People and Strategy

Ginni Rometty on Using “Good Power” to Lead Positive Change

Episode Summary

After starting in IT as a systems engineer, Ginni Rometty began a career at IBM, where she climbed the corporate ladder to become the first woman CEO in IBM’s history. In this episode of People and Strategy, recorded live at SHRM23 in Las Vegas, Rometty joins host Tony Lee to reflect on the experiences, career journey, and lessons learned that inspired her to write Good Power: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work, and World, a memoir about “how to do hard things, but to do them in a good way”.

Episode Notes

After starting in IT as a systems engineer, Ginni Rometty began a career at IBM, where she climbed the corporate ladder to become the first woman CEO in IBM’s history. In this episode of People and Strategy, recorded live at SHRM23 in Las Vegas, Rometty joins host Tony Lee on stage to reflect on her experiences, career journey, and lessons learned that inspired her to write Good Power: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work, and World, a memoir about “how to do hard things, but to do them in a good way”.

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Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1:                    This episode of People and Strategy is sponsored by Safeguard Global. Do you want to hire remote workers abroad? You can start today with Safeguard Global. Safeguard Global Acts as an extension of your HR team helping you grow into new markets with ease. Hire onboard and pay employees in over 170 countries around the world. Get top talent like a local with Safeguard Global. Learn more at

Tony Lee:                      Thank you so much. Ginni, welcome to SHRM 23.

Ginni Rometty:             Thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.

Tony Lee:                      I want to start by giving a little background on Ginni. Ginni started off as a systems engineer, not at IBM. You moved over to IBM, where you then spent your career moving up the ladder, a range of different positions, ending with president and CEO, the first woman in the history of IBM to have that position, correct?

Ginni Rometty:             That's true.

Tony Lee:                      Indeed.

Ginni Rometty:             Go girls.

Tony Lee:                      You then graduated to chairman of the board of IBM, correct?

Ginni Rometty:             All along, I was [inaudible].

Tony Lee:                      All along. And after leaving IBM, you have worked on a book called Good Power, that you're here to talk about today. Things didn't start off particularly well in your life. Can you share how all of that started?

Ginni Rometty:             First, thanks to everybody for coming. A lot of friendly faces I see in the audience, Tony. And we'll talk about the book a little bit, but we can talk more than a book, right?

Tony Lee:                      Absolutely.

Ginni Rometty:             But the idea behind the book, and then I'll answer Tony's question, because I had never really dreamed of writing a book. I'm sorry, it was not on my to-do list. And after Tony's comments about my journey, I got a lot of people that said, "You've learned a lot of hard lessons, if you'd be willing to tell them, I think people could learn a lot." The purpose of the book is honestly, as I reflected on my life, it was how to do hard things, but to do them in a good way. And so it starts with my childhood. So it turned out to be a memoir with purpose, it's the only way I could authentically tell you stories. And my beginning is maybe not too different than many people here, I'm maybe sorry to say.

                                    I was a young child... Well, an early teenager, and I begin with this vignette in the book and I'll tell you why in a second. I am early teen, and I walk into the garage and I see my father speaking to my mother, and I hear what he says. He says to her, "Look, I don't care about you. In fact, I actually don't care about any of you. For all I care, you could go work on the street." And he turned around and walked out of our lives. My mom was only 34 years old, she had four children, she'd never worked outside the home, no education past high school, and that would set us into a tailspin, no money, no food, no home. And we had to go on things like food stamps, financial aid. And I begin with that, and it's not actually to make a villain of my father, it's to celebrate my mom, because I think it's something very relevant to this day.

                                    My mom hated being on federal aid, but we had to do it. And so she went back to school, like a community college, got a little bit of education to get a job, hourly job, a little more, a little bit more, a little better job. We finally got off of financial aid, she kept us in school. And what it taught me at the time was that, look, my mom did not want to be defined as a victim. And while she never said the words, what she taught us was never let someone else define who you are, only you define who you are. And that would be one of the big lessons I would take away. Only you define who you are, and it would become true to me for a company, a country, it doesn't matter. And there was just two other corollary lessons. My grandma and great grandma had both suffered great tragedies. By watching them and my mom, all three tragedies, I saw, look, no matter what, there's always a way forward. It didn't matter.

