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IBM chief wants a 'smarter planet'

Published on Friday, 09 Jul 2010
Dominic Tong
General manager, IBM
Photo: Jonathan Wong

General manager Dominic Tong has overseen IBM’s business operations and strategic development in Hong Kong since 2006. He started out with the company as a trainee systems engineer in the early 1980s and subsequently gained experience in areas that included sales, brand and product management. A key step in 2000 was being appointed executive for the in-house systems group handling server, storage and printing business, which paved the way for further advancement. Tong also serves on the board of ETI Consulting, a firm set up by the University of Hong Kong, and is a member of the Vocational Training Council’s committee on IT training and development. He talks to Jan Chan.

Which parts of the business give you most satisfaction?
Over the years, I have worked in many different positions within the company, but each one comes down to finding solutions and providing value for clients. Of course, there are plenty of challenges in the process, whether in convincing someone to adopt a certain solution or in delivering the service successfully. But I have always enjoyed the fact that the work is so customer-oriented, and achieving the right result for clients is something that gives me a lot of satisfaction.

What vision are you currently using to inspire your staff?
The aim at present is to explain to customers the concept of a “smarter planet”. By that, we mean that all companies should make understanding of technology and systems know-how an integral part of their business decision making. The CIO should be just as important as the COO and CFO in every corporation, and our whole group is promoting this vision.

What are the most challenging aspects of being a leader?
As part of a global enterprise, our team in Hong Kong works on local business, but must also collaborate closely with other IBM offices on various ongoing projects. That means I am not only responsible for managing employees in a single location, but may need to oversee work that involves numerous offices in different parts of the world, making things more complicated. If any arguments arise, my basic management philosophy is to focus on three principles: dedication to success for every client; supporting innovation that matters; and expecting trust and personal responsibility. By sticking to these values, I find it is easier to make wise decisions.

How did you train yourself to be a better leader?
I realise that continuous education and training is important if I am to represent the company effectively in Hong Kong. Fortunately, we have a comprehensive training system with an individual development plan for each employee. This gives a clear career pathway and sets out courses or experience needed to advance to the next level. I understand that if I’m not properly equipped, it will be harder to lead by example and to perform as effectively as possible – individually and as part of a team.

What does it take to get the best out of every individual?
One of my main responsibilities is to unlock people’s potential, but in doing this, I’m not alone. Each functional head helps by identifying staff in their respective areas with the potential to move ahead quickly and, in due course, hold senior positions. In terms of personal involvement, I act as mentor for about 10 employees every year. We meet regularly and don’t just talk about business and work. The intention is to share opinions and discuss anything, so I can get to know them better and guide their overall development.

What do you find is the best way to handle criticism?
No matter what your position, there will be some kind of criticism. The important thing, especially as a leader, is to handle it with an open mind and see what positives you can take. When someone criticises me, I find the best approach is not to let emotions get in the way, but to focus instead on where changes could help the business to run more smoothly and effectively. It is best to listen to any criticism, accept it with respect and, as far as possible, take it as constructive feedback. Of course, sometimes that is easier said than done. 

What specifically have you learned from your time in the IT sector?
Every position has taught me new skills and broadened my overall knowledge of the industry. I may not have become an expert in any one area, but the range of experience and involvement in different divisions helps a lot in my current position. For one thing, I understand what tasks and challenges colleagues face in day-to-day operations, and we share more than just a common language. They know that if I give orders or expect change, any instruction is based on a clear understanding of what each person does.

With so many responsibilities, how do you organise your time and deal with pressure? 
The company doesn’t expect employees to see work as a 9 to 5 routine in the office. Instead, we are used to flexible work patterns because we have to deliver a service for clients as and when required. Therefore, I’ll work at home in the evening or at weekends when necessary, but can also take a break on weekdays to handle personal errands. I’m always ready to work after office hours if something is urgent, but I’m also very conscious of the need to spend time with my family and simply to relax.

Keeping pace  

  • Tong closely follows industry news to keep pace with changes in technology
  • Believes a key responsibility for any leader is to uphold the values of the company
  • Suggests corporations can do more to allocate tasks to different parts of the world with the necessary expertise

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