Tackling tough transitions: Advice from a top IBM executive

A seasoned top tech executive talks about excelling at career transitions.

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Credit: Felix Burton, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Linda Sanford, one of the highest ranking women at IBM before retiring just weeks ago as senior vice president, enterprise transformation, has been through many tough transitions during her 39-year career at IBM.

She served in a range of roles, most recently leading strategy for the company’s internal transformation into a premier globally integrated enterprise. Sanford sat down with me to share her thoughts on managing transitions, navigating adversity, the importance of “getting your fingernails dirty,” and more.

Cook: You’ve had a stellar career — quite a mosaic, with many interesting experiences and different directions. It would be great start to with a discussion about managing transitions. You’re managing one now. 

Sanford: In my 39 years at IBM, I was never doing the same thing. I was constantly moving into new spaces, new challenges, and new areas, all the while learning from those different experiences. And it is true what you say — I’m dealing with my transition into retirement.

Yet when I step back and really think about it, I realize that there are a lot of common threads that can help any IT professional build important leadership skills.

Cook: What are those common threads?

Sanford: A lot of success that comes with a transition has to do with how you approach your new business area, and doing so as your genuine self. I often think back to those early days, where my first manager said to me, “It doesn’t matter where you go or where you aspire to go. Ultimately, always be yourself.”

If you can be yourself walking into a new organization, a new challenge, or a new opportunity, you have confidence in things you’ve already done and learned, including the things you’ve learned from your previous mistakes. 

Another transition principle that I often share is what I call “getting your fingernails dirty.” It’s a lesson that I learned way back from my childhood growing up working on my grandparent’s farm.

Cook: What you mean by “getting your fingernails dirty?” 

Sanford: All five us, my four sisters and I, needed to help out on the farm after school. When we would pick weeds, my grandfather used to say, “Girls, you’ve got to get your fingernails dirty. If you don’t get to the roots of that weed, it will grow back.” In the professional world, this lesson was that you’ve got to get deep enough into an area to really understand its underlying principles.

Cook: How about another underlying principle to share with our readers? 

Sanford:  I would encourage people to really listen, especially leaders. This is where true, phenomenal breakthrough ideas come from. It is not about gathering a consensus within a group. I hate the word consensus because to me it means the least common denominator, and I’m not looking for that. I’m looking for the best of everybody’s thinking.

Cook: I understand that you enjoy mentoring, too. How would you have mentored a younger you? What advice would you give yourself when you were more junior in your career?

Sanford:  It is important to tackle tough things. When all boats are rising and things are moving along smoothly, that’s a great feeling. But I’m not sure you learn as much as when you are tackling a real issue. A moment that really brought that all to life was when IBM hit that proverbial brick wall back in the early ’90s. CEO Louis Gerstner asked me personally to run and reinvent the mainframe business, and I worked on that for five years. That transition changed my career trajectory.


This was the mainframe revitalization crisis in Poughkeepsie, New York. We also had a team in Kingston, New York, as well as a branch in Germany. Literally and figuratively, I brought them all together, and said,Enough is enough in terms of doing your own thing. We have to bring the best of everyone’s thinking across our three teams to come up with best solution to propel us out of our crisis and into the world, and we’re not leaving the room until we do.”

This was a very poignant, transformative transition in my career. And I have to tell you, my heart was probably beating a thousand beats per minute wondering if they were all going to walk out. But they didn’t. They stayed, and we got up on the blackboard together and got to work fixing one problem at a time. 

Cook:  I have a feeling that you may be underselling your impact on the success…

Sanford:  I tend to think, I don’t have all the answers, but I know that together we do.

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