                                    And that while maybe a little bit out of fashion today, this idea that hard work makes things a little bit better. And last but not least, and I'll stop there on my childhood. My mom was actually pretty smart, but she had no access to anything. But what will always be ingrained in my mind, and it's a lot of what I do today we haven't talked about yet, is that access and aptitude are two different things. So in other words, I feel like God spreads brains pretty evenly on the world, opportunity not so much. My mom was smart but had zero opportunity. Especially with as HR leaders, and we'll come back to this, this would color my entire view of the workforce and about what we need to do to bring more people into the workforce. Access and aptitude are not equal.

Tony Lee:                      Great point. Well said. The word power, you've included it in the title of your book, it's a loaded word, sometimes negative connotations. What's good power? How do you use power?

Ginni Rometty:             How many people want to be powerful? Raise your hand. Now this is highly unusual for an HR crowd. You raised your hand.

Tony Lee:                      I raised my hand. Doesn't everyone want to be powerful?

Ginni Rometty:             Well, it's interesting. The name of the book was done in revisionist history. This isn't like, "Oh my God, I live my life with good power." Please, I'm far more humble than that. I got to work with really great people, starting with my childhood, and it's what I learned from other people. The reason I asked you how many people want to be powerful, a lot of times when I ask people that today, they're like, "No, no, no, I do not want to be powerful. I just want to work on big problems." I'm like, "The irony is to solve big problems, you got to have some power." And I believe... Like my mom, my mom had power when she had nothing else. I hope I inspire you that good power means it's done with respect, not fear. It unites people, doesn't divide them.

                                    And my cliff note is, it celebrates just progress, not perfection. Because if we sort of focus on perfect, you polarize people. You're with me, you're against me. And that's too much of that today. And it's all my hard learned lessons that you can lead in that way and still do really hard stuff, so a little bit to address that stereotype. And my second reason of good power is, it's funny, the book got... In my mind it was always this image, like when a pebble goes in the water for each of us. At first we think about ourselves and I end up writing a whole section on the power of me. And it's like, how do you build a good foundation or ask yourself close your eyes, not now really, but who do you see when you close your eyes about your childhood?

                                    And I guarantee I'm going to ask you that in a second. It'll tell you something about yourself today. But then, at some point you start to care about people other than yourself, and it's the power of we. And then it sneaks up on you and you actually do have power to change some pretty hard stuff in the world, the power of us. And I feel like you don't recognize it until it's almost on top of you. I hope to encourage you that you have the power yourself, for others, and then to go tackle whatever is your thing. I use an example. My thing is skills and hiring without degrees, but we'll come back to that. When you close your eyes, don't do it really, but if you were.

Tony Lee:                      I had my eyes closed.

Ginni Rometty:             Yeah, I'm boring him. And so when you close your eyes, who do you think of in your childhood and what did you learn from him?

Tony Lee:                      The first person I think of is my father and I learned how to be kind and generous in dealing with other people.

Ginni Rometty:             Isn't that funny that it came like this-

Tony Lee:                      Instantly.

Ginni Rometty:             And do you feel like that's part of who you are today?

Tony Lee:                      I do.

Ginni Rometty:             You and I don't know each other well, so you seem kind of generous.

Tony Lee:                      I try to be.

Ginni Rometty:             I haven't asked you for anything yet, so I don't know.

Tony Lee:                      That comes later.

Ginni Rometty:             I just think, until I wrote a book, I didn't go back and have to think about these things because nobody wants to read a boring book. And they kept pushing me, "You've got to be authentic, you have to tell deeply." I would write things and they'd go, "No, no, no. How did you feel?" And I'm like, "Oh boy, this gets very hard to do." And it's made me realize that there is a rhyme and reason to what you do today that's deeply rooted in your past.

