Cultivating good power with longtime IBM CEO Ginni Rometty (Transcript)

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ReThinking with Adam Grant
Cultivating good power with longtime IBM CEO Ginni Rometty
May 9, 2023

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.

My guest today is Ginni Rometty, the longtime CEO, chairman, and president of IBM. As the ninth leader of the century-old company, and the first woman to take the helm, Ginni spearheaded major change, building a massively successful cloud business—making IBM a front-runner in AI and quantum computing. I brought Ginni to the Authors@Wharton series to discuss her new book, Good Power, and I was taken aback by how she walks her talk.

I watched her treat our staff and students with rare dignity and curiosity, not only fielding their questions but also showing a sincere interest in their experiences and their insights. So here's my conversation from the stage with an unusually down-to-earth leader.

The place I wanted to start is, what did you wanna be when you were growing up? Did you know you were gonna be the CEO of IBM?

[00:01:08] Ginni Rometty:
Oh, come on. No. Nope. I am sad to tell you, I had no vision. I had only hoped at one point that I could be independent, make enough money to support myself, and maybe I thought about being a doctor. Until I could not pass human reproduction. I just thought, “I wanna be independent. I hope to do okay. I hope if I do a job okay, I'll get another job.” And that was where it started.

[00:01:31] Adam Grant:
When did you start to realize that you might be able to run one of the biggest tech companies on Earth?

[00:01:36] Ginni Rometty:
You know, wow. Okay. Hmm. When did you think you'd be a bestselling author?

[00:01:43] Adam Grant:
The day it happened.

[00:01:44] Ginni Rometty:
Okay. Yeah, exactly the answer. That is exactly, honestly, how I felt. I know a lot of people, and you've probably interviewed lots of people at 'em that say, “Oh no, I wanted to be this from the very beginning,” and I even deal with lots of people that worked for me, they’re like, “No, no, you know, don't wanna be this.” And I always tell ‘em: “Please, please don't say what you don't wanna be yet, and just let life unfold.”

‘Cause I never felt that way either. And I probably even didn't realize I could do it ‘til I was well into my forties, after I'd done some super hard stuff. Then I thought, “Okay, maybe I could do this.” But never, ever where it started and, and I don't know if I'm a part of a generation that was that way, that was just like, “Look, if I do a good job, it's my ticket to do another thing.”

[00:02:24] Adam Grant:
Well, I think in, in some ways that's a relief to some of the folks in the audience. But on that note, I was actually just hearing from an undergrad this afternoon that all of her friends feel like they're already behind.

[00:02:32] Ginni Rometty:
This is one of my greatest worries. Actually, my husband and I are both talking about, someone said, “What would you, advice would you give a graduating class?” Or something. And I, so I decided to ask him that question; what would he give? Now he's like a type Z. I’m A. And so I'm like, “What would the Z say?” And he goes, “I would tell them to just let life unfold. They're too impatient.” And he said, “And, and honestly, I worry about all of you in the sense of ‘God, I’m like, I could never get into your school now. And the pressure and the intensity in the competition that is so high. So I worry about a generation that feels like, Oh my God, I'm already losing before I've even started.’”

Right? Like, my advice to that question would've been, “Ask more questions than you have answers.” That’s, like, my advice when you leave, and if you do, I guarantee you'll go somewhere you want to go at the end.

[00:03:17] Adam Grant:
I think that's a wonderful mantra. It does raise a question though, for me, taking the perspective of those who feel behind, which is when you say “Just let things unfold”, for how long, and how do I know if I'm doing a good job?

[00:03:29] Ginni Rometty:
Yeah. Okay. That, that's a fair question. I think we all use a barometer of what's around us. I mean, I'm lying to say, I just sat there and said, “Oh, look at all these people getting promoted, you know, isn't that nice?” Not me. That would not have been the answer to that. So my kind of philosophy, though, had been, and it stems back to where I grew up, ‘cause my father abandoned our family when I was young.

I was 16. My brothers and sisters were younger, and I happened to walk into the garage, and I heard the conversation. Just a coincidence. I heard him tell my mother he could care less what happened to her or any of us, and she could work out on the street for all he cared. My mom didn't cry. When she was 34 years old, she had four kids. She had not a day of education past high school, never worked a day outside the home.

