During her 11 years at IBM, Gill Zhou has become a role model for Chinese women in business, as evidenced by her 760,000 followers on Chinese microblogging service Sina Weibo.
In January, when IBM announced double-digit Chinese revenue growth for 2011, the U.S. technology giant boosted Ms. Zhou's profile again by putting her in charge of marketing for China.
Ms. Zhou's disarmingly honest musings about work-life balance account for her online following. She blogged in May about feeling guilty for missing her son's 16th-birthday dinner and how she handled the situation. While others might hide such conflicted feelings, Ms. Zhou is aware of being an example and wants to show her true self.
"As a woman leader, I always have to be conscious that we play multiple roles: professional, daughter, daughter-in-law, wife, mother, parent," says Ms. Zhou, 48, who often accommodates employees' family needs by granting them flexibility. "It's never easy."
Ms. Zhou's expanded role is VP-marketing, communications and corporate citizenship for IBM's Greater China Group. Only the marketing part of her title is new, replacing her past role in charge of the brand. With a staff of 300, Ms. Zhou says she's still learning what it's like to be "more on the business side, building the opportunities."
In March, she gathered nearly 800 IBM clients to discuss how technology could bolster China's slowing growth, an event that generated client demand for IBM in data analytics. In June, she oversaw a visit to China by IBM's global board of directors.
Ms. Zhou, a veteran of Motorola, worked in the mid-2000s to ensure a smooth transition when IBM sold its personal computer business to China's Lenovo to focus on software and services.
IBM's China business is strong today, with revenue up 21.6% last year from 2010. The country's second- and third-tier cities are quickly modernizing, offering vast opportunities for IBM's campaign to imagine "Smarter Cities." In Zhenjiang, for example, IBM is at work on a transport command center. The company often lends expertise to service projects, which fall under the "citizenship" part of Ms. Zhou's title.
Colleagues say Ms. Zhou leads from the heart, calling her a great listener and a skilled interpreter of China for outsiders. Nobody meeting her for the first time should underestimate her strength, colleague Patricia Yim says.
"She looks like a fragile, beautiful lady," said Ms. Yim, VP-coverage and geographic expansion at IBM's Greater China Group. "But she's a lady of steel."