Tony Lee:                      So if I ask you to do the same, your mother comes to mind, I imagine.

Ginni Rometty:             Yep. My mother, my great-grandmother, who was the last surviving member of her family in World War I, that came here from Belarus, Russia, and she never spoke a lick of English. She worked in cleaned bathrooms, third shift at the Wrigley building in Chicago. And it would actually, she took every dime she made and put it into US savings bonds. And the irony is that one day when we had nothing, it would be my great grandma's savings bonds that would be able to afford us a car. And I should mention, she had two husbands die early and a child that was run over by a truck at a picnic.

Tony Lee:                      Oh my god.

Ginni Rometty:             But always a way forward. And my grandma would be widowed twice by 30 and find herself handmaking lampshades in Chicago. And she too, always a way forward. It's funny, it's strong women that jump in my mind. So no offense to strong men like your dad, but it's this idea that hard work makes it better. My great grandma, my grandma, my mom. My aunt would be the first person I'd ever witnessed go to college.

Tony Lee:                      Speaking of which, I have to ask you. Again, we don't know each other well.

Ginni Rometty:             No.

Tony Lee:                      Myself and my wife are Northwestern University grads.

Ginni Rometty:             I read that about you.

Tony Lee:                      How do you like that? As are you. How did you make that transition? You were in a difficult situation given your family situation. How did you make college come about?

Ginni Rometty:             To me, this is important for you as HR leaders. Again, I was in a low income family that when you're around everyone else like that though, I didn't feel like I was missing something because around people just like that. The one thing my mom did was always tell us, "You can be whatever you want." But she was so busy working trying to feed us, she couldn't do much more. So when it came to go to college, I could apply to two schools. I couldn't afford any more than that. And so one was a state school and one was a private school that was within driving distance. I couldn't afford to travel. But Northwestern, where we both went, is a school that admits kids on a need blind basis. From an HR perspective, it means if you can get in on your merit, they will find a way for you to afford this.

                                    And there's some universities that do that still, not many. Otherwise I never could have gone to a great school. That was one of the ways that I was able, but to me, it said so much about the policies that people put in place for equity. And then I'd have a professor, he knew how much I was working to scrape by in my second year and he said, "I know of this company. They want to hire women," at the time they use minorities is the word, two in every school because they really want to advance diversity. It was General Motors. He said, "I think you should apply for this scholarship. If you get it, they'll pay your room, your board, your tuition, give you a job." I thought, "Is this too good to be true?" I got that scholarship and that is what General Motors did.

                                    Now, to this day Mary Barra is now my friend. The program is not quite that way anymore, but still there. It was a no strings attached. All I had to do was work in the summer and they would offer me a job, I did not have to take it after all that money they'd put into me. And again, it said something to me about all of our policies as a company of what you do about what people can... How important it is that people have equity. That again, back to access and aptitude are two different things. That's what took me to Northwestern, and I was an engineer, which also then taught me a lot about being the only woman in a room. This is the late seventies, and I would be the only woman, and it would create me this horrible... Well, depends how you look at it.

                                    If you have to work for me, this is a horrible habit, of preparation. Because whenever I raised my hand I'm like, "I do not want to be looked at as stupid. So I'm going to really study. And if I raise it so I have a higher odds of being right, because I'll be remembered." And that would start... Really would last my whole life. Maybe not fair, that's how I behaved as the only woman. It would go from being a shield to being something very positive over time. Because when you're the most prepared person in the room, you'd be surprised what you could accomplish.

Tony Lee:                      That makes perfect sense. I'm fast-

Ginni Rometty:             What took you to Northwestern?

Tony Lee:                      I'm a journalist.

Ginni Rometty:             Good journalism school.

Tony Lee:                      Best journalism program in the country. Anyone who went to Columbia, sorry, no. But I do want to get back to something you said earlier. If you explore Good Power, as I have, you have five principles that you lay out in the book that I think are really interesting. Can you share?

