I’m proud to start out the week with an interview that I’ve anxiously anticipated for a while. John Mihalec is the head of IBM analyst relations, no small task. I learned some very interesting things about John that I never knew, and I hope his work background will be as interesting for you as it was for me. Especially the political stories.
I have great respect for those who have served our country. This interview includes stories about analyst relations being analogous to the court room, poking fun at me for flattering the boss and comparing major political operatives to influential IBM executives. Enjoy the read as much as I did.
What is your job title (and what does that really mean as far as your job)?
VP, Analyst Relations. It means that if any IT analyst anywhere in the world criticizes IBM in any way, by spoken or printed word, I have a problem. Since analysts make a living by (among other things) assessing vendors, and since IBM is the biggest, most comprehensive and complicated vendor, most days I have a lot of problems. But it also means that most days I have immediate, tangible, urgent opportunities to make a difference for IBM. And that’s fun.
Some work experience that you want to tell?
Well, I started out in politics, driving the campaign bus for Lowell Weicker’s first (and only) race for the House of Representatives in during my summer vacation in 1968. After graduation, I worked for Weicker on Capitol Hill for a year. After being drafted into the Army and Vietnam, I worked for him again on the Senate side while he was on the Watergate Committee. It was during this period that I also briefly had a second job as a ghostwriter for a retired FBI official named Mark Felt, who was then still telling everyone (including me) that he was most assuredly not Deep Throat. In 1976, with Weicker coasting to re-election, I left to join the White House speech writing team for President Ford. We gained 30 points in the polls in two months, but ended up losing to Jimmy Carter by a single point. After that, I worked as a speech writer for Illinois Governor Jim Thompson. Then I got tired of needing a new job every 18 months and joined IBM. Getting married also may have had something to do with it.
How do you explain what you do to non-IBM’rs, family or those that don’t work with you.?
It’s not easy given that most people don’t know who the IT analysts are, or what they do. Often I start out by asking, have you ever heard of a company called Gartner Group, or Forrester, or IDC? A few people have, and that makes it easier. I’m going to my 40th high school reunion this weekend, so that will be an interesting test of my ability to articulate it succinctly. Ironically, the reunion is being held less than a mile from Gartner’s headquarters, but I doubt that will increase the level of awareness about IT analysts among my classmates. We’ll see. Anyway, with family and friends I generally tell them that in the computer business there are all these research firms who write about the industry and provide advice to customers about what to buy, at the same time they also provide advice to the computer vendors about how to sell. (Listeners often see that as having, shall we say, inherent ethical challenges. But I assure them those challenges are completely manageable.) And then I say that it’s our job in Analyst Relations to make sure these research firms understand IBM’s products and strategies, and become convinced that IBM is doing the right things for customers. It’s also our job to listen to what the analysts are saying about us, and to make sure IBM harnesses the wisdom in those assessments.
What are good things about your job?
It gives you a lot of opportunity to be creative. Sometimes I tell people it’s like being an attorney in a courtroom with no judge and no rules of evidence, but just a jury….a professional jury that has heard case after case, and they’ve heard it ALL. And it’s our job to bring before that jury whatever facts or logic we can muster to make the case. Because IBM’s success in the marketplace depends on it. When you think about it that way, it’s a lot more exciting and challenging than most other jobs. Just don’t expect a TV show about analyst relations to replace Law & Order.
What are things you would change?
Honestly? I’d give me the same responsibilities, but more power and money to do the job. Most of our AR resources are dependent on unit budgets, and corporate spending targets. If it were only my call, there are people I’d move from here to there (probably China, India and Japan), and units that would spend more or spend less on Analyst Relations than they do. Generally, I see a dollar spent on AR as being more effective in driving business results for IBM than dollars spend in some other areas, such as mass media advertising. But IBM is a matrix, and I have to work within that matrix politically. No surprise there.
You manage one of the most (if not the most) effective analyst groups in the industry. Can you talk about why that is and how it came about (without giving away secrets)?
No flattering the boss, okay? If IBM has an effective AR program, it’s because: 1) a quarter century ago a guy named Sam Albert recognized that we needed to engage analysts as part of our selling process, and 2) certain senior executives (e.g. Steve Mills and others) were hip early on to the impact that analysts were having and the importance of managing our relationship with them in a dedicated, formal way, and investing sufficient resources to do that properly. I’m just the guy who’s been brought in to drive the truck over the last few years.
You deal with some of the most powerful executives in the industry. How has that changed the way you work?
Well, I worked with some fairly influential people in Washington before IBM. One time, during the Watergate hearings, Sen. Howard Baker leaned over and asked me if I had any questions for the witness. But I was just sitting in for Weicker at the last minute, had no idea who the witness even was, and declined. Wish I had a photo of that now, though. Compared to politicians, information technology executives are generally less egotistical and easier to serve and support. But they are also less used to being knocked around than politicians are. That makes some industry executives wary about going toe-to-toe with analysts. So the key variable in AR for our executives is not how they deal with us, their staff, but whether they are “fully there” when they engage the analysts. They should engage the analysts with respect on a level playing field, because there is gain to be had in both directions. Vendors executives can learn a lot , from analysts at the same time they seek to influence their views and sell “their story.” So it’s worth doing, and doing well, despite that fact that analyst criticisms are never easy to hear. The best IBM executives at all levels instinctively work to cultivate relationships with this key influencer community.
What do you think your legacy will be given all that has been accomplished at IBM Analyst Relations?
I expect the next person in this job will do it better than I have, and I will be disappointed and amazed if that doesn’t happen. This a march, and we learn something new every day.
What is your vision of the future for Analyst Relations.
What is your vision of the future for Analyst Relations.
My vision is that we will help IT analysts to increasingly focus on business issues (not just technology), that we will improve IBM’s ability to leverage their output to drive business results, especially in emerging markets, and that we become change agents and allies with them on societal and governmental issues where we have a common view, on behalf of the industry we both serve. And get home by 6 o’clock.