We immediately were on financial aid, food stamps, gonna lose our house, and she was just really determined that's not how this story could end. I would take care of the family. She would go back, get a little bit of education, get a job a little more, a little better job. Never did get a degree.

When you say, “Okay, but how do you judge your, where you're going?” For me in my life, that set the bar for bad, that nothing could ever be that bad again. So anything from here now looks really good to me, and that feeling is really freeing and liberating ‘cause I would go on in life to do really hard things and in the moment think, “Oh my God, if this doesn't work, I would always remember it's never as bad as that was.”

Part of my shield would be we could never cause my mom trouble. So we had to study, it's like, we can't cause her problems. Do your homework. You know, ‘cause she's got enough. And my sisters and brothers are all very successful as well. My mom would go like, “What did I ever do?” And we just observed, right?

And to us and my great-grandma and grandma who all had tragedies, we learned hard work took you to a better place. I know that maybe sounds like so simple, that there was always a way forward, and hard work would make that happen. And, so, as life would go on and you know, you go to school and work and everything else, I think buried deep down was that thought that look, hard work usually leads to another, better place.

However, I would say that's completely naive if that's the only thing you think about. Right? You know, I can remember as time would go on, I would start to say, “Well, now wait a second. If I was just as good as that person, why did this not happen?” And I learned to start then being an advocate for myself.

[00:05:49] Adam Grant:
Well, that, that goes to the topic of your book, which is power. Your view of power is not necessarily one that's been dominant in corporate America for generations.

[00:05:57] Ginni Rometty:
I know.

[00:05:59] Adam Grant:
And maybe to tee this up, I wanna read you just an excerpt from an email that I got yesterday.

[00:06:03] Ginni Rometty:

[00:06:03] Adam Grant:
This is from one of the most senior executives in all of tech who's had a lot of impact on the world. And I suspect you know this person, but I won't identify, quote—

[00:06:13] Ginni Rometty:
If you said he or she that would narrow it down, you know?

[00:06:16] Adam Grant:
Not giving you any clues, Ginni, not, not one. Here it is. Ready? Quote, “The average employee in corporate America just wants to get paid for shirking. Most employees in corporate America need bosses who are monitoring their performance, watching them, seeing them, and grading them to ensure they work hard.” What would you say to that executive?

[00:06:35] Ginni Rometty:
I, I would say, “I hope I never have to work for them,” is what I would say. because I do not believe that is what the normal person out there and anybody's team looks like. Not in a hundred years do I believe that. I don't believe it was the past, and I don't believe it is this moment.

In this moment in time particularly, my view of leadership is that people want someone who is going to be respectful in leadership; do not govern by fear. I've lived through many times when it was fear. It's not sustainable. And it ends up being the power of me, we, and us that… ’Cause I kind of learned in my life, I'm like, you know, my mom had power when she had nothing else. She had power.

I hope I can inspire people to believe that they had some power. You had something when you have nothing else, and then you start to impact people and then eventually you might be able to impact society. Do you guys wanna work for the person who wrote that email? Hands up. The ones who are wanted to be CEO do, or as a, yeah.

[00:07:30] Adam Grant:
Uh, three of them wanna be that executive, but…

[00:07:34] Ginni Rometty:
Well, I mean, but seriously, what do you think of that answer? Do you believe that?

[00:07:38] Adam Grant:
No, of course not, I mean—

[00:07:39] Ginni Rometty:
But like, what, what do you think of it?

[00:07:41] Adam Grant:
Well, I'll tell you what I wrote back to the executive last night, which was there's zero evidence that what you say is true, but there are a lot of managers who operate that way, and projection bias is alive and well.

[00:07:51] Ginni Rometty:
Ah, okay. That's a very good answer. You should be an author. No. Or a professor. No. Right? No, seriously, that is a good answer because, like, I think the most valuable things I learned from good people I work from was to make decisions based on values and treat people that way. I hope one day you either create a company or you are lucky enough to work in one that is really steeped in values.

‘Cause I think some of the issues we see today are companies that their values aren't too deep. And just like when the wind blows on a tree without deep roots, they sway with the wind, and I can remember one of my very first bosses, I was the first time now managing people and I said, “Hey, I have a guy that's telling really bad jokes, misogynistic jokes, and people are starting to complain, and he's a top performer.”

