In the opening pages of her book, Good Power: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work, and World, Ginni Rometty reflects on her realization, at an early age, that she possessed the power “to change things for the better.”
“Not power in a stereotypically negative sense,” writes Rometty, the former chairperson and CEO of IBM. “I learned through experience that power didn’t have to be bad to be potent. There’s such a thing as good power.”
Hence Good Power, which Rometty spoke about at length during a fireside chat with John C Head III Dean David Schmittlein and students from MIT Sloan and across the Institute at the iLead Speaker Series in April.
What changes, what endures
When Rometty became IBM’s ninth chief executive and first-ever woman CEO in its 100-year history in 2012, the company was struggling to modernize in the face of mounting challenges.
“It is a revisionist history,” said Rometty, “but my biggest learning from the time was understanding what to change and what should endure.”
Under Rometty’s leadership, IBM successfully divested its semiconductor chip manufacturing operations while maintaining its revered semiconductor research and development. The company also increased its foothold in the then-novel areas of cloud computing, big data, and AI.
These would be strategically important decisions to ensure IBM stayed relevant in the evolving technology landscape.
“Here we are decades later as an example of change and endurance,” said Rometty.
She attributes some of her perspective about what parts of IBM to hold onto to Arne Sorenson, the late CEO and president of Marriott International. Sorenson advised Rometty to make the company “the best IBM it could be” instead of, she added, trying to duplicate a competitor.
From me to we
The eldest of four children in an Italian American family in Chicago, Rometty and her siblings were raised by a single mother who worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. This taught Rometty the importance of independence, hard work, and defining oneself from an early age.
She took these lessons to heart at Northwestern University, where she majored in computer science.
“I was often the only woman in my classes,” she said. “I knew when I spoke, if I said something stupid everybody would remember by virtue of my being the only woman there. It was good and bad. On the one hand, it wasn’t really fair. On the other hand, it made me study a lot.”
As her career progressed at IBM, Rometty remained hyper-focused on what she knew, and what she could learn. She preferred that people see her for her work, not her gender, and rarely thought of herself as a role model for other women.
Two experiences shaped how Rometty thought of herself as a woman in the workforce.
The first moment was early in her career, when Rometty was offered her boss’ job overseeing a large business unit. In response, she told the executive who extended the offer that she did not think she was ready for such a big role, and that she wanted to discuss the matter with her husband, Mark, before making a decision. When she broached the subject with him, Mark asked her if she though a man in her position would have answered in the same way. For Rometty, this lesson was less about gender differences, and more about being more comfortable with risk.
Years later, Rometty was in Australia giving a talk on financial services. Following her presentation, a man approached Rometty to presumably ask a question or raise some related points. Instead, he said that he wished his daughter had been there to see her speak.
“When you get to a certain level of responsibility, it is not about you,” said Rometty, reflecting on the incident. “I needed to embrace being a role model, because it wasn’t really for me, it was for everybody else.
Black individuals in well-paying jobs in 10 years
Since retiring from IBM in 2020, Rometty has dedicated herself to several board positions, as well as to OneTen, a non-profit coalition she co-founded with other top business leaders.
OneTen’s mission is to help more people access good jobs by encouraging employers to make hiring and advancement decisions based on someone’s skills and ability to learn, versus whether they have a four-year degree.
The idea for OneTen emerged in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed in 2020. These events inspired many people in the United States to directly address systemic racism through a variety of means. One group of business leaders decided to address racism’s economic inequities by doing what employers do best: hire and train more people for good jobs.
Today, OneTen’s coalition of more than 100 companies are committed to upskilling, hiring, and advancing one million Black individuals without four-year degrees into well-paying jobs over the next 10 years. Three years in, dozens of businesses are changing their recruitment procedures. While there is still a long way to go, Rometty and the other OneTen members are confident in the organization’s skills-first mission.
The story of OneTen stems back to Rometty’s youth. She knows from her mother’s experience that many family-sustaining jobs do not require a college education. Her mom, she recalls, had aptitude but lacked access to higher-paying employment because she only had a high school education. After learning a few new skills, her mom landed a better job.
Today, Rometty believes that once more companies abandon the degree bias that keeps many jobs from being filled, workplaces will become more diverse, innovative, and competitive, while giving more people economic opportunities.