When’s the best time to join a company? When it’s hitting on all cylinders? Or when it’s struggling? Sounds like a softball question, but that’s the dilemma I faced in 1993, just a few years after earning my doctorate. I was with Georgia-Pacific, a company as solid as the lumber they turned out by the boxcar. I had a good job, a good manager, and a good life in bustling Atlanta. Then came a call. IBM wanted me. Would I listen?
At a time when Big Blue’s machines are beating humans at Jeopardy!, it’s hard to remember that in the early 90s, IBM was in dire straits. It had fallen behind as the revolution in personal computing took hold. IBM’s board turned to an outsider, marketing genius Lou Gerstner, to take on the turnaround. Gerstner would eventually put IBM right, but at the time they reached out to me, the jury on IBM’s future was still out. The company was bleeding jobs and cash.
I listened. It would be a much bigger position than I had at Georgia Pacific. I discussed the opportunity with my family and close friends. They all looked at me as if I was signing on for a deckhand’s job on the Titanic. I decided to leave my options open—to make a decision after my visit to IBM’s HQ.
On IBM’s campus, the empty offices were hard to miss. I asked the head of HR, “Why even think about leadership development right now?” He replied, “Funny, I asked Lou the same thing. He made it clear. Leadership means more than ever to IBM’s future. IBM needs a whole new generation of leaders, one very different from generations past. Lou is already thinking past the turnaround.”
It was a Lean In moment, one that led me to a lot of soul-searching. Leaving Georgia-Pacific and the stability it represented would be tough. I would be uprooting my family (again) and signing on for long days and sometimes sleepless nights. But here it was, my opportunity to show what I was made of, and how I could help a legendary company shape its future by reshaping its leadership. At worst, it would be a learning experience. At its best, though, this opportunity could turbocharge my career, affirming that I had the talent and drive to succeed anywhere.
After a great deal of introspection and with the support of my husband and family, I told IBM I was ready for its challenge. A few days after giving notice, I visited with the CEO of Georgia-Pacific, expecting the perfunctory exit interview. It was anything but. “It’s IBM,” he said. “How could you not take it?”
I made the leap. What I learned at IBM has guided my experience at Pfizer, where a storied company is revitalizing itself and building an ownership culture. Life lesson? Never take a job that you absolutely know you can do. IBM came back, stronger than ever, behind a new generation of leadership, one that I remain proud to have helped develop.