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Hard challenges demand that we embrace tension. Former CEO of IBM Ginni Rometty argues that, right now, business has a responsibility to deploy what her new book calls Good Power — from putting skills first in hiring, as a way to close systemic opportunity gaps, to thoughtfully erecting guardrails around new technology. As an early pioneer in the AI space with IBM’s Watson, Ginni acknowledges the risk that disruptive technology can have on society. She offers her insider perspective on balancing what she calls “the teeter-totter” of marketplace demands with positive long-term impact.

“With AI, you have to think about the up and the downside. Trust is built by the drop, withdrawn in buckets.”

Ginni Rometty
About the guest:

Ginni Rometty was the ninth Chairman, President, and CEO of IBM. Under her leadership, the 100-year-old company reinvented 50 percent of its portfolio and built a $25 billion hybrid cloud business. Rometty also drove record results in diversity and inclusion. She has been named Fortune’s #1 Most Powerful Woman three years in a row. Today Rometty serves on multiple boards and co-chairs OneTen, a coalition committed to upskilling, hiring, and promoting one million Black Americans by 2030 into family-sustaining jobs and careers. She is the author of Good Power: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work, and World.

About the host:

Bob Safian is the host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, and the editor-at-large for Masters of Scale. He’s the founder of The Flux Group, a media, insights, and strategic advisory firm. He was previously editor-in-chief of Fast Company, where he won the National Magazine Award for Magazine of the Year in 2014.

Business leaders often struggle with balancing marketplace dynamics and broader cultural issues. Ginni’s roadmap through this terrain isn’t without tension.

— Bob Safian
Transcript of Masters of Scale: Embrace tension

GINNI ROMETTY: Those of us in tech, we want society to really believe us that technology will make man better.

I think with not just Chat GPT, AI, you have to think about the up and the downside. Trust is built by the drop, withdrawn in buckets. 

If you go back in history, a bad thing that can happen with technology: A few can make more, and a lot can make less. And so we’re going to have to re-skill people to work there.

When my father abandoned us, my mother had no education. Instead of us remaining on food stamps and no home, she was like, “This can’t end this way. I’m going to find a way to get a skill.”

It convinced me that aptitude and access are two different things, and it can’t be more true in this country right now. And I just feel that we can create so much opportunity for so many people.

BOB SAFIAN: That’s former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. In her new book Good Power, Ginni argues that all of us have a responsibility to use the influence we have to positively impact others. 

I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux Group, and host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response. 

I wanted to talk to Ginni because taking responsibility for society increasingly falls on business leaders. Yet they often struggle with balancing marketplace dynamics and broader cultural issues. Ginni’s roadmap through this terrain isn’t without tension. As she puts it, “growth and comfort never coexist.”

Ginni talks about the need for what she calls “good tech,” and both the obligation and the opportunity for businesses to help those being left behind by tech-fueled change.

She was at the helm of IBM when they created Watson, the early question-answering AI that beat Jeopardy champions. Her reflections on what she learned provide insights into our ChatGPT-crazed moment.  

Ginni’s lessons are about building trust, setting guardrails, and making the right decisions for the long term.

[Theme Music]

SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian. I’m here with Ginny Rometty, longtime CEO of IBM and author of the new book, Good Power. Ginny, thanks for joining us.

ROMETTY: Bob, thank you. Nice to see you again.

IBM’s Ginny Rometty on her book, Good Power

SAFIAN: So your book, Good Power, it’s both a memoir and a call to action for businesses, for business leaders, to use their platforms for broader impact than just maximizing dollars. What do you hope the book’s impact will be?

ROMETTY: I hope to be in service to a lot of people, not just business leaders. And that they have the power to make some pretty meaningful changes to some tough problems out there. And so yes, business people, of course, I think, might be the first audience, but I’m hoping that anyone, even someone trying to change something personally, will find value in it. 

SAFIAN: And so what is the definition of ”good power?”

ROMETTY: Good power is the ability to do really hard, meaningful things, but do them in a positive way. And now what is positive? You run toward tension so that you unite, not divide things, you do it respectfully though. No fear. And then you celebrate progress, not just perfection. I often associate perfection with polarization of issues right now. And if you’re with me or against me, it’s really hard to make progress. Good power’s more about how things get done than exactly the what. I’m trying to share an idea about how to do things that are hard in a positive way.

