original research or to have had access to primary sources that aren't publicly available. But it is good for a quick read and introduction to the Thomas Watson Sr and Jr.
Since business is done by actual human beings, I enjoy peeling back the corporate veneer and the impersonal language of saying the company did this or that and looking at the real people and what they did with a touch of why they made their choices if such evidence is available. Not for the soap opera or supposition of it, but to learn real lessons about the character, the luck, the blunders, the brilliance that makes up all of the stories of history. One of the phony things corporations do in misusing the language is to say things like ABC Giantcorp made the decision to do XYZ. Actually, the men and women who run the organization made that decision. The Watsons both knew this and were, by today's standards, surprisingly human (if hard driving).
Watson Sr. was a special character who came out of that early period of the first vast American corporations. He learned the right lessons and had the right traits. He found the right opportunity in building what he turned into IBM. Watson Jr. turned into a special character partly from the training from his father, but more by his experiences in WWII. But like a great many families of men of vast ambition and ability, the family of Watson Sr. did not get all the benefits of wealth and experience without cost. There was a lot to live up to and, for the most part, they met their responsibilities (with some all-too-normal failings). All in all, the author tells a cautionary tale.
The book is well documented. There is a list of the sources used for each chapter, a bibliographical essay with a good list of the sources you can use for more reading on the Watsons an IBM and a good index.
I will say that the author's informal writing style, especially when he flips into the first person, can be disorienting. Yes, he has a breezy style that reads like a class lecture sounds, but at times it caused me to stop and have to parse the language to figure out exactly whom he was talking about and what he was saying. There were a couple of times that I had to make surmises and am still not absolutely sure that the meaning I finally took away was what the author intended.
But it is really a pretty good and valuable book.