During an early period in my career at IBM, I was trying to work on my own weaknesses very deliberately. I had perfectionist tendencies that customers appreciated, but that could drive my colleagues crazy. Specifically, I was a nit-picky editor, often returning reports and other documents with so many hand-written notes and crossed-out words that my direct reports nicknamed me Ginni “Red Pen” Rometty. 

“Take the red pen away from her!” they’d chide. This was not whispered behind my back; I was in on the joke. More than once I received a red pen as a gift. There was a lesson in the humor.  

My drive for perfection often meant I only focused on what needed to change without acknowledging the positive. This could keep people from trusting themselves. It would take me a while to learn that just because I could point something out, didn’t mean I should. I still spotted errors, but I became more deliberate about what I mentioned and sent back to get fixed. I also tried to curtail my tendency to micro-manage, and let people execute; I had to stop assuming my way was the best or only way. I was learning that giving others control builds their confidence, and that constantly trying to control people destroys it. In general, I became more selective on where I put my energy, and where I asked others to put theirs. 

I was also learning how to better manage my own time. My efforts knew no boundaries. Staying at my desk until 9 p.m. was not unusual, neither was working Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. (This was in stark contrast to my dear husband, who often said that if someone couldn’t get a job done by 3:30 p.m., they were inefficient. Luckily, Mark accepted, supported, and at times just tolerated my very different philosophy. Once, after a string of late nights, a coworker called out my tending to “over-optimize,” and put it this way, “Ginni, how do you expect to do more in this company if you can’t get a first-line manager job done in eight hours?” Was I not being efficient, or was I going the extra mile? Probably a bit of both. 

At some point I was introduced to the ABC rule. “A”s are your most important tasks, and usually the most difficult, the activities that require the most brain power. “B”s have medium importance, and “C”s are the least vital, and usually the easiest. Most people spend their days doing “C” work and confused being busy with being productive. I began to start my days with “A” activities, like writing proposals, because I was sharpest in the morning. And yet…I could always find something else to do after finishing the “C” work. 

My intense focus could also be myopic. At times I was so committed to getting something done that I’d abruptly cut short friendly chit-chat before a meeting began, or cut off a colleague if his ideas weren’t absolutely relevant to the topic at hand. Some people appreciated what one person labeled my “aggressive impatience,” because it kept meetings on track to meet deadlines. Others probably found it a bit cold. I never wanted to offend anyone, I just wanted to get stuff done. I would learn ways to be productive and more personable because both were really important to me. 

Some people assumed I expected the same long, intense hours from them, which was not the case; I just enjoyed working. My tendency to work so much was partly rooted in my youth: I never wanted to be in a position where I couldn’t take care of myself financially, and hard work was a means to that end. 

Reflecting back on these years, I can see I was establishing foundational behaviors. 

First, I was developing a propensity for continuous learning, approaching every situation with the attitude that I could glean something new if I observed, listened, and asked questions with that intent. Everyone had something to teach, and I didn’t always wait for a mentor to find me. When I made it known to someone that I wanted to learn from them, they tended to adopt me and become invested in my success. Over the years. I established a mosaic of mentors, and tried to become a composite of their best behaviors. I also was becoming a “T-shaped” professional, developing a breadth but also a depth of knowledge in a particular area. In my case, I was digging deep into computing technology while learning how to communicate and sell. When I didn’t comprehend something, I asked questions. 

In essence, I was learning the value of learning. 

Knowledge, however, is not enough. In researching this book, I read over performance reviews from my first years at IBM. In them, my managers repeatedly cited my professionalism as a strength. No one had taught me how to be “professional,” although helping to take care of my family after my dad abandoned our family certainly hoisted on me a heavy, if premature, sense of responsibility and accountability. Re-reading the appraisals reminded me just how much people value seemingly simple acts like being prepared, being on time, being responsive, keeping others informed so they’re never surprised, or just having a positive attitude, especially under stress. Reliability. Dependability. Initiative. Anticipating problems and addressing them before they fester. These are all things people appreciate. And when all else was equal, I think professionalism helped me stand out. 

During my first ten years at IBM, I felt then as I had felt during school: if I learned as much as I could and met or exceeded expectations with a level of professionalism — maybe even gravitas if I was lucky—I would have access to more opportunities.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from GOOD POWER: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work, and World by Ginni Rometty. Copyright 2023 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.