IBM just bought his company for $34 billion. But he says its unique work culture won’t change

Posted at 8:17 AM, Nov 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-29 10:17:31-05

Jim Whitehurst has been CEO of the open source software company Red Hat for the past decade.

But soon he will have a new direct boss — Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM (IBM), which just bought Red Hat for $34 billion, the largest software deal in history.

Whitehurst said that he’s not worried about the prospect of having a boss again. In fact, he’s looking forward to it. “I think I can learn a lot from Ginni … Not being No. 1 and getting to spend more time with your employees and clients and partners … I’m really excited.”

Red Hat (RHT) helps companies build applications, systems and services on the Internet (i.e., in the cloud). Combined with IBM’s cloud hardware and services, the goal of IBM’s acquisition is to become the biggest player in “hybrid” cloud computing, which lets companies work more easily across public and private platforms.

Both Whitehurst and Rometty have said Red Hat will operate as a “distinct unit” under IBM. And Whitehurst is confident his company will retain its unique work culture.

That culture is something Whitehurst wrote about in his book The Open Organization. Its principles: transparency, participation, collaboration and community. In an open organization, the CEO and other top managers are not in charge the way they would be in a top-down organization.

Whitehurst has worked at such organizations in the past — he used to be the chief operating officer for Delta Airlines for instance. But today he sees his leadership role as more coach than commander. “My job is less to drive strategy and instruct than it is to influence.”

CNN asked Whitehurst about his leadership style, the best advice he ever got and how much downtime he has, among other things.

Here’s a condensed, edited version of that conversation.

You’ve said, “The worst way to lead is to have people follow you because they have to.” What do you do to ensure Red Hat employees follow you because they want to?

How do you get authority? By building credibility. It’s not conferred. It’s earned. There are a bunch of ways to do it. Steve Jobs was highly credible because he was a visionary. You can work harder than everyone else. You can do it through connection or empathy.

I’m an empathetic person. I’m very open and engageable. Also, I have geek cred — I was using Linux [the open source operating system] before Red Hat ever called me. And the company has performed well.

What’s the hardest piece of criticism you’ve ever received?

When you get a culture working well, negative feedback is a day-to-day thing and it’s not like a big fail.

But I hate when I spend quality time thinking about how I want to express a message to have impact and it lands with a thud. Someone might say, “I didn’t like your intonation. I didn’t get the message. I sort of get what you’re saying, but I don’t think most people did.” It’s a lost opportunity.

What is the most helpful advice you ever got?

When you go into conversations with anybody, but particularly with those who work for you, you’ve got to give the best facts you can. It’s not only about being accurate and forthcoming. It’s about communicating the full context of what you’re saying and what you want to accomplish.

What do you know today that you wish you knew in your 20s?

Very simply that being effective in life is much more about influence and the connections you make with others than it is about being right and being smart. Being effective is what’s ultimately going to make you succeed.

Part of being effective is building up a reservoir of good will over time. You build it by being selfless, doing good work, working hard. In our society we’ve reduced interactions to quid pro quo — if you do this then I’ll do that. You learn over time in open source, doing things because they’re the right thing to do comes back to help you multiple times.

How many hours of sleep do you get?

On average 7.5 hours. I need sleep. I don’t perform as well without it.

How much vacation do you take every year?

I take five weeks. Two at Christmas, one in the spring and one in summer. Then there are a smattering of days throughout the year. Honestly, though, it’s not enough. I work a gazillion hours. An additional week off would probably be helpful. The week after I come back from vacation I am so much more productive.