The word "power" in the workplace is loaded, and it can sometimes carry negative connotations. Many people are uneasy admitting they want power at work. Maybe it feels manipulative or even dirty. But the uncomfortable truth is that it's difficult for the powerless to do any good—in the world or the workplace.
"A lot of times when I ask people, they're like 'No, no, I don't want to be powerful. I just want to work on big problems,' " said Ginni Rometty, the former CEO of IBM. "But the irony is that to solve big problems, you've got to have some power. And I believe … that good power means it's done with respect, not fear. It unites people, it doesn't divide them."
Rometty, the author of the new memoir, Good Power: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work and World (Harvard Business Review Press, 2023), shared her path from a difficult childhood to becoming one of the world's most influential business leaders in the latest edition of the SHRM Executive Network's People + Strategy podcast, recorded in front of a live audience at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2023 in Las Vegas.
Aptitude and Access
When Rometty was in her early teens in Chicago, her father walked out on the family, leaving four kids and Rometty's mother, who had no job and no education past high school. Her mother enrolled in community college and took on multiple hourly jobs to pay the bills. But the family still survived on food stamps and financial aid.
"My mom did not want to be defined as a victim," said Rometty, "and while she never said the words, what she taught us was never let someone else define who you are. Only you define who you are. And that would be one of the big lessons I would take away. … No matter what, there's always a way forward—and while it may be a little bit out of fashion today, this idea that hard work makes things a little bit better."
Rometty turned her own hard work into admission to Northwestern University and a scholarship from General Motors that would pay her tuition if she worked at the company during summers. After graduating, she began her career as a systems analyst in GM's IT department and moved to IBM in 1981, where she spent her first decade in technical positions. After moving into management, she climbed the ladder and in 2011 became IBM's first woman CEO. In her nine years in the top seat, the 100-year-old company reinvented half its product line, built a $25 billion hybrid cloud business and established its leadership in artificial intelligence computing.
Even as Rometty climbed to those lofty heights, her difficult early years shaped her lifelong perspective about the often-unfair balance between a person's innate abilities and their access to opportunities. Aptitude and access, she said, are two different things.
"My mom was actually pretty smart, but she had no access to anything," said Rometty. "I feel like God spreads brains around pretty evenly in the world. Opportunity? Not so much. … This would color my entire view of the workforce and about what we need to do to bring more people into the workforce."
That's why as CEO, Rometty pushed IBM to adopt "skills-first" recruitment and development practices, rather than making the lack of a university degree a deal-breaker for most professional jobs. She is continuing that skills-first advocacy today through her work as co-chair of OneTen, a nonprofit that aims to promote the hiring of one million Black individuals who don't have four-year degrees into family-sustaining careers.
How to Use 'Good Power' in Your Life
Rometty learned early on that good power is a choice available to everyone, even those without money or status. Good power isn't about exerting control over others, she said—it's about "how to do hard things, but do them in a good way."
From the People + Strategy podcast, here are Rometty's five principles for using that good power:
1. BE IN SERVICE OF OTHERS: Strive to make someone or something better by meeting their needs.
"Be sure you understand what you are in service of. Don't serve something. Be in service of something. If you go to dinner and [the waiter] brings you your food, does that make it a good night? You can tell when a waitperson wants you to have a good evening. They do more than just bring you your food. And they're doing that not because you pre-committed their tip, right? It's on the hope that if they do it, something will come back and they'll meet their goal.
"If you're trying to do something hard, boy, you better be clear you're in service of something. Fulfill your need, and it's on trust that I eventually can fulfill my own because of it. I always found that was essential."
2. BUILD BELIEF: Use influence, not authority, to inspire people to willingly embrace change.
"You've got to build belief in whatever it is you're trying to solve. But it's how you build belief. It's this idea of talking to someone's head and heart at the same time. … There are a lot of people who analytically lead, but it's important to be vulnerable and authentic enough to do both of those at the same time.
"I know Ken Chenault, who ran American Express. And I will always remember a presentation he gave one day. He said, 'The role of a leader is to paint reality and then give hope.' I internalized that to mean head and heart. And I have found that that's needed to do something hard, because you're trying to voluntarily get somebody to go to someplace that was not the reality they envisioned."
3. KNOW WHAT MUST CHANGE AND WHAT MUST ENDURE: Make tough choices by thinking critically, creatively and honestly.
"I learned the hard way, by leading IBM through what would be its most difficult transition, to know what must change, but also know what must endure. Most people focus on any kind of change. And they skip, 'Wait a second, what's actually good here that should endure, even if it has to get modernized?'
"What a company does could be important, but how work gets done is as important. … [At IBM] we had to go fast. These other competitors had been springing up around us, and we'd been in the old model too long. So here I am CEO and I'm forced with all this change. And I kept telling the workforce, 'Go faster, go faster, go faster.' And I'm looking at the numbers and see were not going faster. And to me the learning was: This wasn't fair. As leaders, it's like telling you, 'Go run a marathon and keep those hiking boots on.' That's not fair. So that took me on this course of really focusing on ... agile, design thinking, experiential learning, every way I could get people to give them new tools, layers, decision matrix, everything you could think of that would make their work easier to do.
"I would also learn that the number one thing I could hire for was not the exact skill. It was someone's willingness to learn. And I learned it the hard way. We were under such pressure to change. We hired lots of people from the outside, and we had people inside. In the end, it wasn't about, 'You weren't good if you were in or out.' The real 'good' were the people who were willing to learn about the other pieces. And that would, for me, change everything about how we hired to make a person's propensity to learn as the number one hiring criteria."
4. BE A STEWARD OF GOOD TECH: Drive trust and inclusion by doing what's right for the long term, speaking out and advocating for others.
"I felt really strongly [during her IBM CEO years] that the world was bifurcating between good tech and bad tech. And everybody uses tech in some way. … What that, in a nutshell, means is that you need to manage the upsides and the downsides of technology at the same time. Most of the time it's only managing the up. And this is really going to be a mistake in the ChatGPT era.
"[With ChatGPT], don't focus on the technology. Focus on 'Can you use it in a trusted way?' I would roll it out on very simple things first. I would use it as an assistant first. My husband just turned 70. I ran out of time to write the toast for the little birthday party we had for him. ChatGPT did a wonderful job writing the toast. But I did feel like I had to be honest, so at the end I said, 'This was written by ChatGPT.' "
5. BE RESILIENT. Change takes time; the right relationships and attitudes help us persevere.
"Anytime you do something hard, it is not a straight line to heaven. And there are a lot of naysayers. So you better know how to build resilience. And to me, resilience comes from relationships and attitude."