IBM's Rometty: 'You Have to Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable'

IBM boss puts a new wrinkle on old advice for success, as well as trumpeting IBM's century-long history of inclusivity for women, the disabled, and African Americans.

Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

November 20, 2017

6 Min Read
IBM's Rometty: 'You Have to Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable'

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty credited her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother for building a foundation for her professional success. And the company's century-plus record of diversity and inclusion was also a big help, the IBM boss said.

Rometty spoke in an on-stage conversation billed as a "fireside chat" with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff at the Inc. Dreamforce conference in San Francisco this month. Benioff asked the IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) boss why she thought some people succeed and some "drop off."

Rometty replied by quoting former Texas Governor Ann Richards: "It's passion and perseverance when anyone else would have given up." She also quoted Thomas Edison: "Many of life's failures are people who gave up right before they would have become successful."

Successful people need to be "passionate," she said, which is why she switched from the auto industry at the start of her career, to tech.

Figure 1: IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. Photo by Salesforce. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. Photo by Salesforce.

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"Growth and comfort -- they will never coexist. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable," she said.

Benioff and Rometty spoke for less than an hour, but they covered a lot of ground. They talked about how to keep a century-old company innovative and successful, as well as the cloud and artificial intelligence. Read about that here: IBM CEO Ginni Rometty: Darn Agile for a 106-Year-Old.

Rometty said the preceding three generations of women in her family set examples for her.

"That passion comes from my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother," Rometty said. "I had wonderful women in my life. My great-grandmother came from Russia and she was a cleaning lady at the Wrigley Building in Chicago.

"Every year for Christmas we got gum. I still have a little tin," Rometty said, adding, "She worked like a god so we could have something."

Rometty's grandmother made lampshades and had a store after Rometty's grandfather died. "She was determined to take care of herself," Rometty said. Rometty's grandmother worked until midnight.

"I don't know how many of you had your prom dresses sewed by your grandmother," Rometty asked the Dreamforce audience. Rometty's grandmother taught Rometty how to sew.

Rometty's father left when Rometty was 16. Rometty's mother had four children and no money. "She never complained. We never saw her cry," Rometty said. Rometty's mother returned to school. "We had to go on food stamps for a while, and that's what I believe social programs are for -- to bridge people," Rometty said.

Rometty's mother "had a very happy ending." She went on to become administrator at Rush Presbyterian in Chicago, at the sleep clinic.

"Not that I sleep much," Rometty said. Her brothers and sisters are also successful, which comes from Rometty's mother's example, the IBM CEO said.

"It comes from what she taught us: never let someone else define who you are," Rometty said. "Only you choose you define who you are, what you believe in, and what you go for, I think that's the essence of it of it."

She added, "It's true for a company too -- don't let someone else define who you are. Only you define who you are."

Next page: Retaining Women

Rometty continued, "I'm like many people here. A little bit part of an American dream. You can be what you want to be."

In response to a question from Benioff, Rometty said she has never experienced sexual harassment in her 36 years at IBM.

"In my time at IBM I never experienced a time when I felt disadvantaged about [gender] she said. I attribute it to values -- core values," Rometty said. Specifically, IBM's core values, a century of valuing inclusion.

IBM hired its first disabled employee way back in 1914, and named its first woman vice president in 1943, Rometty noted. IBM stood for equal opportunity before the law required it to. "The groundwork was laid years before me," she said.

IBM has more on its website: The company hired three women in 1899, the same year it hired its first black employee, the company notes in its 2012 corporate responsibility report. It took a stand against racial segregation in 1953 -- a year before the passage of the US Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education, which integrated public schools, and 11 years before the passage of the US Civil Rights Act. And IBM included sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy in 1984, the company says in a page on employee inclusion.

Rometty linked "diversity" and "inclusion." "When people say 'diversity' it is about inclusion." Inclusion means making people feel comfortable about participation regardless of gender, race or other group affiliation. "You have to create a work environment that makes you feel comfortable, and then you get the best innovation for your company, your customers," Rometty said.

Benioff asked Rometty how IBM achieves a high level of women participation in its executive team.

Rometty replied: "Representation" or "counting numbers" is "necessary but not sufficient." She said, "It is about pervasiveness. Every day. You stay on it. Every day. It permeates everything you do."

The biggest issue with women is keeping them in the workforce. "You have to allow for life's events -- but that works for men too," she said. IBM recently extended paternal leave to 20 weeks.

"We noticed that when women would leave the workforce, they were nervous to come back," Rometty said. They fear that "technology has moved on" and left them behind. So IBM started a "reconnections program" to bring women back in, including classes. The women discovered "They were fine immediately. They didn't miss that much," she said.

IBM has a high level of worker participation from so-called "Dreamers" -- undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US illegally when those immigrants were children. "It would bring a tear to your eye. These people were brought here for no reason of their own," she said. "It's about inclusion."

IBM also lobbied to block laws that would prevent transgender people from using bathrooms appropriate to the gender they identify with, she said. That required hard work. "This is a democracy. How change happens, you have to work it," she said.

IBM took a stand on that issue because it's the second-largest employer in Texas, and people felt uncomfortable coming to work, Rometty said.

IBM uses Watson to be sure that there is no bias in its own workforce.

"In God we trust. Everybody else bring data," she said.

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About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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