Kate Woolley was a veteran Bain & Company partner when IBM chairman and CEO Arvind Krishna recruited her to become his chief of staff in 2020. Since that time, she has played an instrumental supporting role for the CEO, helping amplify his strategic priorities throughout the company. In January, Woolley stepped into a new role—both for her and for the company—as IBM Ecosystem General Manager.
In this Q&A series, she talks about her priorities and her big plans for growing the IBM Ecosystem.
“I think of partner ecosystems as one of the most powerful forces in technology. That’s where companies come together to solve the toughest business problems.”
After two years as CEO Arvind Krishna’s chief of staff, what prompted you to take the IBM Ecosystem leadership role?
When I look at the future of IBM that Arvind has defined and that we’re executing towards, there are three big priorities – Hybrid Cloud and AI, Innovation and technical expertise, and the ecosystem. In looking at these priorities and where I wanted to go next, I saw the IBM Ecosystem as a pretty exciting place to be. In addition to that, I think of partner ecosystems as one of the most powerful forces in technology. That’s where companies come together to solve the toughest business problems. At the same time, managing a partner ecosystem poses a very specific challenge.
Often, you’re looking for ways to get companies that are accustomed to competing with one another in certain areas to work together when their interests align. IBM’s ecosystem was an obvious choice for me when I considered how I could have the greatest impact on the company’s future.
“It’s important to remember that our partners do have a choice, and it’s my job to make that choice IBM.”
Why was the role of general manager of the IBM Ecosystem created? What are your primary responsibilities as GM?
The idea was to bring all the pieces of the IBM Ecosystem together within the sales organization and consolidate it under one leader. As a result, I manage our channel business, where we’re selling with help from tens of thousands of business partners. I also oversee strategic partnerships including hyperscalers, infrastructure partners, and global consulting firms and systems integrators. These relationships are incredibly important because they have significant mindshare and relevance for digital transformation for every enterprise client.
I also have our ISV and technology partnerships, where the biggest challenge is determining how we embed and scale with our ISV and other large technology partners. Developer advocacy also falls under my purview, which means I’m tasked with figuring out how we engage with developers to increase the skills and adoption of hybrid cloud and AI for IBM. Underlying all of that, I’m also responsible for our PartnerWorld digital domain and the user experience our partners have when accessing it.
How has IBM consolidated its ecosystem within the company, and how is it better positioned now to play a critical role in IBM’s future?
Just as we need to meet our clients where they’re at, we also have to meet our partners—and our partners’ clients—where they’re at. We see three primary ways our partners interact with IBM. There’s the sales aspect, where our partners are selling our technology. There’s the build aspect, where our partners are building on or with IBM technology. And there’s the service aspect, where our partners are building services around our products.
Our partners don’t need to fit into only one of those categories. As a matter of fact, they often don’t fit into just one category. That’s a sign of how the technology landscape is changing. You can’t simply say a company is, for example, a resell partner if they’ve also got a managed services business and embed our technology into their own solutions. In such a case, they’re actually interacting with us in all three ways. We need to have our ecosystem in place to bring those types of complex interactions to life for our partners. That’s the value of having a consolidated ecosystem within IBM.
How has the divestiture of IBM’s managed infrastructure services business, which became Kyndryl, impacted IBM’s Ecosystem business?
With the IBM Ecosystem being front-and-center, I think the spinout of Kyndryl was exactly the right move for IBM to make. When that managed services business was part of IBM, there was always a little bit of friction or question mark, as to whether we were competing with some of our partners who also offered managed services. By removing that aspect of IBM’s business, we also removed the question mark and demonstrated just how serious we are about working with all our ecosystem partners.
“We’ve doubled the amount of brand specialized resources that support our business partners and we increased the technical resources supporting our partners by 35%.”
How is IBM cultivating new partnerships, and strengthening existing partnerships, particularly in managed IT services?
To grow our business, we need to become absolutely essential to our existing partners and to identify new partners whose offerings complement our own. To do the latter, we’ve dedicated resources in our markets focused on recruiting new partners. We’ve also made changes to our go-to-market model, which we rolled out in January to support existing partners and grow new partnerships.
With the new model, we’ve doubled the amount of brand specialized resources that support our business partners, and we increased the technical resources supporting our partners by 35 percent. We have technical experts who work side-by-side with our partners, and we have our ecosystem technical specialists who can come in and develop a proof of concept that helps our partners demonstrate to their clients what a technical solution would actually look like.
It comes back to a point we discussed earlier, about the IBM Ecosystem team being part of our larger sales organization. As a result, what we’re doing within our direct sales organization, we’re also doing within our ecosystem team.