Sales Kickoff at Scale – IBM Fast Start

Picture this: It’s the morning your global sales kick-off begins. The Opening Ceremony for IBM Fast Start 2021 is about to start, so you and 18,000 IBMers go to the website to join.

 And the site is down. 

We invested 3+ months in this digital learning experience, and no one can access it.

Now what?

Someone throws out a good idea: let’s jump straight to our IBM Watson Media streaming platform, forgo the bells and whistles and provide a shortcut to the content and the phenomenal lineup of visionary internal and external speakers delivering our Trailblazers sessions.

It was probably one of the longest 20 minutes of our careers!

It felt like an emergency F1 pitstop under the rain.

Teamwork alone isn’t enough; maniacal skills and your crew’s relentless commitment is what can allow you to recover and win! 

At IBM, we like to do extraordinary things. Our Global Sales Kickoff, aka IBM Fast Start 2021, is like no other in the industry.


We invest so much in skill-building that we dedicate over three months to plan IBM Fast Start 2021, a truly immersive learning experience. We usually get together in person in each of the three geographies. However, due to the lingering pandemic, we had to pivot to an all-in digital experience for over 35,000 people across IBM and our valued partner ecosystem. We believe that learning is a year-long practice, and IBM Fast Start is the booster. Let me unveil our formula:

  1. It begins with a focus on preparation. Our “GetReady!” pre-work is self-paced education that enables everyone to be up-to-speed on our strategic offerings. Part of the pre-work includes an annual self-assessment of current knowledge and skills. 
  2. Our Opening Ceremony, called Trailblazers, provides a half-day Main Tent Ceremony with executive and external speakers, followed by a second half-day of brand-specific Mini Main Tents.
  3. Then, we spend two more half-days on our Managers in their leadership and coaching “boot camps.” 
  4. The sweat starts at the three-week-long boot camps (dedicated to each geo) with live speakers to activate learning, hands-on exercises, and peer learning and competition. Our boot camps include gamification, a digital Expo, mindfulness sessions, and fun experiences. 
  5. Finally, the On-the-Job component kicks in for year-long learning implementation, focusing on real client scenarios and teaming best practices.

We emphasize skills vitality, practicing, and show vs. tell. All participants have many opportunities to actively stretch their knowledge and learn from their peers, subject matter experts, and coaches.

No question: to deliver a highly interactive experience of this scale and complexity, it is critical to have the right tools, and luckily we do! We eat our food and drink our very own champagne!

For each of the five steps above, there is an abundance of supporting technology! To streamline the user experience and centralize access to each platform, we created a digital landing space. It was super cool and super slick, but most of all, it masked the “bridges” behind the scenes to make the experience simple and delightful. 



Vision, Interrupted

It still hurts to think of giving up so much of what we had designed to deliver, but you need to focus on the engine, not the paint job when you are in the pit. So we did — we concentrate on the content and what was essential to deliver. 

1. Pre-work: We deployed the GetReady! Learning roadmaps, aka self-paced pre-work, on our IBM Your Learning platform runs on our IBM Public Cloud — the most open and secure public cloud platform for business. We tailored 25 learning roadmaps to all the roles in our sales workforce.

2. Opening Sessions: We delivered all our largest Trailblazers and Mini Main Tents with IBM Watson Media streaming platform:

  • 28 Sessions, 70+ hours of content
  • 25,000+ daily participants from over 101 countries
  • 8,000+ live chat messages/poll interactions

“I dared to be different, I want to inspire others to do the same.” – SusieWolff

“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” – CareyLohrenz

“In extreme environments, you will vastly increase your odds of success if you add proper training and preparation.” – AlisonLevine

“You’ve got to be willing to fail and try again. The point isn’t to learn to fail, the point is to learn to bounce back.” – LewisPugh

“We need to set our goals audaciously high — just like trailblazers and pathfinders do. And, dare to push ourselves outside our comfort zone.” – SteveSmith

Lighting strikes twice

So far, I only mentioned one big catastrophe with the event. As if that weren’t enough, on day 2, right at 9:00 AM ET, when everyone was connecting to our re-routed Watson Media platform for the day’s main tents, we experienced a w3 intranet outage impacting login. It lasted 30 minutes and affected every single sign-on. 

Yes, outages happen and fault tolerance kicks in, but when thousands of people across the globe try to log in to the same place at the same time, it’s impossible to hide. As they say, “when it rains, it pours.” After such a rough start, trust me, you wonder, “aren’t we done paying our dues?”