Why you should run toward tension

SAFIAN: Now you said that the first thing was: run toward tension. Most of us instinctively avoid tension.

ROMETTY: I have learned over so many decades that if I would run toward conflict, it was so much more productive — both mentally and emotionally for me. Instead of stewing in the problem constantly, if I would just take it head on, I could actually make some progress. Right now the tensions are so high on things that people get divided when they talk about them. Instead of saying, “No, wait. Now how can we bridge a difference?” Which does not mean compromised by the way, but bridge a difference? And so I would run toward tension in this world.

One of the great lessons in the book is that growth and comfort never coexist. When I was looking to go to a new job, all I could think of was all the reasons I couldn’t do it. It was so vivid to me that I would be uncomfortable, but I would not grow. That helped me take on riskier and riskier assignments, and actually look for things that I didn’t know how to do and want to learn something. And it would eventually end for me to believe that, when I hire people, the number one thing I would hire for is their willingness to learn. 

SAFIAN: At the outset of the book, you make it very clear that the book is not about leadership lessons for women, although you were one of only a handful of women’s CEOs at major firms.

ROMETTY: I originally did not include much of anything about being a woman. It’s just not how I defined my tenure, or my whole career, my life. And yet people would ask, when I was sort of mid-career and I was presenting somewhere, and someone came up after, I thought he was going to tell me how brilliant my talk was on financial services regulation. And he said, “Look, I wish my daughter could have seen you.”

And in that moment I realized, “Okay, look, this is not about me defining myself as a woman, but people cannot be what they cannot see.” And it’s a responsibility at a certain point to be a role model. So in the book, I come full circle in that I do end up talking a bit about it, because I know it does mean something to a lot of people. But I don’t believe any of these leadership traits have to do with being a man or woman. Some of the traits may be more what people like psychologists would call more feminine types of traits, but that doesn’t mean you’re a man or woman leader.

How should leaders decide what public issues to weigh in on

SAFIAN: You mentioned the idea of being a role model. CEOs today, business leaders are personally more front and center for the brand and the business, internally, externally called in on social and political issues in a way that they weren’t even when you started as a CEO. How do leaders decide what to weigh in on when it comes to these public issues?

ROMETTY: So I can only tell you how I made those choices. I think all companies are tech companies now. So we should take responsibility for the up and the downside of what technology does in the long run. And so I had a framework. I would focus on things that had any impact on trust, meaning: did my words and actions always match up and align with my values? How do you introduce new technology? We could talk about ChatGPT, et cetera. I prioritized focusing on inclusion, because I do really believe with inclusion, you get better products, better company. And then, I felt it was our duty to prepare the world to think that these new technologies would make their life better, not worse. So to prepare society.

So whatever your framework is, I think you need one, is my only point. Because I would say to the workforce, I cannot and will not speak out on everything.

Ginny Rometty on ChatGPT and AI ethics

SAFIAN: So you mentioned stewarding good tech and ChatGPT, and I did want to ask you about ChatGPT, particularly in the context of, you know, IBM because IBM was a pioneer in AI, right? IBM Watson, in some ways, was Chat GPT before Chat GPT existed, although it didn’t have that moment of broad consumer use in the same way. And I’m curious, you’re nodding, how you think about Chat GPT and the way we’re thinking about AI today, and how you thought about it with Watson, and what that means in relation to what you call good tech?

ROMETTY: IBM works on large language models and large language AI but in a business enterprise context. I had a lot of learnings. I always feel like when you’re the early guy, you catch a few arrows as a pioneer here. I always felt the purpose of our AI and the purpose of the new technologies was to augment man. I also said it would change all jobs. Through my journey, at least, I came to conclude in the end this would not be a technology issue, this is going to be a people trust issue.

So when I think of AI right now, Chat GPT jumps to the forefront because it’s got this consumer access to it. Trust is built by the drop, withdrawn in buckets. I’ve seen a quote from OpenAI CEO, and he says, “Hey, be careful. Don’t use this for anything important yet.” But we’re out in the consumer world, there’s no real governors on how it’s used.

