Leadership Profile: IBM CEO Ginni Rometty

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, seated in a red dress.
Photograph by Krista Kennell/Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit

Long before Virginia “Ginni” Rometty was named chief executive officer, president and chair of IBM in 2012, she was a little-known systems engineer in the company’s Detroit office.

She got that job in 1981. It was a big move after a couple of years with General Motors, where she had interned before she graduated from Chicago’s Northwestern University with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering.

More than three decades into her tenure at IBM, she’s now a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and several other prestigious boards, and she is an in-demand keynote speaker for events all over the world. She is a regular on the annual “most powerful” lists from business publications such as Bloomberg, Fortune and Forbes.

In 2014, she became the third woman to attain membership at the male-dominated Augusta National Golf Club (the other two women there are former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and investment firm owner Darla Moore).

Rometty’s path to leadership at the venerable business technology company known as Big Blue provides lessons in tenacity and boldness.

Rise to Prominence

Rometty replaced Sam Palmisano as IBM’s CEO on Oct. 1, 2012. She was the first woman to run the company in the century-long existence of IBM. From her early days with the company in Detroit, Rometty rose through the ranks in a number of leadership roles.

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty quote - Clients would often say to me, What's your strategy? And i would say, Ask me what I believe first. That's a way more enduring answer.

As senior vice president of global business services in 2002, she spear-headed the acquisition by IBM of PricewaterHouseCoopers Consulting, and led the integration of it into the larger IBM culture. As early as the mid-2000s, Rometty’s name began to surface as a future CEO at the highest levels of business.

As senior vice president and group executive for sales, marketing and strategy in 2009, she laid the groundwork for IBM’s transition to a data company that focused its efforts on cloud computing and cognitive computing systems.

One result of that was the emergence of the IBM Watson system, an artificial intelligence (AI) platform that gained notoriety for a publicity event in which the computer mind defeated former Jeopardy! Champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Under Rometty’s leadership and with the emergence of the Watson system, IBM has positioned itself to compete in the fast-growing, quickly evolving healthcare industry. At the 2017 Health Informatics Management Systems Society (HIMSS) annual convention in Orlando, Rometty highlighted the vital future roles of cloud computing, data architecture and artificial intelligence in healthcare.

“We’re in a moment when we can actually transform pieces of healthcare,” Rometty told the audience of more than 40,000 health informatics and healthcare professionals at the Orange County Convention Center. “This era that will play out in front of us can change the world for the better.”

Rometty’s Leadership Style

Rometty is a charismatic speaker. Her open, frank communication style invites an audience to share her vision, which she articulates succinctly and well.

While being an accomplished public speaker does not necessarily translate to becoming a successful leader, it is clear that Rometty combines both of these qualities to great effect.

Yet, what truly sets her apart is the substance of her message. In late 2017, Rometty sat with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff for an on-stage conversation at Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference for business leaders.

The main takeaway from that keynote conversation was the idea that success is not possible without risk.

“You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable,” Rometty told Benioff and their audience. “Ask yourself: When did you grow the most, and did you feel at risk? Almost 100 percent of people will say yes. It’s true for people, it’s true for companies and it’s true for countries.”

Words of Wisdom from Rometty

  • “Clients would often say to me, ‘What’s your strategy?’ And I would say, ‘Ask me what I believe first.’ That’s a way more enduring answer.” – On-stage interview at the 2012 Fortune Magazine Most Powerful Women’s conference
  • “I learned from my mom: Do not let someone else redefine you.” – TV interview on CNBC, June 2017
  • “We’re in an era around data. That data has a ton of value if you can do something with it. If you can take that 80% [that belongs to business], plus marry it with that 20% [found on big search engines], and add in some expertise, you will make better decisions and be a learning organization.” – On-stage interview with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff at the 2017 Dreamforce conference

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