Companies & Industries

Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?


Written by Louis V. Gerstner Jr. Published by Harper Business

IBM was on a losing streak a mile long when Lou Gerstner took its helm. He was brought in as chairman and CEO from his previous post as chairman and CEO of RJR Nabisco. IBM's people were poised for pain when he took over in 1993. He writes that some employees even referred to him as the "cookie monster" because of his previous connection to Nabisco. Difficulties were looming for the embattled technology company, stock prices were way down, stockholders were fuming, and the internal machinations of the company needed some big changes to weather the deadly storm that was swirling around IBM. In Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?, Gerstner describes his entry into the top position at one of the world's biggest high-tech companies and his many adventures at IBM before his retirement almost a decade later.

Along with the amazing turnaround story of the company and the strategies he put in place to stop its plummet, Gerstner relates dozens of interesting and exciting moments that occurred during his time there. For example, he writes, on one of his first days at IBM, he got in his car before work and was surprised to find former IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson Jr. sitting in the back seat of his car. Since Watson lived across the street, he decided to walk up Gerstner's driveway to share some wisdom with his old company's new leader while hopping a ride to headquarters. Gerstner writes that he received many words of advice from the former IBM leader that morning.

Gerstner's momentous transformation of IBM during one of the toughest time in its long history fills many business books by outside observers and academics. But reading those same stories from Gerstner's front-seat perspective delivers a better look at the methods and strategies he was able to initiate and execute at IBM.

Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? covers Gerstner's nine fateful years at IBM, in which he took it from the verge of extinction into a prosperous 21st century. Although he spent nearly a decade with the company, surprisingly he writes that he felt he was always an outsider because he had been brought in from another company to help keep it afloat when times were bad, and had not grown up within the company like many of IBM's leaders who came before and after him.

After describing the details of his first weeks, months and years in his new job as CEO, Gerstner turns to the strategies that worked for him and the lessons he learned along the way. The management strategies that helped him become a positive agent of change at IBM provide readers with many methods for leading their own companies. For example, he writes that the "most important value-added function of a corporate management team" is ensuring "that the strategies developed by the operating units are steeped in tough-minded analysis, and that they are insightful and actionable." Gerstner writes that critical assumptions such as pricing and industry growth rates must be rigorously reviewed. Then, when it comes time to describe strategies to employees and customers, the new strategies are believable and executable.

Throughout Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?, Gerstner minces no words as he describes the focus required to make a difference within a top organization, and where that focus must be directed. From his first days at IBM, he made the decision to focus on keeping IBM intact, changing its fundamental economic model, re-engineering how the company did business, and selling underproductive assets. His focus on customers—and his ability to drive that focus into the rest of his company by holding management accountable—helped IBM turn around and rise above all expectations. His experiences and insights into management, corporate culture, philanthropy, the media, employees and customers provide all leaders with a better understanding of leadership, decision making and execution.

Review by Chris Lauer, senior editor, SEBS

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