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IBM Inspiring Exec Nicoline Talks About Why She Came Back to IBM

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(8 min read)

The Inspirational Executive Series consists of interviews with our executive IBMers to demonstrate how you can successfully build an executive career in this increasingly demanding market. Juggling work, life, and family commitments is a daunting challenge, but this series reveals how, with careful time management, flexible leadership, and a willingness to embrace the challenge, IBM can support successful executives to succeed in every aspect of their careers.

On this issue of The Inspirational Executive Series, we are featuring Nicoline Braat, an executive partner for IBM iX based in The Netherlands.

Can you describe your role at IBM?

I am an Executive Partner working on a global energy & petrochemicals account, and responsible for our Digital Strategy & iX work for this client globally. I currently manage the client relationship for this account focusing my discussions on customer centricity, major strategic digital plays and employee productivity. I am essentially responsible for enabling the client and employee interactions and ensuring that they are supported by digital solutions.

In my role, I focus on three main areas: Customer experience & engagement; Managing the Salesforce alliance, ensuring we get the best out of that relationship; and Mobile strategy & implementation.  I am essentially managing the relationship with the client, for without this relationship the strategy cannot be implemented and driven forwards. Digital transformation is a business discussion as much as it is about being able to deliver and execute, so building relationships on the business side as well as the technology side is imperative.

You recently re-joined IBM having worked for a competitor for 12 months. What brought you back to IBM?

I left IBM for 12 months, accepting an opportunity with another organization. Having been with IBM from the start of my career, I had wondered if the grass is greener outside, so I accepted an exciting position with a competitor within the digital space. Essentially, this 12-month chapter solidified for me that IBM is the place for me. It gave me the opportunity to appreciate the scale, size, and power that IBM has. I learned that IBM is a candy store of technology – not in a proof of concept, but on a global scale.

Spending a year outside made me realise that IBM was the place for me. I did great things on my year away, but not on the same scale that IBM offers, as they were much smaller projects. IBM gives you the opportunity to make an impact in the industry on a truly global scale. Working with my client over the past couple of years has been really exciting—understanding how you bring those large organisations into the digital age and what digital transformation looks like to them. The breadth of tasks—from strategic, high level plans to architectural designs to data mapping, etc.—that breadth and complexity is amazing and I have never found any other organization that has that type of scale and impact. That is why I came back. I left when Blockchain was a discussion and now it is a service line and I was only gone one year. When you are in IBM sometimes things feel slow, and when you are outside it you can see the massive power that it has.

What’s fascinating for me is how digitally enabled IBM is—the amount of apps that we have at our disposal and ability to do your job from your phone. This is something that I learned and appreciated more when they were not there.

Nicoline singing with her soul group called the “Ad Libs”

What skills and experience have you developed over your career to lead you to this position?

I joined IBM as an intern as part of Extreme Blue Programme, so I have been in IBM for years and there has always been this red thread around innovation and doing new things in technology which has kept me here. I enjoy the execution of complex plans in big plays on a large scale and at speed; this is something IBM is unrivalled at. So I have always performed roles which have had that innovation aspect to them.

I joined a project for a year with the Institute for Business Values (IBV). I learned so much in this year about the client relationship—how to make IBM dance, how to put together a good strategic storyline and how to use analytics to create that storyline. I learned how to run complex programmes and how the focus should shift more towards  bigger clients and bigger plays rather than smaller clients and piecemeal work.

My earlier experience working with another client, a big global transport and logistics company, really taught me how to run the client relationship well and how important it is to realise that you are in a partnership and alliance when you are working in a client. In the beginning, I would go into client meetings with a slide deck and presentation, now it is much more about going in to have a coffee and conversation around what the priorities are, asking the client what they need to be successful, and planning for that success together in 3 to 6 months, knowing what they look like and managing the relationship. Because really, it’s all about relationship.

I recently went to an “Empower” event in New York which was so inspiring. Christine Wyatt set up “Empower” to address the diversity issue amongst senior client partners. It is executive mentoring to promote outstanding women to elite roles in IBM. There were 40 of us in a room, all senior client-facing women sharing experiences about creative plays and creating win-win situations. It was really great to network and share those experiences. All these things have led me to where I am now.

What is your favourite thing about being an IBMer?

I have been painted blue from early on in my career and what I have enjoyed is the process of understanding that IBM is the place for me—being appreciated for thinking outside the box, and being embraced for the innovative ideas, no matter how abstract. I also love the international feel of IBM. Having grown up in international schooling and around different cultures, backgrounds and nationalities, this feels like it mirrors those early experiences.

Nicoline joins Skutje competitions. Skutsjes are large, traditional Frisian barge sailing boats popular in Northwestern Europe.

Outside of IBM, what are your hobbies, interests, and passions?

I have loads of hobbies but have two main passions: sailing and singing. I sail Skutsje in competitions. Skutsjes are large, traditional Fresian barge boats. I am part of a 15-strong crew, trying to get these big beasts as fast and elegantly as we can across the water. I spend my time relaxing with wind and water and pulling ropes, it feels freeing. My other passion is singing in a soul group called the “Ad Libs”. We often perform at open mic nights, and more intimate settings.

Both of these hobbies, although different, allow me to spend time not really thinking about what I am doing, which is the exact opposite of my work life.

Do you have any advice for those aspiring to an executive career?

I would always encourage people to think two roles ahead, or five years ahead. It’s about having a plan and a conversation about where you want to be and what that could look like.

It is also critical to have a partnership with people you are working for. When you do a job – clearly explain that when you take a role what you will do and what you want in return.

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