Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond (buy on Amazon.com)
by Thomas Watson, Jr., published 1990
A “valueprax” review always serves two purposes: to inform the reader, and to remind the writer. Find more reviews by visiting the Virtual Library.
The son of IBM’s founder, Thomas Watson Jr.’s “Father, Son & Co.” is many things: a collection of folksy business wisdom passed down by his father, memories and recollections of his participation as an airman in World War II and later a US diplomatic career in the USSR, a story about the challenges of growing a global business, lessons in leadership and team building, the pitfalls of transforming an business organization from small scale to large scale and, most importantly, a personal reflection on the value of family. It was most interesting and entertaining for me to read when it dealt with business and some of the personal issues of the author in trying to prove himself in the shadow of a legendary father; I found it less enjoyable and less authentic when the author dabbled in politics or retold sappy anecdotes about popular political figures of his era with whom he had had personal relationships.
The Business of IBM
The axis around which the story revolves is not Tom Watson, Jr., and it’s not Tom Watson, Sr. It’s the company which Senior grew and transformed into IBM, and which Junior effected the change over to actual computing technology in the 1960s, that the book is really about. But because Junior’s and Senior’s personalities, families, fortunes and lives were so wrapped up in the affairs of IBM, it becomes about all of those things in turn as well. That is somewhat surprising because the book is ostensibly a memoir by Junior, yet the gravity of IBM is hard to ignore in nearly every chapter of the book.
When Senior joined on with the company as general manager and, shortly thereafter, president, IBM (then Computing-Tabulating-Record Company) was an important concern but not necessarily a large one. Senior had a vision for it and something of an indomitable will, and he had experienced enough success and failure on his own in other ventures that he had an idea of what it would take to create the vision he had for the company. He built a large, organized and polished sales force, instilled high morale and unity of purpose by creating training programs, achievement awards, national sales team conventions and even company songs that everyone had to sing. He also, like many strong-willed founders, created something of a cult of personality around himself, putting his picture up at IBM offices and facilities, writing memos that were distributed widely to all staff and constantly visiting field offices and manufacturing facilities and “pressing the flesh” with company men and their wives and children, creating a kind of endearing aura of patriarchy.
In later years this intuitive, personality-driven approach was deemed problematic by Junior and other successor senior executives who believed that Senior had created a culture and cadre of Yes Men and hadn’t implemented enough standards and professional protocols that could create stability for growth. But for decades of the company’s history (essentially the first half, to date) this approach seemed to work, and fantastically so. Company publications like “Business Machines” and sales achievement distinctions like the “Hundred Percent Club” put the company’s focus on employee well-being and professionalism and incentivized outstanding achievement in the dawn of the era of lifetime commitment to big companies.
Something that shocked me as I read was how much of IBM’s growth could be attributed to solving statistical problems for the US and other national governments:
IBM more than doubled in size during the New Deal… Social Security… made Uncle Sam IBM’s biggest customer.
Wow! I suppose someone else could’ve come up with the technology as well, but it is kind of amazing to think that the evil New Deal and the disastrous Social Security pyramid scheme would have been too burdensome to administer without the existence of IBM tabulating machines which were a major time saver. It reminds me of Palantir Technologies, which helps the NSA, CIA and other foreign governments conduct surveillance work on target populations, another way to profit off of coercive interference in society’s affairs.
This trend didn’t stop with the New Deal but only started there. During WW2 the company converted many of their factories to help produce armaments (a fairly common industrial practice during the time, but still remarkable) and after the war one of the big incentives (and indeed, initial sources of research funding) for switching the company’s focus to electronic computing solutions were the ongoing “national defense” needs of the US military as the Cold War wore on.
Words of wisdom
I enjoyed the many old-timey nuggets of wisdom and rules about manners sprinkled throughout the book which were mostly remembrances of Junior of things Senior had said to him as he raised him or mentored him in the business. For example, Junior talks about the first time he road a cross-country train with his father on a business trip and the way his father taught him to clean up the wash basin in the bathroom of the railroad car to be considerate of others. “The person coming after you will judge you by how the place is left,” he tells him as he uses a towel to wipe down the basin before and after shaving in it. He talks about the importance of leaving the basin in a clean state so that the next person will have “the same chance you had”. There is a deep moral lesson here that goes well beyond the world of men shaving– this is a version of the Golden Rule, not just considering how upsetting it would be to have someone leave a place in a state of disarray for you, but then following that logic through to performing a service voluntarily for other people in trying to leave the world a little bit nicer than you found it.
