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Ginni Rometty didn’t grow up in a privileged family. She didn’t have lots of early mentors. And she didn’t pursue a field filled with women who excelled before her. Yet she became the first female President and CEO of IBM, one of the most enduring tech companies in the world.
So, how did she do it? Hard work. Knowing more than the guy in the next office. And standing her ground when she had something to say.
But the former CEO and author of the new book Good Power also understood the wisdom of what now sounds like a Rometty mantra: “Growth and comfort don’t co-exist.”
If she wanted to keep getting better, rising, and leading at higher levels, she would have to accept feelings of discomfort – and repeatedly pivot.
She learned this transformative lesson, she said, after someone recommended her for a job.
“I don’t think I’m ready,” was her first response.
“Go to the interview,” he said.
She went and was offered the job.
“I want to talk to my husband about it,” she said.
Then she went home, and her husband shook his head. He reminded her of how she was qualified – so qualified she’d probably be bored in six months. Then he asked if she thought a man would respond as she did. The answer was clear.
“And it crystallized for me that even if I felt nervous – and will likely always feel that way when I’m uncertain of something – A, I don’t have to articulate it, and B, unless I’m nervous, I’m not going to learn anything.
Growth and comfort don’t coexist.
“That’s where that came from,” she said. “And I would feel this repeatedly as I would go forward in time. And I would keep putting myself in these positions where growth and comfort didn’t coexist.”
She also recommended other women consider the same lesson in leadership.
“I think the most important thing you can do is develop a strong desire to keep learning in every situation you’re in,” she said – referring to “the power of me,” the first of three powers she addresses in her book.
“But at some point in life, you start to transition into, ‘Boy, I have to inspire other people, and now I care about developing another group of people, not just myself.’ That’s, to me, the power of we. And when I do that, I can accomplish more.”
Then she considered some of the principles she learned from the best leaders she had ever worked with. These included being in service instead of serving someone and inspiring others to believe that they could create a different reality than the one they were then in.
“The whole idea of good power starts with what you can do for yourself, like a pebble in the water, the power of me,” she concluded. “But scope and potency grow, and you need to recognize that. That’s influencing ‘the power of we,’ a bigger group. And don’t give up on societal change because you think it is too big to fix. That is what the power of us is about.”
Ginni Rometty spoke at the 2023 California Conference for Women. This article is based on her conversation with Fortune Magazine’s senior editor Ellen McGirt. Comments have been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.