Helen Chou, Product Manager on the Watson Internet of Things platform, talks about the General Management Leadership Development Program at IBM
Helen graduated from Wharton in 2014. After business school, she joined IBM’s leadership development rotational program and has been with IBM for three years now. She is currently a Product Manager on the IBM Watson Internet of Things platform. Prior to her MBA, Helen was a Business Development Manager at ASUS in Southeast Asia, traveling across Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.
In this discussion, we did not record a podcast like we generally do. Helen was gracious enough to send her responses in writing to our questions on what a leadership program is like. Read on!
1. What is the General Management Leadership Development Program at IBM?
The GMLDP is a program at IBM that recruits from top MBA programs and provides an accelerated path to General Management positions. This program allows the members to rotate across different business units and functions to develop deep understanding of the IBM business and organizations. It offers exclusive networking experiences as well as mentoring and coaching opportunities with senior executives at IBM.
2. Why did you decide to join a leadership rotation program?
I joined GMLDP after graduating from Wharton. IBM GMLDP was one of the few (if not only) MBA leadership programs that allows candidates to rotate across functions and business units with great flexibility. A couple of interesting technologies, including Cloud, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, were emerging, and I wanted to know how IBM manages and monetizes these technologies. IBM seemed to be a no brainer for me because it has all these technologies as their key growth initiatives.
3. What are the pros and cons of joining a rotation program vs taking a particular job?
The biggest advantage of a rotation program is that we can have experiences and networking opportunities across multiple functions and business units. Not only do you get to explore and find your best match, but you also build a corporate-wide network through the program alumni network. As we progress in our career, I felt it was important to have a deep understanding of how various business units worked together, so that one can influence organizations more effectively.
The tradeoff is the depth of expertise. The depth of experience one can build in a year would be much less compared to someone who spends years of dedicated effort. In the end, you will still have to decide which role you want to graduate from and develop in-depth expertise in.
Overall, I would say a rotation program is a good idea because it helps build a wide network and broad knowledge about an organization early in your career.
4. What roles have you experienced so far?
I have now worked in consulting, product strategy in Cloud, and product management for the Watson Internet of Things Platform.
5. Which one do you like the most so far and why?
I enjoyed all these roles, and each role brings me closer to my discovery for my passion. My consulting experience helped me identify that I wanted to be on the product side. My Cloud product strategy experience helped me find my passion in product management. I am currently a product manager and enjoy every minute of my work.
6. What’s a typical day like?
It depends on the roles. As a product manager, I get up at 4:30AM to run conference calls with India and UK (sometimes Sweden and Toronto). Starting from 9AM, I would catch up on emails and news. At 10AM, I would do market research and write user stories and requirements.
When I was in my first two rotations, I scheduled networking calls to explore new rotation opportunities.
7. What happens once the leadership program ends?
Ideally you should find the role that you really love and graduate from that role. The GMLDP gives us a lot of autonomy. As long as you find a good match with the hiring manager and the team, you can join the team.
8. What advice would you share those considering doing a rotation program?
A Leadership Development Program offers a precious period of time when you can explore. Make sure that you fully explore those opportunities, find your passion and invest time and effort to develop expertise. Once you graduate from the program, it will be much harder to switch from one role to another.
9. What criteria can one use to decide whether to go in for a leadership development program or not?
If you are passionate about building a long-term career in a company, a leadership development program would be great for the reasons I have mentioned above.
For those who are ready to commit to a certain role, they might want to start building expertise without rotating to other business units.
10. What 5 qualities or skills would you find in someone, who would enjoy being in a leadership rotation program?
Willingness to take ownership: As a member in the leadership development program, you are often working in projects with multiple business units. You should be willing to take ownership and leverage your network that you have developed from the leadership program to efficiently facilitate the project and contribute to the organization.
Proactive: You own your career. So make sure you are proactive to take action to plan your rotation progress.
Quick to adapt: You will spend 1 year (6 months in some programs) in each role. You have to be quick to adapt to efficiently learn and contribute to the role.
Curious: Always be curious. The leadership development program offers a precious opportunity for you to explore. Don’t stop exploring!
Collaborative: I cannot emphasize this enough. It is important to be collaborative. The tech industry changes very fast, and it is hard for one person to see every angle and grasp all the information. A strong team can go a long way.
11. Having experienced it, what do you think is a common misconception about leadership rotation programs?
Some might think a leadership rotation program is where you find your passion. I would say you need to have a clear goal when joining such program. It is easy to get lost in the wide variety of choice, but if you come with a clear idea and career goal, the rotation program will offer you a great network to help you achieve that goal.
12. What common mistakes do you find people making during a leadership rotation program?
Nothing comes to mind as such. Most people I’ve met are very proactive and strategic about achieving their goals.
13. Which companies are known for their leadership rotation programs?
Most major tech companies have prestigious leadership programs. They offer great resources for MBA grads to navigate and thrive in their massive organizations.
13. Are these programs available to MBA students only? Can lateral candidates apply? And what about other backgrounds? (or to put it differently, what’s a typical background for this job)
The typical background for these programs is MBA. These rotation programs are looking for generalists with strong business acumen, and therefore they mostly recruit from MBA programs. Non-MBAs can certainly apply but you should expect business case interviews in the recruiting process.
14. What does a company look for, when assessing whether a candidate is suited for the leadership program or not?
These programs are mostly looking for growth potential. The willingness to learn and strong track records of business success are important.
15. How can a candidate stand out?
Do a lot of research about your target companies. Identify growth areas and pain points for the company and be prepared to discuss your thoughts and solutions that demonstrate your understanding of the company and the macro-industry.
16. Any resources you would like to recommend?
Interview Prep - Interviews are similar to consulting case interviews, so do case prep but customize your prep to the company you are recruiting for. Research the company’s pain points. Some resources I used:
1) 10K (annual report)
2) 10Q (quarterly report, 10Q presentation: pay attention to declining or fast growth)
3) Competitors' annual reports
4) Related News (I just Googled latest news over the last few weeks)
5) Industry Reports from available databases such as Capital IQ if you have access to it
If you have any feedback to share, or if you have any questions for Helen, drop us an email at or tweet at us @LED_Curator