Once again, we prevailed and managed to deliver an incredible experience. 

Then, we had to turn all of our energy and attention to delivering the first week-long boot camp, which was a mere ten days away. Boot camp was a far more complex and intensive experience than Trailblazer, so we had our work cut out for us. Fortunately, at that point, my team and I mastered the pivot mantra. 


From Zero to Bootcamp in 10 Days

Quite remarkably, we required a steady dose of mindfulness to stay sane during the 10+ sleepless nights that followed. Still, with the extraordinary skills and commitment, I’m fortunate to have on my extended team, we pulled it off!


In just ten days, my team designed and launched a new landing page for the learning experience, relaunched the digital Expo, retained our human learning elements, and created 900+ educational sessions for each of 3 different week-long intensive learning boot camps.


You can create the perfect plan, but you can’t predict the future. In the last month, I witnessed what can only be called an “intentional miracle”. I share our story hoping it inspires you to fight through whatever adversity you may be facing — and if you have SKO adventures to share, I look forward to hearing from you too!

I’d like to give a special shoutout and thanks to Gordon Fuller, Vice President and Chief Learning Officer at IBM, and his team, who stepped forward and went above and beyond to help us be successful.

Turning our attention to the significant pivot ahead

We now had to deliver our week-long boot camp experience in just ten days. Our approach was to divide and conquer. The content existed, but we no longer had a vehicle to deliver it.

Small squads focused on the elements we needed to build. A small team, led by a fearless leader, concentrated on recreating all 900 Sales sessions and duplicating them across our three geo-specific boot camps. Consistency, communication, and patience with each other were critical. 


Staying Connected with Slack

The need to communicate quickly to a large audience initially proved to be a challenge. We live in an era where emails are fading to quicker forms of communication, like texting and instant messaging. IBM adopted Slack a few years ago for internal communications, and we decided to capitalize on it to reach 18K people instantly. We used the bot feature to answer questions quickly and efficiently. We also created a dedicated News Slack channel and added the invited audience to it. Restricting posting ability for the News channel to event planners ensured that only the most paramount messaging would be posted (note: we did have other open Slack channels for questions and comments). Slack allowed us to keep our audience informed during the pivot.


(Containerized) Content is King

Beyond clear communications, the most important currency we have is our content.

It was crucial to find a way to deliver it to our audience of sellers and business partners.
In the face of massive changes at IBM, we developed a containerized learning approach. The idea (taken from open architecture) was to identify common elements across our roles and areas where skill needs were different.

This approach allowed us to re-use the same standard content across all functions and made our migration process just a little bit easier.


Coaching the Coaches

With our managers as the backbone of the organization, we knew the success of our newly announced sales structure was dependent upon their leadership and ability to embrace change. 

The Managers Bootcamp was designed to motivate, educate and activate managers to coach and lead their sellers to a successful 2021. Our sales kickoff themes were anchored on helping managers empower their teams to see change as an opportunity, instill a relentless drive to win, create safe environments to take risks, and accept setbacks as learning that propels us forward.

The priority was to create an intimate and interactive learning experience where managers were willing to be open and transparent about their challenges, opportunities, and best practices. 

The Managers Bootcamp consisted of instructor-led sessions, panel discussions, stories, polling, and active chats, which leveraged managers’ expertise at all levels. Our inspirational guest speaker, Alison Levine, encapsulated all of our themes with her riveting stories and lessons learned from summiting Mount Everest. A special ‘thank you to our awards host, Drew Tarvin, and DJs Terry Bird and Ashwin Balu for creating the fun atmosphere to close each event; and to those behind the scenes who solidified the smooth flow of the experience: Cam Scott and Shiretta Shaw.

Over 3K worldwide managers and leaders participate via live stream in the Managers Boot camp, with 50 SMEs, volunteer managers, and leaders sharing their field expertise to ground the content in reality. To close out the session, we honored 45 of our managers with Modern Manager Selling Traits across the Geos. All sessions were recorded and available for replay and reflection.

“Great job packaging this integrated learning in a creative way. Loved the reflection and sharing.” – Sales Manager


Experiential Learning

For our IBM sellers and technical sellers, our goal is to drive best practices through applied learning – delivering a demo, overcoming objections, or listening in on to other sellers’ tales from the field for our IBM sellers and technical sellers.

We focus on success stories and where we missed, where a different action could have driven a different outcome. Building deep technical skills is another primary objective of IBM Fast Start, especially for our technical sellers. At Bootcamp, they spend time with experts learning up close through hands-on exercises to apply solutions to solve clients’ challenges.