He said, “You tell him to stop or you fire him right now.” He's like, “I don't even understand this conversation.” Leadership by values and creating followership that way, you know, says a whole lot more than what you just described. Manage by process.

[00:08:46] Adam Grant:
It certainly does. I think where for me it gets really challenging is that sounds to me like a broken definition of performance to begin with.

[00:08:53] Ginni Rometty:

[00:08:53] Adam Grant:
If you're causing people that kind of discomfort, then you shouldn't be considered a high performer in the first place.

[00:08:58] Ginni Rometty:
Yeah, I agree with you. I, I couldn't agree more.

[00:09:00] Adam Grant:
Why do you think these notions of power are still pervasive?

[00:09:02] Ginni Rometty:
This was what was starting to bother me, that people, I would talk to a lot of people and I'd say, “Would you like to be powerful?” And the answer would be, “No. But I, no, I would rather work on really important things.” This is why I ended up with the book. The irony is you need power to work on really important things. I wasn't comfortable leading those other ways and, and I learned these other ways from lots of people that I became a mosaic of. Right?

And you know what? I'm really feel like we're changing society too now, working in that way, and it’s such a divided world. So to me, in this moment in time, it was why I thought maybe I could persuade a few more people that it's okay to lead this way.

[00:09:39] Adam Grant:
So what are your basic principles of good power?

[00:09:41] Ginni Rometty:
The first one is, can you be in service of something? Can you decide what you are in service of? The second thing is if you wanna do something hard, then you gotta realize you gotta build belief constantly. And that is a job of head and heart. Like, I gotta convince you to go somewhere you don't necessarily wanna go voluntarily. So that head-to-heart thing, I had to learn about how to appeal to people's heads and their hearts at the same time. And it can mean you have to be brutally honest, but I'm talking to your heart, and I understand at the same time what I'm doing.

And then the third thing is know what must change and what must endure. Most people are really in a hurry to change everything, and I don't mean endure means you don't modernize it, but I've made big mistakes when I didn't think about what should endure, and I didn't work on how work got done versus what work got done. People like, “Oh, I built this, I made this, I did this.”

But back to that guy and those people working, Adam, you know? How they work has got, like, so much more to do with what comes out the other end. And, and then the last two are gonna sound asynchronous, and I wrote this way before Chat-GPT. You need to steward good tech. Put bluntly, you need to manage the upsides and the downsides of technology at the same time. We do not do that. And the fifth one is be resilient. ‘Cause I guarantee if you go work on something hard, Let me tell you what, there is no straight line to heaven.

[00:11:00] Adam Grant:
I wanna zoom in on a few of those principles and how you practice them. I love the one about focusing on what's gonna endure, not just what's gonna change. And right around when you were writing the book, actually Daan van Knippenburg right across the street was publishing some research showing that people are more willing to go along with change if you tell them what will stay the same.

I think the message is so often missed of “Here's the new vision, here's the new strategy, but here's our DNA that's gonna stick. Here are the values and principles that are not gonna change.” So, can you give us some examples of how you did that?

[00:11:27] Ginni Rometty:
In 2012, when I took over, there was cloud, there was social, there was mobile, there was data all at once. Usually, tech’s got one big thing happening, and it can go a decade. No, no, no. All at once. And we were really taking the benefit of a past model and not prepared for a future model. So the, that is my moment to start in that, and therefore, the pressure of “become something else” is so high. I can remember, like, the very first cover comes out on me, it says, “Will IBM ever be cool again?”

And so, oh, welcome. And so that idea and the pressure is so intense to be all these other things. I, I would come to call it chasing shiny objects. And so what would be an example of that to, to Adam's point, this idea of know what you are, it's your core, and particularly you have to change that idea that people can hang on to something they know while the winds will whip.

And of course, everyone’s like, “Well, you gotta be just like a consumer cloud.” It, and okay, you're, you're running off and tons of money and trying to go there until, I mean, we're years behind on that. And you realize that, “Wait a second, wait a second. What are we, you know? We are an enterprise company. I'm not a consumer-facing company. I no longer even had consumer products.”

And so to realize, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. What are we, what are we?” And it would, like, take us down the path to understand we were a hybrid cloud. We understood big companies, we knew the journey they would take. No, we were not that consumer cloud. We were this, that is what we were, and to be comfortable in that.

