IBM's Bridget van Kralingen, 47, runs a $40 billion business, accounting for 40% of total revenue at the computer services and software giant.
Van Kralingen was appointed general manager of North America a year ago and is now based in New York. She began her career at Deloitte Consulting in Cape Town in 1989, joining IBM in 2004 to run its global financial services business out of London. Born in the U.K., she spent 15 years with Deloitte, mostly in South Africa with a brief stint in New York from 1997 to 1999.
FINS spoke with her about meritocracy, how to boost morale among sales teams and her boss, Ginni Rometty, No. 8 on Fortune magazine's 2010 list of Most Powerful Women in Business.
Shareen Pathak: What has been your biggest challenge at IBM?
Bridget van Kralingen: My biggest challenge ended up being something I was very proud of. When I came back here at the beginning of 2010, North America had been through a very heavy recession. We wanted to move from grind to growth, but the morale and energy was not where we needed it.
We started to look at key areas like training -- how much time we are spending on training our sales managers -- and we found it wasn't enough.
Once we started to focus on that, the momentum started to build. Our North American teams finished at a growth rate of 10%, the highest we've had in a decade.
SP: Where did you go to college? What did you study?
BvK: When I was 14 or 15, my mother was an accountant and didn't like the work she did. That's when I decided that my mission in life was to change the world of work.
So I studied business and psychology. I have a masters degree in business from the University of South Africa and a bachelors degree in commerce from the University of Witwatersrand. I qualified as an organizational and psychological analyst, and that's really where my first job was, working in research.
SP: Has that helped in your career?
BvK: The core skills that I learned while working in therapy and mentoring apply when you're dealing with clients. Things like summarizing, paraphrasing, asking the right questions and those foundational, macro, interpersonal skills will stand you in good stead.
You cannot prescribe rules. You want to bring people together in a team and get them to be comfortable and relaxed. You want to prize collaboration, bring people together from many different countries, give them the confidence, and help them find a purpose.
It all comes from when I was working at Deloitte in South Africa at a time that people were trying to contribute to political change by changing how they dealt with their workers. It's all about leadership.
SP: What is the best feedback you've ever received?
BvK: It was from Ginni Rometty, my current boss. She told me, "Bridget, you can solve any problem. So don't restrict yourself to any one thing."
And then there was the time when I first moved to Deloitte New York in 1997 from South Africa. I was working really hard on relationships, and then one of the partners said to me, "You're way too polite." It was a shock, in South Africa I was known for being aggressive. Since then I've become more attuned to working in different cultures and people.
SP: How do you suggest people get used to working with different cultures and teams?
BvK: Two things. First, go in with the stance of listening before you jump to conclusions or take an approach that may have worked in the place you worked before.
Secondly, go ahead and ask about leadership style in the place you're in. Ask your team, your peers.
SP: What would you advise someone going into sales as a career?
BvK: We sell around solutions rather than products now. So you need to have the skills to consult and understand.
It's not just the selling and solutioning, but also delivery. We're in an era of analytics and making sense of data.
You've seen it with Watson and Jeopardy. The world is yielding unstructured data and if you can make sense of it, you can do a lot with it. You have to use data to talk to your clients and customers.
SP: What is it like being a woman working in this business?
As a woman, that low-key consultative approach is also to your advantage. I've never found it to be an issue here or anywhere else I've worked.
SP: Why did you pick IBM?
BvK: It teaches you to prize independent and bold thought. It's not about tabulating or computing, but thinking.
One of the things I liked about IBM was that there were many women in the "hard jobs." It's meritocratic. Provided you know what you're good at and produce outcomes, you can make it big.
SP: What's your favorite thing about your job?
BvK: I feel like I'm building an organization that can help clients and make the world a better place. I sponsor our microfinance initiatives.
It's busy, it's a mix of seeing clients, running operational reviews, working on strategic initiatives – like right now we're working on health care initiatives.
But you have to balance your life on a monthly basis, not a daily one, because of the 24 by seven world we live in. I do yoga, I run and I read. I just finished the Stieg Larsson trilogy, which I enjoyed very much. I just love the heroine.
Write to Shareen Pathak