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Just as I was beginning my business career, Louis Gerstner was at the top of his career. Mr. Gerstner stepped in as the CEO of IBM when Big Blue was at a perilous time: This massive company was on the brink of either crumbling or soaring. Gerstner unpacks the impressive turnaround story in his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?
When I was in my teenage years, several family members were encouraging me to consider IBM for my career path. They explained that a job at IBM would become a lucrative, influential, and lifelong position. Indeed, since its founding in the early twentieth century, it had grown into a worldwide behemoth of technology. You could tell IBM employees by their distinct dress, confidence, and loyalty to Big Blue.
But adhering to the rigid principles that both Thomas Watson Sr. and Thomas Watson Jr. had preached turned into inflexible practices that were losing the true soul of this once-great company. By the early 1990s, IBM was floundering, hemorrhaging cash, and about to experience one of the most epic collapses any organization had ever seen.
Enter Louis Gerstner. He had developed a stellar reputation at American Express and RJR Nabisco, and was highly sought as the CEO of IBM. Except Mr. Gerstner initially didn’t want to take on this challenge. He knew how difficult it would be to lead change in an organization that was so entrenched in its nearly 100-year-old ways.
Eventually, he did agree to step into this role, and over the next decade led one of the most comprehensive and impressive turnarounds in business history. IBM shook off stodgy practices while returning to its founding principles, refocused on customers’ needs, and as a result, regained its dominance in the technology field.
Any organization—whether for-profit or non-profit—can get stuck in a rut. Its once-beneficial principles can morph into practices which are merely attempting to keep the machinery running, but are no longer meaningful for either team members or other stakeholders.
Mr. Gerstner’s refocusing of the elephant-sized IBM will give any leader some invaluable insights into how to keep their organization from sliding into ineffectiveness and irrelevance. I would highly recommend this book to all leaders.