And I was so focused on speed, I'd be, like, telling everyone, “Come on guys, we gotta go faster. We gotta go faster. We gotta change, we gotta change. Come on.” I was a couple, maybe a couple years in, I had this epiphany. I was like, “Okay, why is it not going faster?” It would become really clear to me.

And I had a big company, half a million people, right? So I'm like, if I don't do something to change how work gets done, and that's what leadership determines. I'm like, “They're not saying, ‘Oh, let's be slow. Please, let's be slow.’” The teams know they want to go faster, but who puts these processes in place about how stuff gets done or what they have to check or no clear decisions or duh da da?

I felt so bad, and I apologized to the workforce. I was like, man. I realized like, “this is leadership's job to get stuff outta your way. All right? And that means new tools. That means new ways of working. That means design thinking. Agile. That means small teams. This is our job, not yours. I hope one day you always remember that lesson about how work got done.”

That would take me down a whole big old journey of agile design thinking, net promoter scores, focus on skills that would end up being probably my most enduring legacy of what I would leave behind was a foundation that could weather change.

[00:14:08] Adam Grant:
That goes to your point about building belief. So, I can only imagine being in your shoes at IBM saying to a bunch of techies and engineers, “We're gonna do design thinking.”

[00:14:16] Ginni Rometty:
I know.

[00:14:17] Adam Grant:
How did you get people excited about that?

[00:14:18] Ginni Rometty:
Yeah, that was a problem. But well-intended because people really believed in their products. And if you do mission-critical work, you really do care.

Stuff doesn't break and it's secure as could be. And so, so you start building from the inside. And you move outward from there because you get this very complex thing, right? And you move out. And the last person to touch your product is the consumer who's buying it. Okay? So ‘cause you build outward, that’s, like, how engineers think.

And so, this was a world where, uh-uh, you gotta start on the outside and come in. But nobody did design on that scale. And I remember we hired a fella, and I said to him, “Okay, I believe this thing about design thinking. In that, you know, all these, it doesn't matter if we get all this great stuff out, if nobody can ever use it or want it, you know, so we've got to get this in.” And I said, “What do you think we need to get started?”

He like, “If you think you're gonna be able to do this with like a couple hundred people, you're nuts.” I said, “Well, what do you think I need?” He said, “I think I need like one or two thousand to start.”

We did these pilgrimages, started with teams of multidisciplinary 5 and 10 at a time to this kind of a religious experience about design thinking. In the year, we got to 2000. And then in two and three years, we were at 10 and 20,000 and soon we trained 100,000. It was like brick at a time of teaching and, and they'd have to go in, they'd get homework, they'd have to come back. It is, like, hard work to do change. I think that was the part I was trying to convey, like it's science to get people to embrace and change and believe, but then they started to see it and they saw customer reactions; that’s how you do it.

[00:15:45] Adam Grant:
A few years ago, Rob Cross and I made a call for a Chief Collaboration Officer role in companies because we looked at, at all these organizations that only succeed if people are able to become more than the sum of their parts, and seeing how many organizations were less than the sum of their parts.

And the question was, who's managing the relationships, the communication, the silo-busting between people? And the answer is no one.

[00:16:08] Ginni Rometty:

[00:16:09] Adam Grant:
No one is managing it. And so, I think you’re onto something.

[00:16:10] Ginni Rometty:
Well, that's why I kind of end that book in a personal letter and I say, you know, always remember that how you do your work just might be remembered more than what you do.


[00:16:24] Adam Grant:
Okay. Lightning wise. Uh, tell me the worst career advice you've ever gotten.

[00:16:27] Ginni Rometty:
When someone told me, “Just do a good job and the rest will happen.” Yeah. I, you do have to advocate for yourself in the way you're comfortable doing that.

[00:16:37] Adam Grant:
Okay. What's something you've rethought in the last couple years?

[00:16:41] Ginni Rometty:
I am trying to spend more time with my, with my family. My husband. Yeah. Someone once told me they were writing a book that when people retire, the name of the book would be called, I dunno if they're ever writing it or not, 20 Summers. That you have about 20 summers left and that if you did, what would you do with your life? And if you really thought of it that way, now you're far from that, most of you, but that thought, so what am I doing? You know? It's like, work on things that are most important. So that's what I've rethought.

[00:17:10] Adam Grant:
Leader you admire most outside of IBM.