As an example people say, “Well, this will be better for doctors. Just think you could have something on your phone.” Okay, you’re right. Doctors do make some mistakes depending on the type of disease, 5-20% times they’re wrong. But your tolerance when it’s technology is very different. I learned, guarantee that you expect that technology for an important problem to be 100% right, not 5-20. Search, maybe you’ll tolerate it. But the more important the problem starts moving, uh-uh. I do think how introduction happens matters. And we’ll see, is it a good thing that Chat GPT reached a million people in five days, or not? It depends.

You do need guardrails. I felt like I was talking about AI ethics a decade ago, and nobody really cared. Because once it’s started, it’s impossible to slow down. But you can have an opinion about usage, about how it’s applied.

When we worked on quantum, you know, quantum can break traditional encryption. So we worked on encryption that could not be broken by quantum in parallel. And that’s that idea of good tech says, I better pay attention to the positive and the negative.

SAFIAN: I want to ask you to make sure I understand this right. Because I’ve noticed that the fact that ChatGPT came from a start-up and not from one of the big companies that we know has been spending lots of years and lots of money building AI, is that in part because those companies might have been able to release a product like that. But in some ways, they had too much at stake for their brand to have it be messy in the release.

ROMETTY: It’s a good question. What is the tolerance — I use that word tolerance — of their users for it being right or wrong? An exact or not. And I do think there is a difference on how people view that by different … A small start-up versus a large established company, what they expect, and it gets back to that word trust.

SAFIAN: Yeah, everybody loves playing with ChatGPT, but when it becomes part of Bing, suddenly it gets complained about. Right?

ROMETTY: Very different one. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s Bing, but any big established company like that that people expect some X from. If all of a sudden that’s out of the norm, very different reaction.

Skills vs degrees

SAFIAN: Folks in technology often emphasize the positive potential of these new techs. There’s a lot of carnage that comes when dramatic change happens for those folks at the end of the barbell that are not the beneficiaries of that. As a tech leader, did you feel like that makes it part of my responsibility to try to fill that because we’re beneficiaries on one end?

ROMETTY: I did. If you go back in history and look, a bad thing that can happen with technology: A few can make more, and a lot can make less. And so we’re going to have to re-skill people to work there. I think society gives you a license to operate. And so I felt it was my job then to prepare society to think, hey, if these technologies are out here, I can still make a good living. And it got me down a whole path over the last decade. This is back in early 2012. The people were not yet trained in much of this to be a cyber analyst, as an example. I happened to walk into the next meeting at one corporate social responsibility school, which was a high school, poor neighborhood, and worked with a community college.

We gave them input on a curriculum, and hired the kids for internships. And said, okay, even though in parallel you can get an associate degree at this high school, we might hire you for a few jobs. But 95% of our jobs require a college degree. Lo and behold, these people have great skill we find. And wow, now lo and behold, 97% are from diverse groups. Then I start to think, holy cow, I think we’re onto something. I need the people, and I want a more diverse workforce, and this is a whole new talent pool. Well this to me eventually turns out to be a movement to this idea of hire for people skills, not just their degrees. It’s not like I’m against a degree, I’m one of the vice chairs at Northwestern University. I have a degree.

But 65% of Americans don’t have a college degree. 80% of Black Americans don’t have a college degree. And if all the jobs, good jobs, raise-a-family-of-four good jobs are going to people with college degrees, we have a very big problem in this country. And I would learn over time that almost 75% of jobs have been over credentialed. It became an easy way for HR to vet through resumes, just use a college degree.

SAFIAN: It’s an artificial filter.

ROMETTY: It’s an artificial barrier; it’s systemic in its nature. It took a better part of 5 years to re-look at every job we had and rewrite it based on a skill. And we went from 95% needing college to start, to 50%. And then we started measuring performance, because people would think maybe you’re dumbing down the workforce, but we weren’t. And many go on to then get their degrees, all diverse. It’s really become my life’s purpose now because if you look at it, giving people economic opportunities, probably the best thing you could do as the greatest equalizer out there. And people aren’t going to like technology if they think it goes the other direction.


SAFIAN: Before the break we heard IBM’s former CEO Ginni Rometty talk about what she calls “good power” and “good tech.”

Now, she talks about how, in her post-IBM work, she’s trying to make corporate America more accountable for broadening workplace opportunity.

She also shares insights on what she calls the “teeter-totter” of managing change, the difference between work-life balance and work flexibility, and the importance of setting your own boundaries in the face of unending demands.

