A man of many roles

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2007, 12:00am

Prevailing wisdom in the IT sector says that to reach the top you have to switch jobs every couple of years and, in that respect, Dominic Tong fits the mould perfectly.

What makes the general manager of IBM China/Hong Kong different is that the 13 distinct roles he has played in the course of a 25-year career, in everything from sales and brand management to systems engineering, R&D and finance, have all been with the same organisation.

Becoming, in a sense, the archetypal company man was never a conscious plan. However, Mr Tong has realised many times over the years that being part of a world-leading organisation in a fast-moving industry offered a unique set of challenges and advantages that he would struggle to find anywhere else.

'When I joined IBM, I didn't think about career goals,' he said. 'But I did realise that to start out right is the most important thing.' For this reason, he saw the company's well-structured training programme as a major attraction and, on graduating from the University of Hong Kong with a degree in mathematics and statistics, was quick to sign on as a trainee systems engineer.

The first year included residential courses and diverse on-the-job experience, which clearly left a mark.

'That training really impressed me,' Mr Tong said. 'It cost the company a huge amount of money, so it was only right that they would expect me to contribute and that I should give something back.'

In learning the business, he had spells as a dealer representative and product manager before transferring to Toronto for three years in 1987 to work in the IBM laboratory as the AS/400 languages and utilities product planner.

'Each time I moved to a new department there was no need to adapt to a new culture or company system,' Mr Tong said. 'I could focus all my energy on the job and be productive in the quickest possible time.' On returning to Hong Kong, he handled a succession of roles in marketing brand management and networking, and these equipped him to play a full part in the ongoing corporate transformation. During the 1990s, the company went from being essentially a supplier of hardware to focusing on the entire arena of e-business, the internet and software solutions. The journey was not entirely smooth, but it gave people with technical skills, vision and ideas a chance to shine.

'We believe innovation is the key driver for business growth,' Mr Tong said. 'In our terminology, that means integrating inventions with business insights and making sure that every chief executive and CIO understands that IT is no longer in a supporting role in any business.'

The first step in providing an 'end-to-end' solution was to determine the right direction and strategy for each customer. Everything else - putting the systems together, giving advice and setting up support - followed on from that.

Mr Tong emphasised that being innovative also depended on having well understood rules, processes and corporate structures. Without them it would be far more difficult to bring all the good ideas together and execute them effectively. 'There is no conflict between innovation and a well-structured business plan. People may complain that having processes to follow takes time and makes you unproductive, but imagine a global company without them.'

Since assuming his current role early last year, Mr Tong has made a point of driving change. This has entailed making senior executives aware that having the right IT systems can create business and it has meant responding to new expectations in the workplace.

'I use every occasion and every channel to communicate with employees,' he said. 'But my fundamental philosophy is to work with consistency and focus on the overall interests of the company, not just those of the job I am in.' One thing, though, can still surprise him - the mentality and outlook of some members of the younger generation.

'When I interview young graduates they talk about three years as a long-term commitment to the company. We all know three years isn't a long-term commitment.'

This article is adapted from a speech delivered by Dominic Tong in a recent CUHK EMBA Forum. The EMBA Forum is conducted regularly to provide a valuable opportunity for EMBA participants and alumni to interact with key leaders



Personal file

I recommend reading Monday Morning Leadership by David Cottrell, Alice Adams and Juli Baldwin. It is just a thin book, but covers some of the fundamentals of management. I think it would be good revision for all managers to read it once a year

One of my favourite songs is Stand by Me. It is a reminder that there will be good and bad times, and that you can't get through on your own. The most important thing is to have friends, family and colleagues alongside you to provide mutual support

I enjoy movies like The Sting and TV shows like Heroes, which has a lot of creative scientific ideas. I'm a very analytical person and like figuring out how the plot works or what the next trick will be