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Judith Samuelson Headshot

Help Wanted at the Top, Collaborative Skills Needed; Women May Apply

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America got some good news last week. Virginia M. Rometty was tapped as the next CEO of IBM. "Ginni," as she is known to her friends and colleagues at IBM, did not get the job because she is a woman (well, that's a relief!) Current CEO Sam Palmisano told the New York Times that gender was not a factor, and that her selection has "zero to do with progressive social policies." Even better news.

Still, Rometty will be part of a very short, but expanding list of Fortune 500 CEOs who are women -- joining her counterparts at Pepsi, DuPont, Xerox, Kraft Foods, Campbell Soup, Hewlett-Packard, Archer Daniels Midland and Avon Products, among others.

I think putting a woman at the helm of IBM is a good thing. Not because I hope more women will get to experience the punishing, if well-compensated, life of a leader of tens or hundreds of thousands of employees who make up the modern multi-national corporation. It's because I am eager to solve some big problems that business needs to address with greater enthusiasm. These are not problems that can be addressed by one firm, or even one country, at a time. It will take collaboration across business to do it -- and, my hunch is that women have the right skill set. At least it's worth a try.

Here's the challenge. To our core, going right back to the Dutch East India Company's role in settling America's largest city, we are a country that bleeds commerce and industry. A generation or two ago, it was a business association, the Committee for Economic Development, that called for and led the post-World War II transition from production of war machinery to an economy able to employ service men as they returned from the front. Business leadership, using its influential voice and collaborating across the country, averted another recession and propelled a period of expansion from which many of us are still benefiting.

Today, the dual challenge of short-term pressures and a narrowing of the role of business executives means we are missing the business voice on the big issues that matter to society as a whole. Business does speak out -- but it's mostly on the freedom for individual firms to operate -- things like tax treatment of foreign profits, trade policy or monitoring regulation considered restrictive. But on the big questions that bedevil society and require careful collaboration between and across business and government, business is largely MIA. These issues define our future prosperity and require business investment to succeed -- i.e. curbing our reliance on carbon, job creation, and investment in education and infrastructure -- and yes, addressing poverty and income inequality. The lack of a collective voice of business is a drag on economic progress.

That's where the women come in.

In 2002, when IBM purchased the consulting arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the company turned to Rometty to massage the egos and assure a successful transition. At the time, the $3.5 billion purchase was viewed as a big risk. Would independent-minded consultants be willing to adapt to the regimented culture of IBM? CEO Palmisano chose the right "man" for the job: "She did the deal and she made it work" he said. Analysts interviewed by the Times report that Rometty "worked tirelessly and effectively to win over the consultants." George Colony, chairman of Forrester Research, called it a "massive charm campaign" and cited Ginni's "performance and charisma."

Really? The next CEO of IBM is charming? We have promoted a woman to lead the single largest company ever led by a female in the history of the country, because of her charisma? For a Boomer feminist like me, those words should make my skin crawl.

Instead, I say bring it on. A few years back, it was the women who had the courage to speak out on the need for internal business protocols and compensation systems that favor long-term investment over short-termism. Anne Mulcahy at Xerox, Indra Nooyi at Pepsi, Peggy Foran at Pfizer, and Sarah Teslik at Apache Corporation were among the first to lead or persuade their companies to sign on to the Aspen Principles, an unprecedented agreement among companies, investors, and corporate governance professionals who have vowed to dedicate themselves to long-term value creation over short-term profits. I am quite sure that smarts and charm were needed. We need more of both to put the interests of the commons back at the center of business debate. Hiring Ginni Rometty may be a very good start.