How Ginny Rometty got involved with OneTen

I know you’re working with OneTen, the organization you co-founded with Ken Chenault and Ken Frazier. Both of them have been on the show and talked about how after George Floyd’s murder they were talking to each other, and anchored on this idea of adding family sustaining jobs for Black Americans. How did you get involved with them?

ROMETTY: On the heels of the murder of George Floyd, many people spoke out about, what should they do? And Ken and Ken said, we should do what corporate America does best, and we should hire. Okay, so they were the what, I was the how. I was like, bing. We can get a coalition of all the big companies, and we can work on them to help them all move to skills first.

I said, “Guys, I think I know how to make your vision come a reality.” And that is what’s brought us together. And we enter year three of OneTen, which stands for 1 million over 10 years.

Like any start-up, we said we’re going to work on Black Americans first, but every barrier is a systemic barrier for any underrepresented group. We’ve hired about 100,000 people today. And a lot of the focus is as well on promotion.

What I learned from my mother when my father abandoned us: My mother had no education. Instead of us remaining on food stamps and no home, she was like, “This can’t end this way. I’m going to find a way to get a skill.”

She never had anything beyond high school, never worked a day outside the home. She’s 32 years old, four kids. And she got just enough community college and a little more to get a decent job. And I only tell you that story because it convinced me that aptitude and access are two different things, and it can’t be more true in this country right now. My mom wasn’t dumb; she had no access to anything. And I just feel that we can create so much opportunity for so many people. 

You are optimistic about this. I mean there are a lot of proclamations and announcements that were made after George Floyd and there hasn’t always been a lot of tangible progress.

No, this is tangible. A, they put money in. B, they sign up for the number of hires per year. C, CEO-led and committed. And they made a long-term commitment. And D, we’re tracking those hires. So then once they’re hired, it’s not like they’re an experiment. You have to hire people in cohorts so that the company changes to adapt to them too and that you end up with this very wide spectrum of teammates.

And to your point, we all felt like words don’t matter. What is the action and the outcome?

The teeter-totter pace of change

SAFIAN: So in your book you use this phrase: “what must change and what must endure.” And some people are impatient about the pace of change in culture, inside organizations that we move too slow. And other folks are kind of wary that we move too fast, that it’s chaotic. How do you think about the pace of change in our era and how all of us leaders, organizations, individuals should be adapting to it?

ROMETTY: If you’re too patient then you start to believe excuses of why things can’t change. So there’s this constant, teeter-totter, that you’re constantly trying to get right. The speed of the change and then the rate at which the organization can really absorb it and make it permanent.

One of the things I learned is: do think hard about what you are at your soul because be willing to change everything else but do know what that is. I know when I, in that hurry to change and people, “become something else, become something else,” you start to drift away from what you really are and that was always a mistake. Now it doesn’t mean what you are doesn’t have to be modernized, for sure. But how you do it may actually be what you’re remembered for. During my tenure as CEO, I would tell the workforce, go faster. We got to go faster, faster. I’m like, they think that’s the only word I know.

And then I had this epiphany one day because I could see people were tired; they’re working so hard and some of the outcomes weren’t changing. And I thought, okay, wait a second, this isn’t fair. That would lead me down a whole other path of agile design thinking, net promoters, a lot of things that you never see on the outside but make a difference on the inside. I think often in those moments of crisis to change, people forget to look at the how, they just look at the what.

Two important themes for managing a workforce right now

SAFIAN: You mentioned your workforce feeling like they were getting tired because you were pushing them too much, we’re all tired these days. This challenge about how to manage the workforce is something that we’re all struggling with right now between remote work and in-office or lifetime careers versus tours of duty.

ROMETTY: Really two important themes right now. I think this idea of how clear is the purpose of the company, and do people feel connected to it? And the second one is flexibility. And that is different than work-life balance.

It doesn’t mean that you’re all in the office or all not. I mean I was very familiar with hybrid; we already had hybrid work. And so I feel that was a benefit because it took years for people to self-govern themselves to learn how to do that. So for companies that had none of it, I could see why that’s a struggle because you can’t let everybody decide what to do on any given day. But I think the workforce of the future, if I had to pick two words, it would’ve been purpose and flexibility.

