IBM's Rometty, Ambitious Risk-Taker, Will Stay The Course

We learned her nickname was “Ginni” with an “i” from the press release but there really wasn’t much else out there about Virginia M. Rometty beyond the string of increasingly responsible titles she’s held –- culminating in senior vp, IBM global sales and distribution -- when her appointment as the incoming CEO and president of IBM was made earlier this week. Our friends in the media have been on the case ever since and have filled in some color between her lines of report over the years.

Like most of its nine leaders (Lou Gerstner being a notable exception), Rometty is essentially an IBM lifer if you discount the two years she spent in the training program at the General Motors Institute after she graduated from Northwestern in 1979 with high honors and a bachelor's degree in computer science and electrical engineering.

She apparently is “self-confident” as the New York Times headline has it this morning; ambitious, as the Wall Street Journal’s lede had it yesterday, and damn, is she ever smart -– as just about everybody who has anything to say on the matter makes clear.

“She brings to the role of CEO a unique combination of vision, client focus, unrelenting drive, and passion for IBMers and the company's future,” says outgoing CEO and president Samuel J. Palmisano, who will remain chairman of the board.

"She is awesome to work with," says Prudential Financial CIO Barbara Koster, who tells the Journal’s Spencer E. Ante and Joann S. Lublin that Rometty concluded the Internet would be a critical sales channel back in 1997. "The technical requirements she laid out were visionary." The result was a site that offered real-time insurance quotes even before Google was a gleam in the eyes of Page and Brin.

Bloomberg Businessweek's Carol Hymowitz and Sarah Frier write that Rometty knows that IBM is "one mistake away from obsolescence" but point out that "challenges are hallmarks of Rometty’s career at IBM; she’s done everything from systems engineering to leading the global sales force.”

“I don’t believe in the inevitable, or in thinking that things have to and will turn out in a certain way,” Rometty says. “Whatever business you’re in, it’s going to commoditize over time, so you have to keep moving it to a higher value and change.”

Much of the story in the Times is about the slow but steady emergence of women who began their careers 30 years or so ago as CEOs (only 18 Fortune 500 companies have women at the helm, however) with a nod to IBM having developed a corporate culture that values diversity. Claire Cain Miller does lede with a personal anecdote about Rometty being offered a job early in her career that she thought might be over her head. She told a recruiter she needed to mull it over.

“That night, her husband asked her, ‘Do you think a man would have ever answered that question that way?’” Cain Miller relates.

“What it taught me was you have to be very confident, even though you’re so self-critical inside about what it is you may or may not know,” Rometty said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit this month. “And that, to me, leads to taking risks.”

On the UK’s IT site The Inquirer, Madeline Bennett writes that Rometty’s appointment “is unlikely to shake up Big Blue's reputation or strategy” –- but that’s not necessarily a bad thing now, is it? Palmisano has been extremely successful and earnings per share have quintupled under his watch, which has been marked by well-timed divestitures (the PC business) and acquisitions (consulting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers, for which Rometty led the integration, and business intelligence firm Cognos).

“More importantly for its reputation as a technology company for the next 100 years,” Bennett writes, “IBM also invested more than $50 billion in research and development during Palmisano's tenure.”

Bennett concludes, “Rometty has been a key part of these achievements.” While in a perfect world, there will be nothing but Big Blue skies ahead, one gets the feeling Rometty is up to the likelihood of a stormier reality. When Fortune’s Jessi Hempel asks what her most important takeaway from working with Palmisano has been, she replies:

“That’s a good question. I've thought a lot about this and the biggest thing I think Sam taught me -- but I also think that he taught it to the whole company during this time -- can be summed up in a quote: ‘Don't accept inevitable.’ That means, you've got to keep reinventing. We're in an industry in which you constantly have to make new markets.”

Rometty concludes the interview with Hempel by giving one example of what she means by making markets: “Clearly one of the big target audiences is the chief marketing officer, one of the most underserved in the marketplace.”

Check your in boxes.

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