P-TECH intern: My interview with IBM executive Maria Winans

Maria Winans headshot

“I’m a huge believer in calculated risk-taking – taking smart chances, looking at the data, and making a decision. I think it’s also important as leaders to make a decision and not flee from it.” – Maria Winans, CMO, IBM Commerce and Social

Chigozie Okorie, P-TECH student and intern at the IBM Center for Applied Insights, is conducting a series of executive interviews exploring topics such as the skills necessary for business today and how to prepare students for a very dynamic future.


A huge part of growing is calculating risks and making decisions. It is true in business; taking calculated risks is vital to a company’s success. Big or small, startup or a 104-year-old global business, companies that take risks continue to innovate, grow their business and better the world.  And for personal growth, risk-taking is also beneficial. I’m a strong believer in leaving your comfort zone to follow your dreams and perhaps achieve more than what you first imagined. This is one reason why my conversation with Maria hit close to home for me; I could relate to her sentiments. Who better to learn from than the CMO of IBM Commerce and Social. One key trait she mentioned is being passionate about your job so that you can unlock innovation. The conversation was inspiring and made me realize what it takes to be an incredible thought leader.

I’d like to start by asking you to describe your role at IBM in five words.

Creating compelling, personalized experiences for clients.

So can you tell me about yourself?

I was born in Chile, came to the United States as a child. I grew up in North Carolina and went to school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

I joined IBM straight out of college and basically built my career within the IBM Company. I’ve been with IBM for 25 years, and I’ve always been challenged by different roles and taken different opportunities. I speak Spanish and early in my career, one of the things that fueled me forward within IBM was the opportunity to leverage a second language by taking an international assignment Latin America.

I think about myself as a career business woman, and as a mother. I have two children. And one of my big passions outside of work is fitness; I’ve been teaching fitness classes for 26 years.

One of my strongest beliefs, and I always say this to people I mentor or members of my teams, is in the principle of what I call, “the power of ‘and.’” What that means is your ability to really prioritize in your life the things that are important to you.

So I think as myself as a mother and a businesswoman with a career in the IBM Company. And I’m an artist. I love art. I love fitness. I’m a Latin and an American.

So what were some of the biggest influences that led you down this current career path?

I love new challenges – whether it’s a new business unit, a new team or a new strategy. I’ve always strived to look for those kinds of opportunities – new problems that need to be solved, new businesses that needed to be built, and creating new ways of doing things.

It’s those opportunities to pave new paths that really have kept me at IBM.

I feel like my job has always been a new endeavor. And as we’re thinking about shifts in the way that software is being sourced, the cloud, SaaS, practitioners that are looking for setting up business models and customer analytics dashboards, this is all new opportunity.

What is your passion and how did that passion get you to where you are today?

I’ve said to myself and to the people I mentor, “Don’t let your job define you.” What is it that you’re passionate about? Go get it. I think that if you do something you’re passionate about, success will come. Rather than worrying about what position is going to get you to that next level, do something that you feel strongly about. Put the passion into it, and it won’t feel like you’re working.

Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s important to always have a career plan. Very early in my career, I said, “You know, by the time I’m 40, I want to be a vice president in this company. And I know that I can do that.”

I didn’t have an exact road-map, but I set a very aspirational goal. I didn’t let that distract me; I let that fuel me. And what I mean by that is, I felt that if I put passion into what I did, and the output of that passion showed in the results, then the promotions, the bigger roles, the executive positions would come.

What is one skill set that has proved surprisingly useful so far?

I can think of two. First, being creative and innovating. A company like IBM is all about innovation. As a marketer, creativity – innovation, new ideas, thinking outside the box – is one of the leading skills I try to instill in my team.

And then the other one that’s also very important, especially for leaders, is listening skills. As leaders, sometimes we’re very quick to just go to the answer, to make decisions very quickly because we’re expected to lead. But we have to listen, take input and then be quick to make decisions once you’ve listened to the teams. The art of listening is a critical skill.

I see you often talk about the value of risk-taking. How have you personally put that into practice as a professional?

My biggest fear is not risk; it’s regret.

When you step outside of the comfort zone, that’s when you really grow.  Standing still and staying with business-as-usual is never going to drive growth, whether it’s in you as a person or as a business.

So I’m a huge believer in calculated risk-taking, taking smart chances, looking at the data, and making a decision. I think it’s also important as leaders to make a decision and not flee from it. You move and  give your teams the opportunity to learn, fail quickly and move forward.

So often people think of data as just numbers. And I used to be guilty of that as well. Then I heard you speak of the human side of data. What do you mean by that?

It’s about what you derive from the data. Data used to just be about the numbers, the zeros, the ones, but now, data is really about the decisions people are making.

If I’m a marketer for a store and I’m trying to provide the best set of campaigns and experiences for our clients, I want to understand the customer, that particular individual, holistically.

That may mean I know something about them because they’ve transacted with us before, and I know what they purchased. What if that individual, instead of coming to our website, goes into our store? What if I could further understand when that individual is in a certain location and they’re sharing information on Facebook with their friends? They take a picture of a hat they really love and post it on Facebook, telling their friends all about it. Now wouldn’t it be opportunistic for me, based on that information, at that moment in time, to reach the customer with a compelling offer that says, “By the way, that hat that you just tried on at my store, it’s on sale for 20% off.”

Or, I know based on our data that you’re a loyal customer, so I’m going to give you an extra 20% off. Data is becoming not only a competitive advantage but also an opportunity to provide these personalized, individual experiences to a client or an employee. That’s what data has the power to do, to really personalize and to create value for individuals at a scale like we’ve never done before.

That is the human side of data.


 About Maria Winans

Maria Winans is responsible for defining and executing the marketing strategy to deliver higher value solutions to clients. As the CMO for the IBM Commerce Business Unit, she embraces her leadership role to make IBM the go-to brand for clients focused on C2B (customer-to-business) and Cognitive Commerce – understanding and acting on customer signals, building relationships, and turning customers into brand advocates through personalized, relevant, deeper human engagement.

Maria manages a worldwide team that is also responsible for bringing together the unique value of the Social portfolio to address IBM clients’ desires to optimize workforce productivity, and cultivate collaboration.

About the IBM Center for Applied Insights

The IBM Center for Applied Insights introduces new ways of thinking, working and leading. Through evidence-based research, the Center arms leaders with pragmatic guidance and the case for change.


2 responses to P-TECH intern: My interview with IBM executive Maria Winans

  1. Eileen Li says:

    Great interview! A really good reminder to ground ourselves and even ask ourselves why we’re here to being with.


  2. Doris Gonzalez says:

    Great insights, as always, Maria! And what a great interviewer, too! Proud of our P-TECH interns!


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