“Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?”
A story of leadership in culture transformation
Time.com’s Callie Schweitzer recently blogged about the “3 Books Every Leader Should Read to be Successful.” The second book on her list was “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?” by Lou Gerstner, former IBM CEO. This book has a special place on my bookshelf and has been loaned out so many times that I’ve owned more than 5 copies of it. Why? Because I lived the story.
Life at IBM
When I saw Callie’s blog, my mind went back 20 years to the time Lou Gerstner came to save IBM from potential disaster. It was a much-needed change of leadership in a rapidly evolving technology landscape. The Internet had arrived and our lives and the way we worked were never to be the same again.
Callie is correct when she says “the book reads like a thriller.” It is a story of transformation that begins with Lou’s walk on a beach with President Bill Clinton and ends with the successful turnaround of a perceived “dinosaur.” What my former IBM colleagues and I remember is the leadership vision that inspired us. In spite of Mr. Gerstner’s dislike of the “vision” word, it is what ultimately helped us become leaders of change.
Callie says the best quote from Mr. Gerstner is:
“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”
During that tumultuous time at IBM where some leaders were leaving to be replaced by new ones and lots of change was occurring, we experienced a culture shift from what was to what would be. A much needed shift to aim at success without losing the true sense of who we were.
In my memory, the story had four themes – themes that led the changes we made as an IBM team:
- We knew our reputation was based on being a thought leader in technology. But what thoughts were we leading in this new era of the emerging Internet with fragmented messages about hardware “speeds and feeds” rather the world-changing usefulness of technology?
- Wasn’t the Internet a virtual system? Customers couldn’t understand what we were selling or leading.
- We needed to break down the “brand silos” within the company and work across lines of business to better represent IBM with one voice – a voice that said we were a company creating “Solutions for a Small Planet.”
- Were we listening to the market? We began to reflect on the competitive landscape, the reactions of our clients, and the need to adapt to their needs while adding value.
- Were we listening to each other? In a very large, global company, we needed to find a way to use our own technology tools to connect people and enable them to work together as a team – we became supportive of each other.
- How could we listen and not engage?
- We began to work in collaborative teams with each other, we created customer councils on specific topics and industries such as Linux and Healthcare.
- We engaged other like-minded thought leaders from outside IBM and creative minds at our agencies to inspire our own thinking.
- We pushed ourselves to hear another point of view and create dialogues.
- Mr. Gerstner says it best: “People do what you inspect, not what you expect.”
- We became a more efficient IBM. This is a theme some of us laugh about now as we recall becoming watchful of expenses where nothing was spared, not even the envelopes in the mailroom.
- We had an obligation to our shareholders and to each other to build and sustain a profitable IBM. We became measured on profit.
- We participated at every level in reviews of our budgets in spring and fall planning cycles.
- We measured our projections and results against goals and expectations.
Much has changed in 20 years at IBM. The transformation that occurred during that time has ebbed and flowed. IBM has come under criticism lately as it transforms itself again. But, what I know to be true is that a company that knows itself and cares about its culture can survive a transformation.