AIB Featured Business Leader – Ginni Rometty

AIB Featured Business Leader – Ginni Rometty

IBM CEO Virginia M. (Ginni) Rometty began her career as a systems engineer with IBM in 1981 in Detroit, Michigan. Since then, she has held a series of leadership positions with IBM and has managed some of the companies biggest projects. Before becoming CEO, she was responsible for business results in the 170 global markets in which IBM operates and pioneered IBM’s rapid expansion in the emerging economies of the world. Prior to this, she led the successful integration of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting. This acquisition was the largest in professional services history, creating a global team of more than 100,000 business consultants and services experts.

What put her on the road to becoming the first female chief executive of IBM in 2012? Rometty grew up in a middle class, average background in Chicago that seemed normal until her mid-teens. Then her parents’ marriage broke up. Her mother, who had never worked outside the house, was suddenly left without income. To keep the family afloat, she took on multiple jobs and attended college at night to get a degree. Rometty, the oldest of four children, had to look after the house in the evenings.

The teenage Rometty absorbed her mother’s work ethic and became determined to succeed on her own terms. In 1975, she won a scholarship to attend Northwestern University in Illinois, where she studied computing science and electrical engineering.

After joining IMB, Rometty spent the next 30 years diligently climbing the corporate ladder and has become known for her focus, discipline, self-control and loyalty to the gigantic corporate edifice.

The ninth chief executive officer in IBM’s 103-year history, her ascension to the top job at IBM may have made history, but Rometty, 58, doesn’t waste time waxing on about the significance of her glass ceiling smashing career. In addition to being the first woman to head IBM, she does not waste much time on anything not viewed as essential to “transforming” the company to which she has devoted much of her adult life.

Since assuming the top job, Rometty has made a series of sweeping changes. She snapped up cloud-services provider SoftLayer Technologies for $2 billion in 2013 and has pledged to invest $1 billion toward the development and commercialisation of Watson, a so called cognitive computing system capable of sifting through millions of scientific papers in seconds. She has also sold off some of IBM’s lower-margin businesses, made cuts in its still-massive employee base, and even simplified contracts for clients (bringing down the typical number of pages from 30 to just four).

Many describe Rometty as collaborative and say she is a clear communicator. Tall and striking, she gives off an almost regal air when she walks into a room. She is also surprisingly approachable. “She’s extraordinarily confident and very warm at the same time,” says Ann Winblad, managing director of venture capital firm Hummer Winblad Venture Partners. “That’s very rare.”

Clear communication inside IBM has also been a big focus for Rometty. At her very first staff meeting after taking over the CEO job, she gathered her SVPs in a company boardroom and told each of them three things he or she did well (and in some cases what each could improve on). The executives were caught off-guard by the unprecedented open airing of feedback. “I had never seen this happen,” recalls Kelly, the head of IBM Research. “She was sending a signal to everybody in the room that you’re part of my team, and, you know, you’re all good at certain things.”

Rometty has devoted so much time to communication that it’s a wonder she has time for anything else. In 2013, for example, she launched an ambitious online education program called Think Academy, available to IBMers and the company’s partners. Topics for monthly classes range from the new era of data security to changing cloud platforms to the infrastructure challenges of Africa, many of which Rometty introduces or teaches herself. And if there’s a Think Academy interview with, say, a CEO of a company that’s using IBM software, count on the interlocutor to be Rometty as well.

With a big ship to steer, Rometty’s vision of how IBM will thrive and succeed in big data, the cloud and mobility is one of survival. She notes that the only way to survive is to continuously transform into something else. “It’s this idea of continuous transformation that makes you’re an innovation company”.

Rometty’s conviction is powerful. One of the biggest lessons she has learnt from her predecessors at IBM is the importance of knowing what must change and what must endure. How do the titans of industry find this balance? I’m interested to learn how leaders keep current in an age of constant innovation and disruption. 

This article was written by Jelena Milutinovic on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Business Insider; Fortune and IBM

Image credit: Business Insider

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