[00:17:12] Ginni Rometty:
Do you know Shirley Jackson? She just stepped down as a leader of RPI, but she was the first black woman to ever get a Ph.D. out of uh, MIT. She is a force of nature.

[00:17:23] Adam Grant:
What's a book you think everyone in the room should read that you did not author?

[00:17:30] Ginni Rometty:
One of the books Pope Francis wrote was a very good book. The point is to see the view from an entirely different perspective of what is leadership.

[00:17:37] Adam Grant:
I know there are some students in the audience who are gonna benefit from what you're about to say. What is the most important reason that they should not go to banking or consulting, but do tech instead?

[00:17:48] Ginni Rometty:
No, seriously. It teaches you how to problem solve. No matter what you do in life, you'll have a problem. And if you do something meaningful, it'll be a problem to solve. I can't get, I wish I could get more people to go into tech and engineering for that reason.

I felt that's what it taught me to do was problem-solve. You will be never frightened of a problem ‘cause you learn how to break it down. And by the way, like the biggest problems in the world, I say it requires systems thinking to solve 'em ‘cause they're so interrelated. Like, all these things that are influencing something else, and you need to be able to, like, step back and understand that. That’s what engineers do, right? They break big complex things into digestible things.

[00:18:24] Adam Grant:
Long before anyone knew what Chat-GPT was, you had Project Debater. Uh, you had Watson, you had all kinds of AI, and were not letting the public see most of what you were doing. So we didn't know how scared we should be. How terrified are you? On a scale from frightened to panicked.

[00:18:42] Ginni Rometty:
I am not frightened of the technology. I am more frightened if we will learn from the past and if we can build trust in the technology. AI has been in and out of its winters for decades. Right? And I thought too, by the way, in 2012, 13, this was a moment, but I really learned some hard lessons that we're gonna learn again.

This is why I'm so focused on this idea of managing the upside and downside of technology at once. Like, our job is to usher it safely into the world, not just build it. And those of us build it? Bigger responsibility, but everybody uses it now, right? Like I'm on some big bank boards and all, and I'm like, “Okay, you're in a hurry to put it out there, okay? Trust is your premium.”

To me, this moment in time, the question is not the technology; the question is around people and trust is how I feel so strongly, and what I learned when Watson was and is still IBM's AI technology, but we chose to try it in one of the most difficult areas.

We went over oncology and medical first. What I learned was your tolerance for technology in a really important area, like healthcare is way different. You expect zero problem. And then, a doctor works round the clock. He's like, “Okay, this is like one more thing I have to add to my work is technology?”

And so I would start to see all these issues that had nothing to do with technology and, and then how it's trained is what we're seeing in Chat very well in this kind of AI. You know, it's trained by humanity. It’s good and it's bad. Right? And then who owns the data? And like social media, we took all the upside ’til we realized there was downside. Right?

And I feel like with Chat, these downsides are very evident right now. So great, let’s work on the positive, and let's please work on the negative at the same time. Like I think for your guys' business education, how do you think technology like Chat and generative AI will change education? And what do you fear and what do you hope?

[00:20:26] Adam Grant:
There's an old joke that we shouldn't try to predict the future because historians aren't even very accurate in predicting the past.

[00:20:33] Ginni Rometty:

[00:20:34] Adam Grant:
So, so I say this with a lot of trepidation, but I think one of the things we've already seen is two randomized controlled experiments showing that if we give knowledge workers Chat or a similar tool, um, they actually not only are more productive in writing, they're also producing higher quality writing.

And this was a big shock for me, but it turns out what it allowed a lot of them to do was to overcome writer's block and spend less time on the rough drafting and more time on what humans do really well, which is idea generation and editing and revising. And so, I think you can immediately see, I mean the, the number of term papers I would've finished earlier if these tools had existed when I was in college is sad to think about, but then I would've wasted just as much time rewriting them because I hate every word that these tools spit out. It's terrible, um…

[00:21:20] Ginni Rometty:
So could you decide when, like, when you're teaching, how you would change how you teach ‘cause of it?

[00:21:24] Adam Grant:
I haven't had to yet.