Starting with an “outside-in” client problem-based approach, Fast Start sessions help our sellers connect thoughtfully with our clients and interpret their needs, to help them – and IBM – succeed.


High-Quality Production

None of this would have been possible without Tom Luciano and our SteadyNow production team. I would also like to recognize Tracey Weber, GM of IBM Digital Commerce & SaaS, and her team for their efforts during our pivot. Tom and our extraordinary production team worked overtime (pre-pivot) to produce cinema-levels of quality and somehow became nimble ninjas and pivoted when we needed them. We would not be where we are today without their focus, creativity, and dedication to our success. 

You can find out more about the brilliant work they are doing at

In the end, it was the quality of the content, not the delivery method, that mattered.

Behind the scenes of IBM Fast Start 2021

I’ll conclude with how we embraced experiential learning, focused on emotional intelligence and neuroscience to diversify the learning experience, delight our participants 360 degrees, and enrich the human experience via storytelling and mindfulness.

And much more.


Enriching the Experience

Our digital Expo remained intact and functioning as the outages did not directly impact it. 

The only challenge we faced was creating a simple way to enter the environment. 

We already identified and incorporated all of the flagship qualities we wanted (e.g., networking, interaction, and fireside chats). 

We also had click-to-chat features, swag requests, and digital booth sponsorships for 70 partners (as well as all of the major IBM brands). 

We opened the Expo with many nervous sponsors, and in the end, it turned out to be an outstanding experience. 

The achievement would not have been possible without Sue Healy and Andy McCloskey’s incredible duo, who are both genuinely hardworking and detail-oriented. They refused to accept defeat and pushed through all the challenges to create a memorable experience for our sponsors and attendees that can be summed up beautifully in a short bit of feedback we received.

I have to say, this is the best virtual tradeshow platform I have participated in since Covid started.”

Mission accomplished. Throughout any experience, dynamic forums for conversation and connection are crucial. 

This need for engagement is why the digital Expo included things like live chat and even the ability to request swag. 

In our boot camps, our pivot included plans to recognize our most vocal and engaged colleagues even in our revised experience.

Thank you to our partners at BI WORLDWIDE, who went above and beyond to create this platform for us.


Engaging with Gamification

We took a different position this year with regard to gamification. 

In prior years, we used leaderboards to lean into the competitive behavior traits of our teams. 

A large enterprise’s challenge is that only a few people will ever be at the very top. 

If you find yourself in position 758, is that good? 

Ultimately, the leaderboard we want to see is one where IBM is at the top – and it will take our full salesforce ecosystem pulling together to make that happen. 

That means switching to gamification that reinforces different behaviors – competitive, yes – and a culture of coaching, entrepreneurial thinking, risk-taking, and empathy. 

So our team watched for these new selling behaviors and rewarded sellers daily who espoused them. 

We created a large stage for *many* winners at the top of a shared leaderboard. Sellers were awarded based on what each of the session organizers observed – participation in chats, open forum discussion, and contributions through some of the interactive experiences peppered throughout the digital sessions. 

Special thanks to Rebecca Reyes and the team for leading this effort on top of other workstreams, too. 


Captivating Through Storytelling and Mindfulness 

Emotional Intelligence, mindfulness, and sharing personal Women’s Experience stories are vital components of our annual learning experience.

We offered Human Experience sessions for every segment of our yearly learning – Worldwide Kick-off, Manager Bootcamp, and Seller Bootcamps.

The Human Experience sessions focused on mindful breathing, mindful movement, mindful inquiry, humor, diversity, and inclusion.

Fireside chats rounded out the Human Experience as participants explored neurodiversity, intersectionality, and mindfulness applications.

Our Women’s Experience session had 24 IBM speakers between our Americas and EMEA boot camps. They shared their personal stories of challenges, triumphs, strength, vulnerability, and inspiration.


The Human Experience objective was to increase connection – connection with Self, connection with clients, and connection with the broader global community. The majority of the Human Experience sessions provided an opportunity to practice mindfulness – mindful breathing, mindful movement, and mindful humor.

As we closed out 2020 and bravely marched into 2021, companies continued to face the challenges of a remote work environment – burnout, isolation, and lower employee engagement. 

Many companies worldwide have embraced mindfulness programs to combat the stresses of a virtual working environment and increase employee engagement and productivity. 

One US insurer trained 13,000 employees on mindfulness, resulting in a 28% reduction in stress and an estimated $3,000 annual productivity improvement per employee. 