In another instance, Senior lectures Junior about the practical reasons for treating even the “lowly” members of society in a kindly and generous fashion:
There is a whole class of people in the world who are in a position to poor-mouth you unless you are sensitive to them. They are the headwaiters, Pullman car conductors, porters and chauffeurs. They see you in an intimate fashion and can really knock off your reputation.
Those who enjoy shows like Downton Abbey are familiar with the idea that the “servants” of the world end up having an interesting amount of power and leverage over those they serve because they are so familiar with them they know their weaknesses, secrets and bad habits. There is something noble and self-aware in Senior’s advice here– a cultivated awareness of the reality of power and influence, mixed with a genuine empathy for treating even the relatively less fortunate with respect and concern. It might be read as “These people could really knife you if you don’t pay attention” but I think it is also honestly read as “Don’t forget these are people, too, and they want and need kindness regardless of their station in life.”
Another endearing moment comes when Senior teaches Junior about how he manages his executives:
“Well, I haven’t shaken up So-and-so for a while. So I’ll get him in and ask some questions about his department and in the process part his hair a little. He’ll get a pat on the back if I find something good or a kick in the tail if I find something bad.”
The imagery of “parting someone’s hair” says a lot about the relative authority of the two people in this “process” and while kicking someone in the tail sounds like bullying, it was clear that Senior gave quite a few pats on the back, as well, and when he dished out the ass-kickings, they might have been deserved– these were grown men dealing with a multi-million dollar business, after all, and if they weren’t bringing their problems to Senior’s attention but rather waiting for him to discover them, shame on them.
In teaching Junior about how to be an executive, Senior advised “what a chief executive does outside his business is just as important as what he does at his desk”, which was another idea I found interesting. I’ve been skeptical in the past of chief executives who seem to spend more time glad-handing than running the business. But I’ve come to appreciate that a lot of running a business simply is taking care of relationships– with customers, employees, vendors and even members of the local community. IBM’s business was dependent upon political grace, so there is perhaps a more sinister side to this advice from the standpoint of simply being a businessman but it was an interesting idea to ponder, nonetheless, that the chief executive’s identity and role extend beyond his office hours.
Senior was clearly a hard-driver and a hard-charger himself. So I was interested to hear about his daily routine:
He had his day set up so that he got up at seven, played tennis from seven-thirty to eight-thirty to stay in shape, got to work on time, did his work, went home, read great books for an hour, had dinner, listened to classical music for a while, and went to bed.
Senior ended up dying of starvation; his stomach was so scarred from stress-induced ulcers that it essentially closed up and wouldn’t let enough food in, and he didn’t want to go under the knife and so chose a fairly painful death by starvation (more on health issues in a moment). But despite this, he lived to age 82! I think that’s still considered a long time to live and I am always curious what a person’s habits were when I hear of such longevity, so it was pleasing to see that he put emphasis on daily physical activity as well as daily relaxing, contemplative activity (reading and music listening). Interestingly, breakfast didn’t seem to play a large part in his routine although Junior recounts many times when he had lunch brought in despite it being ignored in this telling.
A few other choice ideas, on restraint:
What you haven’t said, you can say anytime.
And on the value of friendship:
Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.
The son also rises
So, Senior had a knack for keen insight, but what about Junior?
While Senior was the builder, Junior was the administrator and manager. He seemed to take what he learned from Senior and build on it, so many of his notions seemed like continuations of the thoughts of Senior. For example, consider Senior’s advice about how chief executives should behave as Junior extemporizes about the relationships of businessmen:
A good businessman needs a lot of friends. Cultivating them is a laborious process, and how well you succeed is a direct result of how much effort and thoughtfulness you bring to bear.
He isn’t talking about friends in the business. He’s talking about friends outside of the business, which to me sounds like an echo of the idea that the chief executive’s job extends well beyond life in the office.
