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The former IBM CEO on diversity and the malaise of good ideas

For Ginni Rometty, when it comes to the people who generate and develop ideas within her teams, the broader their experience, the better.

“I sincerely believe that I get a better team, better ideas and better products from diverse talent,” said Rometty, who served as chairman, president and CEO of IBM until his resignation in 2020.

Today, Rometty co-chairs OneTen, an organization aiming to hire 1 million black Americans without a four-year degree in family-oriented jobs by 2030. Last October, she was announced as MIT’s next innovation researcher.

We spoke with Rometty about his commitment to expanding the talent pool and diversifying the talent pool, why good ideas can make people feel bad, and more.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by the opportunities to collaborate with others to solve big systemic problems. At IBM, I was surrounded by amazing colleagues who shared a belief in the fundamental promise of technology: that when we apply science to real-world problems, we can create a better future than today. Our team has made IBM the industry’s leading voice on technology ethics and data management.

The difference between a job and a career is doing what you love and working with a company whose purpose matches yours. I am fortunate to have spent nearly 40 years building a career doing work that inspired me every day.

Who inspires you?

My mother is definitely my hero. When I was young, my father left. He left my mother with four children and no money for our house or our food. She had been a housewife; she had no job, no college degree, but she was determined to provide for us. She held several jobs to support her family. In the evening, she returned to school to learn. And in the end, she made sure that the four of us found our way through school and set out on the path to success in our own careers.

Through it all, I learned an important lesson from my mother that still inspires me to this day: never let anyone else define you, only you define who you are.

Where do you find ideas?

I get ideas by asking lots of questions, listening to learn, and then connecting the dots (both the obvious ones and the others). Active listening is essential for a successful career. It shows the other person that you really want to learn, and they’ll be more engaged when they see that you appreciate what they have to offer. If you ask for advice and are willing to listen, everyone is ready to help. If you listen more than you talk, everyone is a mentor you can learn from.

How are new ideas discovered and developed in your organization?

If you want to come up with new ideas, it can help to listen to different voices, to hear from people with different backgrounds and different experiences. This is why a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion is so important.

When I was a junior systems engineer, I was assigned to planning the installation of IBM mainframes. The first thing I did was learn everything I could to learn how the systems work, right down to helping my engineering colleagues physically install the systems. This approach to developing a new process applies equally to developing a new idea: learn everything you can from people with the right hands-on expertise and experience, then take what you’ve learned and share do it with the next person. That way, when it comes time to implement your idea, you’ve built a network based on the knowledge you share, not the people you know.

What was your worst idea?

I would say the worst ideas I’ve had in my career have been the obstacles I’ve put on my own path, which I think is true for many, especially women. Years ago, my boss gave me a big promotion. I told him I wasn’t sure I was ready. For some reason, I had these notions that I needed two more years of experience to prepare myself, to become more confident. Later, when I spoke to my husband, he asked me emphatically, “Do you think a man would have answered that way?” And I said, “No, he wouldn’t.” The next day, I accepted the job.

How do you know an idea is good?

While that’s certainly not true in all cases, one sign that an idea is a good one is if it makes people feel a little uneasy. And that’s because growth and comfort never coexist.

I often ask people, “When do you think you’ve grown the most in your career?” Their answer usually involves a time when they took some sort of risk.

I think too many people give up on a good idea when it pushes them or others out of their comfort zone, when that idea may actually be the best thing to help the person or organization develop.

What’s the biggest idea you’re working on right now?

I am currently Co-Chair of OneTen, a coalition of CEOs and businesses committed to working together to develop, hire, and promote one million black people without four-year degrees into family jobs with opportunities for advancement over the next 10 years. .

Our goal is to dismantle the structural barriers in our society that disproportionately affect Black Americans. While many companies have come to rely on a college degree as an indicator of success in the workplace and as a prerequisite for job applications, nearly 80% of black Americans do not have a four-year college degree. That’s why we encouraged companies to move to a skills-based approach, to open up the talent pool to a broader and more diverse talent pool.

At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter – ideas that are carefully developed and have a meaningful impact in the world. In this context, what makes your idea count?

Economic opportunity is the best equalizer. This was the main motivation for my work with OneTen. And that’s a truth I’ve seen confirmed throughout my career.

At IBM in 2012, we were struggling to hire enough cyber talent, so we championed the P-TECH program – going to high schools and community colleges in underserved areas and providing them with a program that would develop the skills they we needed, and a chance at a job. After a year, we found that employees we hired through this program performed as well or better, demonstrated equal innovation, and were more loyal than those hired solely for their college degrees. . And notably, 75% of our hires from the program went on to obtain a university degree.

In the end, I realized that many of these people were like my mother. Their success—once given the opportunity—shows that it was never about capacity or ability, but about access and opportunity.

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