[00:21:24] Ginni Rometty:
No, but when you come back, and—

[00:21:26] Adam Grant:
I mean, for sure we can't give essays as take-home assignments anymore. I think they're gonna have to be done on-site as tests, which to me defeats the whole purpose of writing, which is a great writer is not somebody who can on command produce a Shakespeare, right? In four minutes, go, good luck.

[00:21:43] Ginni Rometty:

[00:21:43] Adam Grant:
Right? It’s somebody who can actually master that craft and produce Shakespeare in a lifetime. And unfortunately, I don't think we have good workarounds for that. Can you solve that for me?

[00:21:52] Ginni Rometty:
Well, maybe now it's really gonna go back to teaching critical thinking. You're gonna take something, and your job's gonna be pull it apart, find the argument in it. Is it right? Is it wrong? How would you improve it? Like my positive side says, “Okay, does this mean now we're gonna move from an era of education, of facts, to critical thinking?” So, maybe that's a good thing that can come out, but we gotta manage that process to have it happen that way. Right?

And I super worry about other bad actors around the world feeding this thing with non-factual data to get it to do bad things. That, that's happening as we speak big time. Like I worked on AI ethics guides for a decade and, like, nobody will listen to me on AI ethics. I'm so sad about my, my non-persuasive capabilities. And by the way, Europe's kind of ahead on this topic, just like they were on GDPR and data privacy now.

[00:22:37] Adam Grant:
Yeah. Why, why do you think you've had trouble getting through?

[00:22:39] Ginni Rometty:
Part of who you're talking AI ethics to is governments who don't understand. When you say ethics, you're just like, “Wait, look. We have to make these technologies explainable.” So, I’ve tried to control technologies like when I'm like, “Oh my God, that one is like ahead of us. Slow it down.” Impossible. What I have learned though is maybe what you should regulate is how it's used, not it itself, but how it's used. A lot of these technologies, other companies, people would protest. “I don't want these used in military.”

No, no. Our view was if it was used in defense, it was okay. I wasn't gonna make killing machines. I mean that’s… So the use, like if you had your phone on you, you would probably, like, use your face to open it. Maybe you do, maybe you don't trust it. You don't.

[00:23:17] Adam Grant:
Definitely don't.

[00:23:18] Ginni Rometty:
That’s so interesting. Is it ‘cause you don't trust them to have the, your face?

[00:23:22] Adam Grant:
Yeah. I, I feel like my face is already in enough places.

[00:23:24] Ginni Rometty:
Is that what, okay. Okay. Well, alright. I don't feel that way. I'm like so much easier, but I don't think it should be used for racial profiling. Right? So it's, I'm like regulating the use already in my head of how this should happen. So, why has it not been successful to date all these attempts?

I think like, like what I learned, everything's got its moment. You know what I mean? Like, I thought AI's moment would've been a decade ago. Well, now it's here. So now I think we'll come to terms with it and that we should learn from all these other technologies.

[00:23:52] Adam Grant:
That’s interesting. I also think we have a framing problem, which is I think when you call it AI ethics, you've already lost.

[00:23:57] Ginny Rometty:
Yeah, very—

[00:23:57] Adam Grant:
Because everybody thinks they're ethical.

[00:23:59] Ginni Rometty:

[00:23:59] Adam Grant:
By their own moral compass.

[00:24:00] Ginni Rometty:
Fair enough.

[00:24:00] Adam Grant:
I think I would be much more persuaded if somebody brought to me AI safety.

[00:24:03] Ginni Rometty:
Yeah. Uh, I, you know, excellent point. Call them principles of trust and transparency was what I actually call it in the book. Yeah.

[00:24:10] Adam Grant:
I can get behind those. Okay. So give us your forecast. You made me make a prediction. Now I'm gonna ask you for one: in what year are robots gonna take many of our jobs?

[00:24:20] Ginni Rometty:
I think not in the foreseeable future. Look, every new technology comes along, it replaces some jobs. I think more likely than not, you'll be working with some kind of technology.

[00:24:31] Adam Grant:
And this, I think this is one of the early lessons of your chess triumphs, right?

[00:24:34] Ginni Rometty:
Yep. Definitely.

[00:24:34] Adam Grant:
That a human plus a computer could beat a computer.

[00:24:37] Ginni Rometty:
Yeah. I still believe that's where this heads, if we, if we manage the downside.

[00:24:42] Adam Grant:
Exciting. Okay, so this also goes to the work you're doing on skills.