Similarly, he recounts a tale about the importance of making good introductions,
I stuck out my hand and said to him, “I’m Tom Watson Jr.”
Offering one’s name with a hand shake ensures that the other person is not put in the uncomfortable spot of being expected to remember people he’s only met once before, which engenders a sense of gratitude and respect immediately. Consider that this was the practice of an individual leading one of the largest and most well-known companies in the world and he still made the effort to be forward about his identity like this.
I also made a note of Junior’s characterization of the political structure of business:
The government has checks and balances, but a business is a dictatorship, and that is what makes it really move.
I think there is consensus building in business, too. It’s hard to keep a team cohesive and productive over a long period of time if people don’t feel like they contribute ideas and that those ideas get seriously considered. But I do understand the idea that ultimately decisions have to be made by somebody, that is, one person, and a business with a strong will behind it can make those decisions more effectively because everyone may be listened to but they don’t necessarily all get a vote. In the business world, people tend to vote by exit which is rarely an option in the world of politics.
The wealth of health
As mentioned earlier, Senior ended up choosing death by starvation when his health maladies caught up with him, though he made it to age 82. I noticed that both Junior and his younger brother (who headed up IBM’s non-US business) suffered heart attacks in their middle-age, attributed to the high stress of their positions.
Junior describes a life of almost continual travel and social functions, not just for himself but for his father and his brother. It was clear reading the book that the Watson clan and IBM executive leadership in general were part of the “global elite”, they knew dignitaries and heads of state from around the planet and were deeply connected to American political figures as well, a confusing blending of public and private prerogatives and relationships. There were many chapters where Junior described so many different locales and travels simultaneously that is almost seemed as if he was everywhere at once– at the very least he would spend long stretches of time away from home engaged in high level networking. It was a fascinating glimpse into “how the other half lives.”
But it was also terrifying from a health point of view. It is just hard to imagine this high-paced lifestyle allowing one to live with optimal health and longevity. Along with suffering a heart attack, his brother seemed to be frail enough to die from a “fall” at age 55. Junior ended up quitting his official business responsibilities following his heart attack which he reflects on with positivity in the book, saying it was a relief to have an opportunity to look critically at his life and get out while he still could. It seems to say a lot about the lifestyle he was living that he could so clearly connect his longevity to his work and chose the former over the latter.
Working with family
At the beginning of the book, Junior says that if you have the chance to go into business with your father, know that it will be difficult, but do it. I was fascinated by this strong suggestion given that he spends much of the rest of the book relating all the violent disagreements he had with his father, their latent power struggles, the continual struggles with self-esteem and even depression that he experienced living and working under the shadow of his successful father and so on.
There were many touching moments in the book where the reader is afforded a look at the parenting practices of Senior, who was truly from a pre-modern era. But there were also many that shocked my sensibilities of the proper relationship between parent and child, such as when Junior recalled how Senior handled tax documentation of his personal trust:
Each year his accountant would come around and have me sign income tax forms that were blank. He’d make an excuse that he hadn’t had time yet to fill them out. This kept up not only through college but ten years beyond, until I was a grown man with children of my own.
How would hiding this information from a child do anything but stoke their curiosity, fear and self-criticism? Why did this practice continue on even when he was a man with his own family (at which point he had long been a part of the business in a senior role)?
While the book offered many such puzzles and glimpses into family life for the accomplished Watsons, I couldn’t help but wonder how people who had achieved such greatness in so many areas had completely neglected to resolve interpersonal emotional conflicts and instead struggled with this source of unhappiness for decades. What is family for?
For me, reading about the early struggles and the early attempts at growth are always the most interesting parts of a story like Thomas Watson, Jr.’s, and IBM’s in general. I found myself less interested in what it was like being Bobby Kennedy’s friend, or getting tapped for the ambassadorship in Moscow. You can look at the history of the company and of the family and think, “It could’ve been anyone else, it’s not clear what they did that was special or unique beyond being lucky” but you can’t say they didn’t work hard, or purposefully. There’s no simple recipes or formulas for success in this book when it comes to business, family or life, but there are a number of things to think about, struggles that turn out to be common to all of us, great or small in our vision or accomplishments. I think that is where the value in this book lay for me.