Ginni Rometty:             So guys, this is, again, I keep wanting to say this, this is revisionist history. I wasn't brilliant. This is all my mistakes and things I learned from great people that I write about. I called them principles, but it's five things if you have to do something really hard that I felt were essential. First one, be sure you understand what you are in service of, don't serve something. Be in service of something. If you go to dinner, or I don't know if anybody been to dinner here yet, if they bring you your food, does that make it a good night? You can tell when a wait person wants you to have a good evening, they do more than just bring you your food. And they're doing that not because you pre-committed their tip, right? It's on the hope if they do it something comes back, they'll meet their goal.

                                    So this idea of be in service of something, if you're trying to do something hard, boy, you better be clear you're in service of something, fulfill your need. And it's on trust that I eventually can fulfill my own because of it. I always found that was essential. The second thing was, you got to build belief in whatever it is you're trying to solve, but it's how. It's this idea of talk to someone's head and heart at the same time. It's what I tried to do in the book, be in service of you as a reader, head and heart. There are a lot of people who analytically lead, but this being vulnerable and authentic enough to do both of those at the same time. And I'll always remember, I knew Ken Chenault... I still know Ken Chenault, who ran American Express, and I remembered this presentation he gave one day. And he said, "The role of a leader is to paint reality and then give hope."

                                    And to me, I internalized that to mean head and heart. And I have found that that's needed to do something hard, because you're trying to voluntarily get somebody to go to someplace that was not the reality they envisioned. Second principle, build belief. The third is, I learned the hard way. Leading IBM through what would be its most difficult transition was, know what must change, but also know what must endure. Most people focus on any kind of change. I'm change, change, change. And they skip, "Wait a second, what's actually good here that should endure even if it has to get modernized?" And two other things I think are heavily overlooked, really important to this crowd, and I write a lot about it. What a company does could be important, but how work gets done is as important. And it's this idea that... And I learned it the hard way.

                                    We had to go fast. These other competitors had been springing up around us and we'd been in the old model too long. So here I'm CEO and I'm forced with all this change. And I kept telling the workforce, "Team, some of you are ex-IBMers, or current IBMers, go faster, go faster, go faster." And I finally, I'm looking at the numbers, I'm like, "It's not going faster." And to me the learning was, this wasn't fair. As leaders, it's like telling you, "Go run a marathon and keep those hiking boots on." That's not fair. We hire good people, they don't wake up in the morning and go, "Let's be very slow today." Impossible.

                                    And I said, so that took me on this course of really focusing on... Now these are commonplace today, but 2012 it wasn't agile, design thinking, every experiential learning, every way I could get people to give them new tools, layers, decision matrix, everything you could think of that would make their work easier to do. The how you get your work done and the last piece I think got overlooked on change and endure was people skills. And we're going to come back to that, because to me, it's so really smack in your area.

                                    I would learn the number one thing I could hire for was not the exact skill. It was someone's willingness to learn. And I learned it the hard way. We were under such pressure to change, we hired lots of people from the outside and we had people inside. In the end, it wasn't about, you weren't good if you were in or out. The real good were the people who were willing to learn about the other pieces. And that would, for me, change everything about how we hired to make it the number one criteria, was people's propensity to learn. That was a third principle. Sorry, I gave you more than you wanted to know. Change and endure. The fourth one though is be a steward of good tech. I felt really strongly at that time the world was bifurcating between good tech and bad tech and everybody uses tech in some way.

                                    It doesn't mean if you're a technology maker, the onus is bigger on you, but not anymore. It's everyone. And what that in a nutshell meant manage the upsides and the downsides of technology at the same time. Most of the time it's only managing the up. And this is really going to be a mistake in the ChatGPT era, I will come back to. And my last principle was, "All good, but guess what? Anytime you do something hard, it is not a straight line to heaven. And there are a lot of naysayers, and so you better know how to build resilience." And to me, resilience comes from relationships and attitude. Those are the five principles. And then inside is, I just tried to share lots of hard-earned lessons on little tools and habits on those.

