“The only way people learn is through stories and being vulnerable,” Ginni Rometty, IBM’s former CEO, told Fortune’s Michal Lev-Ram at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen conference in San Diego on Wednesday. “I’ve been raised by strong women. My great grandma was the last person in her family to leave Belarus. She never spoke English. She would clean bathrooms during the night shift, and put every dime she made into U.S. savings bonds.”
Rometty’s grandma—twice widowed—hand-made lampshades to make ends meet. Then, her father left her mother penniless. She’d never worked a day outside her home, or had a traditional job. But she managed to get a little bit of education, land an hourly job, and provide for the family via food stamps and government assistance. Watching those three generations of women struggle to succeed set the tone for the leadership Rometty has brought to IBM. She pointed to three main lessons.
The first: hard work always makes something better, and there’s no substitute for it. Rometty has since made skills-based hiring a cornerstone of her approach, arguing that someone’s work, not their pedigree, should speak for itself.
Second: aptitude and access are two different things. “God spreads aptitude evenly, but opportunity, not so much in this world,” she said. “My mom wasn’t dumb, but she never had the opportunity to get an education.”
And third: her mom taught her, not with words but through her experiences, that you must never let someone else define you. “Only you can define who you are,” she said. And, she decided that no matter what, she’d be financially independent.
“I never want to rely on another person, another man,” she said. “And I just had my 43rd wedding anniversary with my husband. So you know, I feel like I’m here for different reasons.”
Those three values have buoyed Rometty even through the most difficult moments in her career and in IBM’s toughest quarters.
“I always knew some of what I had to do would be really hard, but I was never a victim of it,” Rometty said. “Just like my mom was never a victim of my dad. We each get handed our challenges of the moment.”
Focusing on the hard parts
Growth and comfort don’t co-exist, Rometty said. “Most people don’t run towards growth.”
But Rometty’s career—and her challenging upbringing—have made her nearly fearless when it comes to difficult conversations and facing uncomfortable truths. She recalls a particularly inspiring coworker who, whenever she encountered an issue, always volunteered to dive in.
“I thought, why does she volunteer for these problems?” Rometty wondered aloud. “Well, it’s because she always came out with a stronger relationship on the other side. It started making me say, you know what? I think this is a good thing.”
If you don’t address a problem head-on, she said, it will zap positive energy from you until it’s dealt with. “As a leader, you really need to conserve your energy so you have a lot of positives,” she said. “I started looking for conflicts. I found running toward conflict to be a really important way to build resilience.”
Running toward conflict isn’t the only bottom line in Rometty’s leadership handbook. Rometty has openly shared that her father left the family when she was young, leaving her mother and numerous siblings to fend for themselves.
One of her biggest learnings, she added: always really know what you’re in service of. “Have it really firm in your head.”