[00:24:44] Ginni Rometty:
One point I didn't mention was access and aptitude. Two different things. My mom had aptitude; she had no access. Okay, that will be it forever in my brain, time will go on. I had no access as a kid. I mean, it was by the grace of God of a scholarship in a school that was said, “If you can get in academically, we'll find you the money somehow.” ‘Cause I had no money, so time will go on. I'm then become CEO. It's 2012. I'm trying to hire cyber people and unemployment in this country's 10%, and we can't find people.

I say, “This is odd, you know?” Okay. What's that mean? Skill mismatch in the education system. So I go to a next meeting, honest to God, how it happens. I go to the next meeting, it's corporate social responsibility, and they're like, “Hey, we got this one little school in Brooklyn, and it's a very poor neighborhood gin and the community college, we're giving 'em a curriculum. They get an internship. And we had a few jobs they could get in line for if they come through, they can get associate degree, no cost while they're in high school, six-year high school. Think of it.”

I said, “Well, interesting. We'll hire some people, works out.” Next year I come back, I say, “Okay, how many did we hire?” They're like, “Well, you know, like eight?” I'm like “Eight? They’re doing so good.” Well, 95% of our jobs require a Ph.D. or college degree. We prove after one year, same results as my team with degrees. And then we find, oh, more loyal, more retentive, and they're taking more follow on education. Oh, by the way, 75% have now gone on to get degrees, and oh, by the way, we have our first Ph.D. and 95% are Black and Hispanic.

I've now worked with a hundred of the biggest companies in the country, and of all good jobs, I would tell you 50% are over-credentialed, that you don't need a college degree to start if you wrote it for skill, and it's like a strong belief that where you start should not determine where you end. And I believe it so deeply, instead of just buying talent, you gotta build it.

By the way, I would come to learn this is good for everybody in the whole company. Like, who doesn't wanna be paid for skill and promoted for skill? Right?

[00:26:45] Adam Grant:
People in this room.

[00:26:46] Ginni Rometty:
I hope you do too, right? I mean…

[00:26:49] Adam Grant:
The people who won the Pedigree Lottery.

[00:26:51] Ginni Rometty:
Yeah, well they did. I mean, I learned the definition of privilege writing a book, and the fact that if you're in tech like me and the other guy up here, there's the two of us. Your skills have to change every three to five years. And like, okay, like this is gonna be a lifelong learning problem, right? So people got to be able to go back to school, and there's policy changes that are easy—not easy, nothing in government's easy. But like I've, I've witnessed perseverance. You can make these changes.

[00:27:17] Adam Grant:
You're reminding me of one of our alums, Peter Blair, who studied what it means to be skilled through alternative roots and showed exactly what you're describing using econometric tools that requiring college degrees and advanced degrees systematically discriminates against people who have learned through vocational training, through internships and apprenticeships and returnships through community college and who have learned on the job. And systematically, that closes doors on people who have not been lucky to be born into opportunity or privilege. And we are long overdue to change that.

[00:27:47] Ginni Rometty:
But I'm also trying to say to people, “Hey, your passion may be different than mine. Okay? But I just really don't want you to give up on it because you might look at the world and go, oh, the political system's intractable. Nothing can get done.”

And I have just found, okay, yeah, it's hard, but it is all changeable. So I'm an optimist. I know that's maybe, maybe people aren't, but I am an optimist about, you know, how to get this, and I found that around the world, jobs are the greatest currency. There isn't a leader of a country I couldn't see. It's something I couldn't, if I could talk jobs, this is what everyone wants for their country. It's what you want for your children. It's what, you know… It's an interesting way to look at life that way.

[00:28:24] Adam Grant:
There's some questions about diversity here that I think are really important. First one is you broke one of the most durable glass ceilings on earth. What's your most important advice on how you did that?

[00:28:35] Ginni Rometty:
Earlier, I was talking about this idea that growth and comfort never coexist. Right? That idea, to me as a woman, and I don't know why I, I can't put my finger on this, right, but there's studies done, you probably can tell them to me, of every time there’s an opportunity, women will give you the five reasons they can't do something, and a man might give you the five reasons he can do something. And that would finally come to roost with me, right? When I would get offered a job and tell my boss, like I said, had to go back and talk to my husband about it, a big, big job.

