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Al Zollar: Integrity from the top

Lotus GM Al Zollar has weathered parent IBM's changes like a true company man, but is still driven to make Lotus known for more than just Notes. He tells searchDomino what makes him proudest after nearly two years on the job.

Ask Al Zollar what piece of memorabilia he's most proud of, and he doesn't bat an eye. Instead, the Lotus general manager leans forward in his chair, smiles and motions toward the photo hanging behind the conference table in his office. "No doubt about it, this is it," he says.

Al Zollar, Lotus general manager

Zollar is pointing to a picture of a man clad in a bulky red ski jacket, surrounded by huskies and a lot of snow. The significance: Last year, Lotus tools enabled kids in classrooms across North America to communicate with this team of explorers during their icy mission thousands of miles away. "That was something special," Zollar says, as the grin on his face widens.

Zollar's been in this fifth floor office at Lotus looking down on Cambridge, Mass., for nearly two years now, although he's on the road pressing the customer flesh at least once each week. Success hasn't gone to Zollar's wardrobe. You won't find him in a Brooks Brothers suit or a natty trench coat. Today, Zollar wears a purple mock turtleneck and black chinos, his shiny leather jacket balancing on a hook behind the office door. Looking at him, you'd be hard pressed to guess that 24 years have passed since Zollar first toiled away as an IBM systems engineer trainee.

"Some describe their leadership as being analogous to a quarterback," Zollar says. "I describe mine like a point guard on a basketball team. Distribute the ball to make sure the team scores and wins."

Zollar is nothing if not a team player. He shrugs off accusations that IBM is swallowing up Lotus as "overstated" and calls his recent title change from Lotus CEO to general manager of the Lotus Software division "just an internal designation."

To underscore his loyalty even further, Zollar names IBM CEO Lou Gerstner as among the executives he most admires. Coming from someone else that may sound like the type of empty flattery that an executive hope would get him promoted. But from Al Zollar, it seems sincere. "We're moving forward as an integrated brand within IBM," he says.

This is a guy who clearly has the company logo stitched into every shirt he owns. And, why shouldn't he? IBM has been good to Zollar. In a career spanning four decades, Zollar has held more titles than your neighborhood Barnes and Noble. "General manager of IBM eNetwork software" and "senior vice president of development for IBM's Tivoli Systems unit" are among the more prestigious.

Despite earning a master's degree in applied mathematics and having logged countless hours in IBM's software development labs, Zollar shrugs off notions that he's any "geekier" than his counterparts. "I enjoy technology for its sake and also for the value and the opportunities it can create for improving lives within a company," he says. "That's the real turn on in this business for me."

It's one of the few things Zollar says that sounds as if he's said it before. Otherwise, more can be learned from the questions the humble Zollar won't answer than the ones he will.

Ask Zollar what would surprise his customers most about him, and he's stumped. He looks down, pauses, ponders. "I actually don't think I'm all that surprising," he says and then, when pressed, spits out a sentence about his "tough, humble upbringing in Kansas City, Mo."

Ask Zollar to grade his first two years on the job, and he declines: "I'll let others do that," he says.

What he would offer up are the accomplishments of his company that make him most proud. Zollar points to the improvements Lotus has made in servicing its customers and restructuring its own internal organization.

Since coming on board in February 2000, Zollar has globalized Lotus' customer support system and standardized its offerings worldwide to deliver more consistent service levels regardless of a customer's physical location. "We all know that software breaks occasionally," Zollar says. "When it does break, we want to turn it around in a strong way. We have benchmarked the best in the industry and have set our goals to meet that standard."

As for the future, Zollar wants the business world to hear the name Lotus and think of more than merely Notes. It's about "communicating, collaborating and e-learning," he says. And, as much as he realizes that change is inherent to the technology business, he thinks leadership needs to keep a steady hand.

"I think it's important to get a team focused on a direction, a vision and get them excited about it. And so, that's what I spend my time doing. The other thing I focus on is the integrity associated with my leadership. That's important to stay focused on." This is part one of a two-part series of interviews with Lotus General Manager Al Zollar.


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