“Today, IBM is much more than a “hardware, software, services” company. IBM is now emerging as a cognitive solutions and cloud platform company.” —Virginia M. Rometty

When you look at CEOs including Ginni Rometty of IBM, Mary Barra of General Motors, Craig Weatherup, of PepsiCo, David Neeleman of JetBlue and James E. Burke of Johnson & Johnson; they overcame crises successfully. Research shows that the companies helmed by women leaders overcame organizational crises successfully. They believe that women can work under pressure to turnaround ailing organizations. However, psychology professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam call it ‘glass cliff’ where women are more likely to be put into leadership roles and responsibilities. Whatever the term is used, it is a fact that women can handle crises effectively. In this regard, we will discuss Ginni Rometty’s leadership style and her ability to keep IBM on the growth track successfully.

IBM survived several crises throughout its history and bounced back from several challenges to stay relevant and successful in corporate history. Various CEOs have adopted leadership tools and techniques to turnaround, and grow their companies based on their mindsets and leadership principles and philosophies. The challenges were different, and the way they handled them was also different. Lou Gerstner turned around IBM. The ideas that Lou Gerstner used to turnaround one of the largest companies on the face of the earth are not complex; they merely require focused effort and disciplined execution. 

Sam Palmisano took IBM from good to great with his leadership style by overcoming several leadership challenges.  For instance, at the height of the dot-com bust in 2002, he acquired the consulting arm of the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers and stepped up investments in R&D which was considered a wrong move.  But he proved his critics wrong by leading from the front with his business and technical acumen. He invested his capital into businesses with high returns to improve the organizational bottom lines. He bought small companies that paid high returns. He compressed working capital to get more returns.

Think Crisis; Think Woman

Ginni Rometty took over as IBM’s CEO on Oct. 1, 2012, from Sam Palmisano when the company was encountering an existential crisis as rapidly rising cloud computing technology threatened its core businesses. She successfully brought it to good shape with her vast experience and expertise. Although some of her decisions were questioned such as selling semiconductor manufacturing operations of IBM, she proved her critics wrong with her daring decisions and amazing performance.

Ginni Rometty is the first female head of IBM. She rose through the ranks in a number of leadership roles since 1981. She is workaholic, courageous and teambuilder. She takes risks and knows how to inspire her team to achieve organizational goals and objectives. She asserts that comfort and growth never co-exist. She implores that women employees must be judged on the basis of their work and not on ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. She learns from her mistakes and admits that she failed to move fast enough on something and take big risks in the initial stage of her career.  Hence, it is essential to move to the future, make decisions with a long term and take big risks. Here are some leadership lessons from her.

  • Be clear on what you believe in and about your journey.
  • Be an effective communicator.
  • Lead by example.
  • Step out of your comfort zone.
  • Take risks to succeed.
  • Let go of your past.
  • Engage your employees effectively.
  • Take a holistic view of your customer.
  • Don’t shy away from shouldering responsibilities.
  • Stay inspired by role models.  
  • Understand the importance of data.
  • Reimagine the world.

She successfully reinvented IBM as per the changing times and technologies. Under her leadership, IBM is able to compete in the fast-growing and quickly evolving healthcare industry.

Usually, women are evaluated more harshly in leadership roles. Men are known as natural leaders while women are known as female leaders. Additionally, what is effective for women depends on the context in which leadership is enacted. It is clear evidence of leadership being gendered. Ginny Rometty successfully broke the stereotypes and barriers and showed to the world that women are more capable of leading organizations during a crisis.

Note: This article is an adapted excerpt from my award-winning book, “Strategies to Build Women Leaders Globally: Think Managers, Think Men; Think Leaders, Think Women.” https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949003108

Life is great!

Professor M.S. Rao

Founder of MSR Leadership Consultants, India

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Strategies to Build Women Leaders Globally: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949003108