Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Businesses should take responsibility for downsides of technologies too: Ginni Rometty

'Power' can be good when wielded with respect and when it's inclusive, shared, and distributed, says Rometty the former chairman and CEO of IBM, the co-chair of OneTen and author of Good Power: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work, and World

Published: Jul 5, 2023 12:33:37 PM IST
Updated: Jul 5, 2023 01:15:16 PM IST

Businesses should take responsibility for downsides of technologies too: Ginni RomettyGinni Rometty, Former chairman and CEO of IBM, the co-chair of OneTen and author
Q. What’s the perspective you are trying to build when you use the term ‘good’ power?
Yes, power is often perceived negatively—in fact, I never really liked or used the word. But, as I reflected on my experiences, I realised that power doesn’t have to be bad to be potent. Power is actually necessary to make things better—be it for ourselves, our organisations, or for society.

I define “good power” as driving meaningful change in positive ways. A core idea of “good power” is that how we try to make things better is as important as what we strive to achieve, and in the book, I share five principal ways to lead with good power.

For one, we exercise good power when our intention is to be in service of others by identifying and meeting their needs before our own; in contrast, bad power is motivated by meeting our own needs only. Second, leaders use good power when they inspire people to work for a purpose they authentically believe in; a leader wielding bad power forces people to follow a mandate, regardless of whether they want to. Third, good power focuses not just on what must change, but what must endure; progress is not about disrupting everything. Fourth, good power strives to be ethical and inclusive in its execution and outcomes, particularly when it comes to the implementation of new technologies, whereas bad power ignores how actions may harm some people, and if an outcome only benefits a few, versus many. Finally, good power is also resilient, it keeps trying to achieve change even when things get tough; bad power gives up because it doesn’t have supportive relationships and the right attitude to forge ahead despite the discomfort.

Q. How far have your personal and professional experiences shaped this thinking?
Like so many people, my professional life has been influenced by my personal experiences. I first took on a leadership role in my family because I was the oldest of four children, and our dad was absent a lot. I helped my mom raise my younger siblings. At an early age, I had a sense of accountability and responsibility. Once my father abandoned us and left us with no money, I watched my mother muster the courage to go back to school and get jobs to help us pay for our home and food. She did not let my father’s actions define her life in a negative way, and I learnt through her never to let anyone define you. That was my philosophy as a leader and as CEO. There are always naysayers, doubters, and those who say something cannot be done. I never wanted those voices to define the company. If I did, we would not have survived. Instead, we forged a path for a healthy future.

Also read: 'Don't believe AI will lead to mass job losses': Arundhati Bhattacharya, Salesforce India CEO

Q. Knowing ‘what must change’ and ‘what must endure’ is critical in a volatile environment. How best can a leader make this choice?
When I became CEO in 2012, several technology trends were converging and accelerating, redefining the tech industry, and IBM was behind. To survive and thrive in the digital era, we had to reinvent the company, which included building new businesses and letting go of others that were losing money, commoditising, or not growing.

These were hard choices, but necessary to fuel the investments in new businesses that we needed. In the end, the team figured out how IBM could keep what was most valuable to us (our proprietary chip research and design) and divest what was most costly and not at scale(manufacturing). So, my advice to others who must let go of the old: Involve others in the process because participation by multiple people helps breed broad acceptance and can result in innovative ways to move forward.

Q. How crucial is ‘building belief’ in a change journey?
Building belief is about winning voluntary buy-in from people, so they unleash discretionary efforts to achieve a goal. The opposite of building belief is insisting people to do something they don’t believe in and expecting them to perform as if they did. We want people to follow us because they choose to, not because we order them.

Years before I became CEO, I learned the power of building belief when IBM acquired PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting (PwCC) to grow our own consulting business. Bringing together a private partnership with a public corporation is tricky, and I was in charge of convincing the independent consultants to stay with IBM. We weren’t acquiring products, but people with hearts, minds and legs who could choose to walk away. I needed the PwCC consultants to want to be part of IBM because they believed the merger was good for their clients, and for their own careers. To achieve that, they had to feel part of the merger because their ideas and needs were valued. I met with people one-on-one to understand what was important to them, and included them in big decisions. Rather than force-fit them into our way of working, they helped us co-create a new business unit that incorporated policies from PwCC’s culture. Ultimately, we preserved enough of the consultants’ way of life so they felt they belonged. The merger wasn’t without challenges, but the vast majority of the PwCC partners stayed with IBM for many years and IBM built a very successful business that remains a cornerstone of the company today.