The IBM Fast Start team recognized that offering a mindfulness portion to our virtual training would positively impact participants, increase learning retention, and increase overall participant engagement. 

Between our EMEA and Americas boot camp sessions, 24,058 IBMers attended at least one Human Experience session. We received overwhelmingly excellent feedback:


“I am 60 years old and took my first yoga class today – I have been at IBM 35 years – and never thought I would see yoga @ IBM – but it is great!”

“Delighted that IBM is focusing on personal growth as a foundation for professional growth.”

“Excellent – we need more of this @ IBM these days”

“I’ve never taken mindfulness before and can truly use the learnings”

Only truly passionate Mindfulness practitioners like Patrick Kozakiewicz and Marta Haynes can make a wave like this!


Aligned to the theme “Believe in Yourself; Be You,” the Women’s Experience focused on IBMer’s stories to build understanding, drive allyship, and create an even more inclusive environment. Authenticity was key throughout the Women’s Experience. Through the keynote sessions (and supporting fireside chat and mentoring program) we were able to candidly and authentically address areas ranging from mental health and Imposter Syndrome – to the inclusion dimensions of gender, race, sexual orientation, physical ability, neurodiversity, and gender bias in technology, among others. 

IBMers were encouraged to share their stories via video in the Be You Galleries. You can view some of the stories here. Based on the success of the program as a part of Fast Start, the “Believe in yourself; Be You” message is being continued through IBM Women’s Groups across several markets. 

“Thank you all – great messages and love the ‘being real’ it is so important that we are honest…”

“Thank you for sharing and helping us break barriers – opening up and getting accepted with the difference is absolutely wonderful thing 🙂 BRAVO!!”

“Absolutely inspiring! The power of Belief… believing in ourselves and keeping people who believe in us close!”


The Results

No one likes the “fail” in failing forward.

Did it all go smoothly?

Not everything, especially not in the beginning.

Some aspects were determined and communicated as we went. However, we committed to delivering this learning experience, and we did everything in our power to make it happen on the scheduled launch date. There may have been some “slick” features we lost when we pivoted, but we believed in ourselves, and we believed in the goal: to enable our sellers with the learning they need to succeed.

Lewis Pugh, one of our fantastic Keynote Speakers, said

“If you’re a pioneer, you don’t know what is going to happen until you dive in, because nobody else has been there before. So, all the worry – all the fear – is on your shoulders. It’s much easier going second.”

We pioneered our way through daily calls and knowledge sharing on what we could do and how to make it happen. Frustrations and pressure were heavy, but we knew that we were in this together and were as committed to each other as we were to the goal.

We rose to the challenge.

We fought turbulence and took risks.

We did this together as pioneers.

I am beyond proud of my team and extended IBM family for the commitment, resilience, agility, and creativity they brought to meet, on time, our commitment to provide world-class sales enablement despite an insurmountable obstacle.

We spent time collaborating and bonding during this “pivot” to grow closer, as a team and as an organization.


Despite our technical difficulties initially, our results prove that all the hours, blood, sweat, and tears paid off. The average NPS score of the Americas and EMEA sessions was 62! The Expo brought in over 13.5K unique visitors! The Women’s Experience session had an NPS of 81! Our Manager’s Bootcamp had an NPS of 61! We awarded almost 500 Technical Certifications!

I’m immensely grateful for the many believers in this deep-learning experience: sales enablers by profession and others by passion — their commitment is equally unquestionable.

Finally, my very special thank you to, Olivia Davis the brain and soul of the design of the digital experience, and so much more. Melissa Fizpatrick and Alana Roach our comms ninjas for their infinite elasticity in finding the right words, color, and tone. And especially Alex Josephs and Sonia Kobdish who have been on this roller coaster with me each step of the way, riding each “drop of the stomach” relentless like no others #NeverGiveUp!

Up next – Asia Pacific and Japan. Every year Fast Start presents unique challenges and obstacles. I don’t think I’ll forget this one anytime soon.

Mary Tafuri
Mary Tafuri

VP, IBM Global Sales – Enablement and skills activation

Head of overall IBM Global Sales enablement and skills roadmaps strategy and execution. Responsible for delivering with speed and agility, consistent, competitive end-to-end sales fundamentals and IBM solutions enablement initiatives. Accelerating sellers skills readiness via experiential learning, leveraging modern tools and platforms to elevate client conversations and support clients’ business transformation and innovation agendas.

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