And my husband said to me, “Do you think a man would answer the question that way?” That I had to go back and talk to my husband? And he was right. It, it wasn't just making a gender point, but this point that the biggest thing I could leave you with is that thought of embrace discomfort because it means you're learning something.

So I would be, like, hungry to get on more and more complex and difficult projects. It would become a sign of, like, yes, the more nervous I get, that's so good because at the other end, something good comes out of it. It's what led me to all my preparation in life. It's all because I'm like, God, if it's something I didn't know, and now I know something, I'm better each time.

And so I would go from being afraid of change to looking for change in that when I wasn't nervous, I'd be starting to get, “Uh-oh. This is not good. This means I'm learning nothing and it would be time to change.”

Around the world, I would talk to women about this. In fact, people thought I should have named the book that: Growth and Comfort Will Never Coexist. And that would be my biggest piece of advice.

[00:30:01] Adam Grant:
That is some twisted Pavlovian conditioning right there.

[00:30:04] Ginni Rometty:
That is a—

[00:30:04] Adam Grant:
I’m gonna, I'm gonna wire myself so that I only feel good when I feel bad.

[00:30:10] Ginni Rometty:
Yes, it is true, but I don't know. You think about when have you ever learned the most, how did you feel?

[00:30:14] Adam Grant:
Usually uncomfortable.

[00:30:16] Ginni Rometty:
And so if you can do that, you'll be surprised what you will go take, where it'll take you.

[00:30:21] Adam Grant:
And then there's another question here about you spent your whole career in one company.

[00:30:26] Ginni Rometty:

[00:30:26] Adam Grant:
That is not the norm anymore. Do you think there's still a case to be made for that kind of loyalty? Or if you were in all of our student's shoes, would you do something different?

[00:30:35] Ginni Rometty:
Well, when you guys run something, I think the case is, I would say to people, “Hey, I have to earn your decision to stay here every time as a company.” And I stayed in one place because I pivoted so many times after I could get used to that discomfort thing, okay?
I felt I did work 12 places. I went from being an engineer. I, I then was into marketing. I then built a consulting group. I then worked in software. I mean, I had all these careers, but I had the benefit of a same network around me. Right?

So, I felt I could do that. So I would say to people, “Yeah, there's benefit, but the company has to earn your desire to stay there.” And the other thing I would say is, you know, some of you look at what your next step is even when I ever thought of leaving, I always ask myself the question, “Am I running from something or am I running to something?”

And so when you think about where you'll work, you'll answer those questions, and it'll have to be something aligned. Like, I always wanted to do something that would do something important and have meaning and unpack something. It doesn't mean had to be a big company. For me, it was technology to do that ‘cause I, I did go work at General Motors for a while.

I felt so loyal after they helped me pay my education. It was such a big number and I, and I say to Mary, who's my friend now, I was Mary, “Like I tried, but I learned at a really tender age there was a difference between a career and a job.” This was a job to me ‘cause I wasn't in love with cars. I was working on buses by the way.

And so, that idea that you get to do something at some point that you are really got some strong passion about is so important. That's why you'll stay one place. I had passion that technology, could it make your and my life better? I didn't get to work on that every minute by the way. You know, that's not how life is. That's unrealistic. But I did a lot of the time.

[00:32:19] Adam Grant:
Well, your passion is palpable. I think it's safe to say we would all be lucky to work with someone as passionate as you are. Can't thank you enough for coming to join us today.

[00:32:31] Ginni Rometty:
Thank you. Thank you guys.

[00:32:38] Adam Grant:
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson. Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. This episode was fact-checked by Mateus Salas.

This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.

[00:33:05] Ginni Rometty:
How many want to be CEO know already of something? That's interesting.

[00:33:10] Adam Grant:
Who’s willing to admit it is the hands you've got. There are at least twice as many.

[00:33:13] Ginni Rometty:
Okay, shut your eyes so just Adam and I can see you.

[00:33:17] Adam Grant:
Okay. Show us again. Aspiring CEOs. That's maybe triple.

[00:33:21] Ginni Rometty:

[00:33:21] Adam Grant:
Okay. Put your hands down. Now you can open.

[00:33:24] Ginni Rometty:
Yeah, yeah. Exactly. So, okay. This is like maybe a third, right, that had their hands up. So that's, I think that's kind of good ‘cause let life unfold.