Tony Lee:                      That makes perfect sense. I just have to add on point number four.

Ginni Rometty:             Good tech.

Tony Lee:                      I heard a great comment yesterday. Someone said, "I'm very nervous about AI and ChatGPT is going to replace my job as an HR professional." And the response was, "No, no, it's not going to replace your job as an HR professional. HR professionals who understand and can use AI and ChatGPT are going to replace you if you don't understand AI and ChatGPT.

Ginni Rometty:             How many of you have used ChatGPT? And how many of you love it? Kind of half, they're quickly going down, or they're just tired. I don't know, whatever. What did you use it for?

Tony Lee:                      Writing job descriptions is one of the areas that a lot of folks-

Ginni Rometty:             Yeah, I can understand that actually. It just reminds me two things. We and I worked on AI long before it was fashionable with Watson. And I'll tell you the biggest thing I learned and then what's different today. Back then, right or wrong, we chose one of the hardest problems, which was to do cancer diagnosis, oncology. And what I witnessed was, the technology was better than the doctors. So this wasn't really a technology issue of why it didn't take off. They didn't trust the technology. And this is going to come into play now. And back then, you really don't care if AI gives you a bad recommendation on a movie, but when it's your healthcare, your financial services, you have a very different tolerance for error. You expect actually not 80% right, a hundred percent right.

                                    So it taught me, which is what I think the issues today now going to be, please don't focus on the technology, focus on, can you use it in a trusted way? I would roll it out on very simple things first. I would use it as an assistant, as you just said. Very good. My husband just turned 70. I ran out of time to write the toast for him for the little birthday party. It did a wonderful job, writing his birthday toast. I did feel like I had to be honest and at the end I said, "This was written by ChatGPT." But saved me a lot of time, all right? We reset our wedding vows. I'm like, "Oh man, I don't even know how to write that." And good job on that. But what I watched in both cases, I took it and I made it better.

                                    And so if all you're doing is gathering data, that is a job that's going to get obsoleted, but that was going to happen no matter what. But now I want to come back to my trust point, it took Netflix three and a half years to get 1 million users. Many of you are probably Netflix users, it took Chat five days. This is the difference now. And now it's at like 150, 150 million people. It's not always right, as you know, except most of those people won't question it. And this is now the problem. Just like when Google Maps originally came out, you probably get to the Google thing and then you'd look at a map and you'd be like, "Left, right, left, right. Okay. I check it, makes sense." Now, if Google told you to drive in an ocean, you would go, you would say, "It said go right. There's water, we're going in."

                                    And so this is now what's quickly happened to us. So it'll matter who it's trained, what kind of problems you use. Do you have an ethics group? And so that's what I mean by manage the up and the down of it. And that means prepare society for it, so prepare everybody on the team to work with people like the word copilot, those kinds of things, a human in the loop, there've been many ways to say it, but if you remember nothing on Chat other than the word trust, that's to me what I would... That's where all my focus would be right now, because you can't stop the technology, I've tried. When I was behind on a trend and I didn't like it and tried to stop it. Good luck. It is unstoppable, especially at the numbers it's at right now. So it's up to you and me.

                                    One last comment on it. I do think one of the professions that will feel it the most to start is IT. In some ways it can make all of us coders. English could be the next coding language. I think it will be. English will be the next coding language, because you don't have to learn... I had to learn all these languages, 8, 10, 12 languages. You don't have to do that anymore. You could say, "Write me a program that does X, Y, Z." And it'll do it in whatever your company standards are. In some ways that makes it safer, but goes back to, still, I think that copilot idea. All right.

Tony Lee:                      Exactly.

Ginni Rometty:             You've been a great audience.

Tony Lee:                      Join me in thanking Ginni, thank you for being here and sharing her insights. We really appreciate it.

Ginni Rometty:             Happy to sign books later.

Tony Lee:                      Thank you. We are heading straight to the bookstore, so if you'd like to chat with Ginni and see a copy of the book, please follow us.

Ginni Rometty:             See you there.

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