IBM’s Harriet Green talks marketing leadership and forging a new path

Written by: Rachel Gee
Published on: 13 Jun 2016

Harriet Article

Former Thomas Cook CEO Harriet Green is now at IBM, pushing its internet of things agenda and drawing on her background in marketing to lead the business through its next stage of growth

It is 7.30am, early for an interview, yet Harriet Green, vice-president and general manager of IBM’s internet of things, commerce and education business, is full of the energy she displayed on stage at the brand’s Amplify conference in Florida. From gushing over Gwyneth Paltrow’s health and wellbeing business Goop to asking the room’s opinion on her dress after an ironing malfunction ruined her alternative, she is full of enthusiasm.

However, it is clear that when it comes to business, Green is nothing but serious. She mentions an internal competition she took part in recently at IBM that involved different parts of the company coming up with new business ideas. “I’m so serious and still very new so I went to the head of finance and asked how much I had to spend. He said: ‘Harriet, it’s not real money, it’s just an exercise’,” she laughs.

Green comes to IBM with some pedigree in the business world. She joined technology business Arrow Electronics in 1994 and went on to hold a range of roles, including as head of worldwide marketing, before moving to electronic components distributor Premier Farnell as CEO.

In July 2012 she moved companies and industry, taking on the CEO job at Thomas Cook. The travel company was at the time in dire straits and heading towards bankruptcy. She brought it back from the brink, driving its market capitalisation to £2bn and earning herself the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award in 2014 as a result.

She surprised many by taking up her current role given that she moved from being in charge of a company where the buck stopped with her to leading a division. But IBM is a bigger global beast than Thomas Cook – with a market capitalisation of $145bn.


Harriet Green pictured with Sesame Street character Elmo. IBM’s education and internet of things division is collaborating with Sesame Workshop to develop preschool education solutions

Green gives away an inkling of the decision behind the move, saying that at Thomas Cook she was tasked with turning around a business, while at IBM she is charge of forging a new one. And she believes having experience across different company cycles is paramount.

“Whether it is a startup or a mature business, whether it is a business going through an amazing transformation or a difficult one, being able to lead a business through those times and make money is hugely important,” she explains.

How marketing has played a role

Throughout her career Green says she has made decisions based on her marketing experience. She works primarily with business-to-business (B2B) audiences at IBM, but other roles, including at Thomas Cook, have seen her work with consumers directly.

“The business-to-consumer (B2C) market has a very different approach to advertising and how you should engage directly with the consumer and with the business,” she comments. Green believes that a variety of experience is required across different sectors to produce a worthy CEO.

“At the core I am a marketer. I have run marketing in technology and logistics businesses,” says Green who believes that marketers have the capability of moving into general management due to their “creativity, flair and sense of vision.”

    “Being a marketer is about having the ability to not get carried away with yourself and things that don’t offer great returns – these also make great qualities in a general manager.”
    Harriet Green, SVP and GM of the internet of things, commerce and education, IBM

Green says that working with all members of a company and having an interest in them is vital to success.

“You have to really like people. It is very hard to run a business and to not like people or to care about their development and progression”, she explains. “You could have the best strategy in the world but if someone doesn’t know their part in it on Monday morning then it’s not going to work.”

At IBM, Green has done this by encouraging every person in the company to come up with an “amazing cognitive solution”. The aim of this was to find ideas that made IBM “more efficient, clients more differentiated and happy or for a solution that does something good in the world.”

The 10 best ideas have been introduced to the company, including an initiative to help people being bullied because of their sexuality.

Message to marketers

IBM believes artificial intelligence is the future of marketing, with Green saying it will allow marketers to channel their personalisation skills.

“Everything in marketing is more and more about real time personalisation,” she says. Green adds that brands should be focusing on cloud and making use of data. “I don’t think there is a company out there that cannot participate in the cognitive era.”

Whether a B2B or B2C brand, Green believes marketers have to understand who the decision maker is when targeting customers. This involves looking at people’s roles and deciding who the influencer, the client and the consumer are. She believes that emotions should be central to decision making and it should be about learning how to target this.

“Something I always ask is: How do they think? How do they feel? How do they do? And are we driving them towards these emotions?” she explains.

Green urges marketers to look at the “staggering” amount of data now on offer to ensure they are catering to customer’s personal needs. The impact of the data should be analysed and marketers should ask themselves: “Does it enhance our brand and our positioning? And for us, does it help people understand their part in the cognitive era? Digitisation is not an end point, it is a journey and the next phase is cognitive,” she says.

Most importantly, and what she believes is at the core of business success, is for marketers to understand their customer. “Wherever in marketing you play a part, if you do not know exactly who your client is, you will not be as successful.”