Women in Leadership Profiles

Ginni Rometty – IBM: Look Outside the Bubble to Ignite Innovation and Spark Profits

Early in her career, Ginni Rometty learned that honing just her technical skills wasn’t enough to move forward.

“As a systems engineer, I needed to look outward, beyond strictly technical issues to the higher-order business issues my clients were trying to address. That meant I needed to combine my technical knowledge with expertise in a specific industry, and I needed to build trust with clients – they needed to know I understood their challenges.”

That combination centered Rometty’s focus, and forms the bedrock of her reputation as one of the most client-centric leaders in the IT industry. She applies that foundation every day in her current role leading the organization responsible for revenue, profit and client satisfaction in IBM’s 170 global markets, and she still looks to the outside to spark her passion for innovation.

“It comes down to one word: Inclusion. You have to leave boundaries behind,” Rometty says. “By going outside your usual scope, you find diversity of thought and experience. Those differences make people bolder, more open to ideas, more willing to explore the provocative. That’s where innovation happens.”

That philosophy was put to the ultimate test in 2002, when IBM turned to Rometty to lead the integration of PriceWaterhouseCoopers Consulting into IBM’s massive services business, and manage the potential clash of cultures that derails many if not most acquisitions in professional services industries.

Today, the unit formed with the PWCC acquisition – IBM Global Business Services – is a market leading business consultancy in its own right, an engine of tremendous profit growth for IBM, and by any definition one of the most successful integrations in an industry category littered with failed attempts to create the same kind of capability.

From the outset and throughout the multi-year process of melding talents and cultures, Rometty applied that thinking to build teams of people who use their differences as inspiration.

“Inclusion and diversity of thought fuels high-performance teams and delivers innovation. The central question isn’t ‘my way’ or ‘your way.’ It’s allowing people to see a new kind of possibility – the chance to create a level of client value that hadn’t existed before, and then create an environment in which smart people find the path to the right end state. Of course, that has to be managed. But you can manage it with a lighter hand if people are able to see and respect what each individual or group brings into the equation.”

Today, as the planet becomes smaller, flatter and faster, the premium on global relationships expands. Rometty views that on multiple dimensions – the ability to help a client integrate with local markets and cultures; the ability to think and operate as a truly global citizen; and the ability to appreciate the value of a mindset different than your own.

“Especially in a world that is only going to become more interconnected — at the level of markets, cultures and societies — diversity helps validate our approach in the world marketplace,” she says. “We’re a company that’s been around for almost 100 years. That’s a century of continuous innovation – basically a willingness to change everything, with the exception of a set of core beliefs and values. It’s also given us the time and experience to operate in markets all over the world as a trusted local company, not one more multinational with a network of international branch offices. You can’t overstate the importance of that for clients that are looking to broaden their own global profiles.”

That global, market-based perspective has also shaped her sense of value within an organization. “If the only thing you’re good at is managing what’s internal to your company, that doesn’t have value anywhere else but where you are right now.”

She advises people to boost their career currency by leaning toward roles that are valued externally. “If you are doing something that’s only relevant to your company, the paradox is that you will eventually become irrelevant. You always want to have skills that are valued in the marketplace.”

Rometty’s currency at IBM and in the marketplace is strong. In her current role, she’s posted back-to-back profits for her employer, she is regarded as a trusted advisor to many of IBM’s largest and most sophisticated clients, as well as a classic diagnostician able to quickly access situations, envision the desired outcomes and prioritize actions to get there. As a result, she’s consistently included on FORTUNE magazine’s “Power 50” list, and in 2008 joined Forbes magazine’s “100 Most Powerful Women.”

Rometty sees today’s economic environment as fertile ground for new innovation and growth. “This is a very transformative time,” she says. “An economic downturn forces people to think about their business model in ways they hadn’t imagined,” she explains. “Companies can copy products and services, but it’s much, much harder to copy a business model. People are more willing to collaborate right now. This is the time to become better, stronger and smarter.”

That’s a lesson drawn from years of direct engagement on the strategic agendas of clients all over the world, as well as personal experience and choices she’s made along the way. One of those presented itself when Rometty was tapped on the shoulder and asked to step away from tried-and-true career track within IBM, to lead the launch of a full-blown consulting business inside the tech giant, and integrate the PWCC partners and practitioners. Shifting from a predictable trajectory to uncharted territory presented doubt and soul-searching.

The weekend before she started her new job, Rometty was still worried about leaving smooth pavement but she didn’t want to turn around either. She learned a valuable lesson: When presented with a fork in the road, choose the path with greater risk.

“That’s how you grow. When I took the leap, I built new skills, I built confidence and I increased my value.”

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