Whatever your mission, you’re more likely to achieve it if you engage people’s emotions as well as their intellect. That’s key to build belief.

Businesses should take responsibility for downsides of technologies too: Ginni Rometty

Q. From the power of ‘me’ to the power of ‘we’—what does this transition entail?
At some point in our lives and careers, our attention turns from ourselves to others. We still have our own goals, but we recognise that our actions affect many, and that it’s impossible to achieve anything truly meaningful alone. As we help others and ask for their help, our perspective transitions from me to we.
This transition requires maturity, and letting go of ego. It asks us to be in service of others’ needs before we meet our own needs. This is not always easy, but it is essential if we want to rise in our careers, and have larger impacts.

Also read: Ginni Rometty: How purpose helps innovation

Q. “Stewarding good tech is not a technology issue, but a values issue.” Why do you think so?
Like any tool, technology has the potential to benefit people or harm them. How we choose to create and wield technology affects people’s well-being, and that choice is about human values.

We all use technology in some way, even if we don’t work in the tech industry. There are many ways to steward good tech. As an individual, we can choose not to post false information on social media. Tech companies, in particular, have a responsibility to make sure the technologies they create and sell are developed and managed ethically, too. An AI startup, for example, can staff its engineering teams with people from different backgrounds so the AI products being built reflect the diversity of many users. To be a steward of good tech also means a business takes responsibility for a specific technology’s downsides, not only amplify its upsides. That’s not always easy when there’s pressure to deliver financial results. It takes strength to do what’s right for the many, not just the few, and for the long term. Earning and preserving trust is essential to being a steward of good Tech.

Q. What are the benefits of a SkillsFirst approach?
The Power of Us is about making things better for large groups of people, and society, as a whole, through systemic change. By its nature, systemic change benefits many people, and it requires the participation of many. One person alone can’t induce large-scale change.

SkillsFirst is about systemically changing how societies prepare people for the workforce, as well as changing how companies hire. The current ways of educating and recruiting exclude millions of people from gainful employment. Too many businesses only interview people with traditional degrees, and yet not every job in today’s digital economy needs a degree to succeed. And, millions of people have not and will not go to college. There are so many other ways people can obtain the skills that many jobs require, like two-year colleges, tech boot camps, and apprenticeship programmes. When it comes to hiring, companies need to rewrite job descriptions around specific skills, versus credentials, and tap into new, more diverse candidate pools.

As more employers emphasise skills over degrees, they will open the workforce to overlooked talent, filling open positions more quickly, and making their workplaces more diverse. In turn, millions of people without college degrees, but with relevant training, will have access to good paying jobs. When millions more can support themselves and their families, society as a whole benefits. That is the Power of Us.

Also read: Belonging is fuel for collaboration and creativity: Susie Wise

Q. What’s the potential it holds in terms of co-creation?
Changing entrenched systems like education requires problem-solving by a diverse array of people who are willing to work together, listen to each other, and embrace the tensions to come up with creative solutions. For example, about a decade ago, a partnership between IBM, the New York City Department of Education, and the City University of New York reimagined how to prep young people for careers. The result was P-TECH, a six-year programme that pairs class work with hands-on experience so students can earn a high school diploma and a two-year degree in applied sciences. P-TECH schools engage employers, who provide content expertise, mentors and most importantly jobs for students. P-TECH has been integrated into hundreds of existing high schools in almost 30 countries, providing an alternate pathway into good careers. It is an example of co-creating for systemic change.

Q. Did you experience any kind of bias during your career?

While I did not experience overt gender bias when I was coming up in my career, I was often the only women in the room. As a result, I worried that if I didn’t know an answer to a question, or if I didn’t add value in a meeting, people would remember me because I was different from everyone else. To avoid looking bad, I extensively prepared for every meeting and presentation. The onus was on me to prove people’s stereotypes wrong. That was not fair, but all my preparation did ensure my skills stood out, which helped me excel.

Q. Skills needed to helm a tech business…
The three most important skills to lead tech: Be passionate about how technology can benefit the world, be an Olympic learner, be resilient.