Are You an IBM or a Dell?

Posted 06.17.2011

Ibm-room The title of this post reminds me of the “I’m a Mac.  I’m a PC” TV commercials from a couple of years ago.  The question, “Are you an IBM or a Dell?” was inspired by an article I read this week in The Economist.

As it happens, this year is the 100th anniversary of the founding of IBM.  Lasting a hundred years is a pretty amazing accomplishment for any company.  For one in the ever changing field of technology, it’s especially impressive.  How has IBM managed to survive and, most of the time, thrive for that long?  Here’s how The Economist answers the question:

“IBM’s secret is that it is built around an idea that transcends any particular product or technology. Its strategy is to package technology for use by businesses. At first this meant making punch-card tabulators, but IBM moved on to magnetic-tape systems, mainframes, PCs, and most recently services and consulting. Building a company around an idea, rather than a specific technology, makes it easier to adapt when industry ‘platform shifts’ occur.”

That bold face sentence above, “Its strategy is to package technology for use by businesses,” hit me like a blinding flash of the obvious. So simple it’s brilliant, right? The authors compared the IBM strategy to Dell’s which was to build and ship personal computers more efficiently than anyone else.  That was a fantastic strategy on Dell’s part until it wasn’t. It wasn’t after more and more companies figured out how to do what Dell does and it especially wasn’t as the technology curve began to move away from PC’s.

Which gets me to the question, “Are you an IBM or a Dell?”  Your answer will turn on how you view yourself. Do you define yourself by your job or do you define yourself by the skills and talents you bring to party? If it’s the former, you’re more of a Dell. If it’s the latter, you’re more of an IBM.

My hope for you is that you’re an IBM. Here’s the truth. You are not your job. You are a leader and a human being with a unique set of experience and skills that can be applied to a range of opportunities.  A few years ago I wrote a post about a speech I heard NBA legend Bill Russell give in which he said, “I’m not a basketball player, I’m Bill Russell. I play basketball, but I’m Bill Russell.”  Bill Russell had it right. He was not his job.

So which is it for you? IBM or Dell? How does the way you view what you have to offer the world affect how you show up as a leader?