Lou Gerstner, the guy who saved IBM in the mid-1990s, likes to tell the story that back in 1993, very few people would correctly answer the question: What is the biggest software company in the world? Nearly all said Microsoft, but the correct answer was IBM.

Why the misperception? It was due to the fact that IBM never thought of itself as a software company and did not even have a unified software strategy. Software to IBM was simply one part of a hardware-based offering. Since every computer needs an operating system, and most need databases, and transactional processing capability, IBM had built many of these software assets but never viewed them as a unique business. Rather, they were buried inside IBM hardware or sold as an add-on feature.

Gerstner soon realized that his key job was to get IBM employees, and then customers, to think differently about the company: he preached that IBM needs to be a company that solves the customer’s business problems by selling services, software, and hardware.

The same kind of misperception takes place in regard to people. When Alan Mulally became the CEO of Ford in 2006, there was a lot of press focused on the fact that he was an airplane guy, not a car guy. Luckily for Ford, that is not how Mulally thought about himself. I am sure his self-perception was one of an engineering guy with lots of business battle scars who was basically a problem-solver.

So, what should all of this mean to each of us? Here are a couple of points to think about:

  1. How you think about yourself matters. If Mulally had thought of himself exclusively as an airplane engineer, he probably would never have gotten to the high levels of contribution and responsibility he achieved at Boeing, and he certainly would not have imagined himself joining a car company.
  2. It is OK to change over time. When I finished my Ph.D. in computer science, everyone was shocked I didn’t go into academia. In fact, my academic friends thought I was wasting my education when I went into industry. They wanted to force on me their thinking that Ph.D.s become academics, but I wanted to practice computer science, not just talk about it.

After two years in R&D at Procter & Gamble, the company started asked me to take on more and more business-oriented roles, which I did. Before long, I was the senior VP in charge of marketing, information technology, and market research globally. By then, I realized I was basically a business person with lots of quantitative skills and business experience. That is probably why Bill Gates called and asked me to take on the COO role at Microsoft, which I accepted.

Next, think about the issue of who you think you are and whether it is holding you back. There is nothing wrong with being satisfied currently, but it is also OK to realize you may be evolving, and you don’t need to let an old perception hold you back.

Bob Herbold is the former chief operating officer of Microsoft Corporation and author of the recently released book “What’s Holding You Back? Ten Bold Steps that Define Gutsy Leaders.” His blog on leadership can be found at BobHerbold.com.

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