SAFIAN: And can you double click for me on flexibility versus work-life balance? What’s the difference there?

ROMETTY: To me work-life balance says that I want you to be sure that I have all this time, extra time perhaps, to do something. And that’s a good thing. Flexibility says no, let me determine, all right, I’ve got to take these days off or I am going to work in this kind of way when I have to. Or it may even be, yes, I am going to take off because I have an ill parent for X months, or it might be I can get my work done partly working with my team this way, not that way. And that’s probably a lot more levers than just work-life balance. I think. So that’s, to me, the difference I draw between them.

Learning to draw boundaries

SAFIAN: I mean there’s something about the work-life balance that has come to imply sort of more limited ambition in a certain way. That I’m throttling back on my work in order to have my life.

ROMETTY: I actually think I had to force myself to learn that. I had to force myself to take time for relationships. Could I be in the moment? I would be at dinner with my husband, and I would go to the restroom, and of course I would be on my phone, and I don’t realize how much time would go by. And I would come back, and he’s like, “oh yeah, great, super, you’ve been on your phone.” And I’m like, “okay, this is really not a quality evening now is it?” And I’m sure many people can identify with that point.

I had to learn to draw the boundaries that I needed to make time. It might be my family, but it could be my friends, it could be my coworkers, it could be my colleagues. If I made that quality time, I learned so much. And they gave me perspective on big problems that were there that you might not see.

And I know you could hope and pray that a company’s going to give up a perfect formula to you, but for most of us, it’s what we do to ourselves. I had to learn that I had to draw boundaries, and the only person who could do it was me. You will do better work if you give yourself in your mind some space and some time however you define it. It could be working out, it could be doing something with kids, it could be reading, it doesn’t matter. It’s whatever gives your brain kind of that little pause back a minute. And I’m like, the irony is the time you give it may be the greatest fuel you’ll actually get.

SAFIAN: I think a lot of people have been struggling with that particularly over the last three years as the intensity of the environment has seemed to be sort of unending.

ROMETTY: It’s hard because I always say work, leaders, they will suck everything out of you that you’ll give. I mean, a company is an innate object, it’ll pull, there’ll be no end. So I feel like for each of us we have to then draw those lines ourselves somehow to do it.

SAFIAN: And as a business person who is overseeing people who may be doing this, how much responsibility do you have to help that team?

ROMETTY: I know. That’s what I mean. ‘Cause it’s easy. You might say, “God, I love how hard everyone works.” But I would say to people, because I say, “look guys, some of how I work, I work because I like it. This is my pleasure.” And I would try to go out of my way to say to people, “I do not expect you to do the same thing.” Some people would say to me, “hey look, when you send me notes every hour of the day on the weekend, it makes me feel I should be looking at them every hour of the day of the weekend.” And I’m like, “honestly, that isn’t really why I’m sending them, I’m like getting them through my funnel. I didn’t actually expect you to have to answer them immediately.”

I’ve seen others say, “Hey, look, I just don’t send some people this or that, because I know the pressure I’m putting on them, and it’s not the pressure I mean to do.” So it’s both sides of what you can do. But there are, as a leader, the things you could do to not send the wrong signal you’re really not trying to send.

What’s at stake for business leaders right now

SAFIAN: So from the context that you’ve seen, what do you think is at stake right now for businesses, for business leaders, for all of us?

ROMETTY: The biggest thing that I think about is the social fabric of a country, countries, the socioeconomic divide. People feeling that their future will be better.

This is the first time, I’m not so sure, a generation says that their future will be better than their parents’ generation saw things. So that tears away at a social fabric that tears away at democracy. There’s not a good ending there.

We all think about how people can thrive in this next era, which is clearly going to be driven by digital transformation. Now we have to make sure that people can see their place in that world. 

SAFIAN: Well, Ginni, this has been great. Thank you so much for taking the time. Really appreciate it.

ROMETTY: My pleasure. It’s good to catch up with you after all this time Bob. Thank you.

Masters of Scale’s mission is to democratize entrepreneurship. Launched in 2017 as a weekly podcast featuring Reid Hoffman, we’re now two weekly podcasts — Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, and Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, hosted by Bob Safian — as well as an award-winning daily learning app, a best-selling book, virtual and live events, and more, serving a global community of founders, funders, and leaders looking to innovate at scale.
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