Louis Gerstner's book, Who Says Elephants Can't Dance, chronicles the dramatic turnaround of business giant IBM under his capable hand. When Gerstner took over the company's reigns in 1993, it was on the brink of being sold off in parts. Through his capable and determined vision, he changed the company's culture to one that once again responded to the needs of the marketplace. In this book, Gerstner indeed demonstrates that a giant company like IBM can be rescued from the brink of extinction, and respond to the ever-changing market place, proving indeed that elephants can dance.
Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. has a long history of success both in the worlds of business and education. He received an MBA from Harvard in 1965, and a BA from Dartmouth College in 1963. After graduating from Harvard, he joined the management consulting firm of McKinsey and Co., Inc. Following his time at McKinsey, he spent 11 years as the president of American Express' parent company, and president and CEO of American Express Travel Related Services Company. After moving on from American Express, he was CEO and chairman of RJR Nabisco, Inc. For four years. It was in 1993 that Gerstner officially began his career in IBM (IBM).
Gerstner has been actively involved in the field of education for many years. He co-authored a book in 1994 entitled: Reinventing Education: Entrepreneurship in America's Public Schools. He has also been involved in a number of initiatives aimed at helping to increase performance in public schools, including Achieve, and an IBM creation, Reinventing Education (IBM).
He has received a number of awards and honors that are related to both his excellence in business leadership and involvement in the field of education. Among these many awards are the American Museum of Natural History's Distinguished Service to Science and Education Award, and the Visionary Award from New Visions for Public Schools. In June 2001, Britain's Queen Elizabeth awarded him the prestigious designation of honorary Knight of the British Empire (IBM).
Gerstner's book is broken into five main sections. First, he describes his beginnings at IBM, and the specific challenges he faced in turning the company around. Second, Gerstner delves into some of the strategy that he implemented in helping IBM change its fortunes. Third, he looks into the corporate culture of IBM itself, and to a lesser extent the culture of the industry in general. Fourth, he describes some of the important lessons learned from his experience at IBM. Finally, Gerstner goes into a discussion of many general observations about business, and even society in general
Who Says Elephants Can't Dance tells the story of the business giant IBM from 1992 to 2001. When Gerstner came to IBM, the company was in danger of losing billions of dollars each year, and on the brink of being sold off in parts. IBM had once been one of the IT industry's business giants, but massive changes in the marketplace had reduced it to almost ruin. The company was almost unhealthily large, and slow to change, and seemingly hindered by its monolithic size.
Many people thought Gerstner was simply coming in to oversee the demise of the former IT giant. Instead, he was determined to make IBM again a "company that mattered." He was determined to show that the giant company could indeed respond to the marketplace, or in other words, determined to show that elephants could, indeed, dance. Gerstner's book is the story of a company that once ruled the business world, crashed into almost oblivion, and rose up out of the ashes to be a business giant.
Gerstner's position as CEO for IBM gives the book a great number of interesting and valuable insights. The ultimate effect of his insights is a feeling that you are on the very front lines of the decisions that Gerstner makes. As a result, the book is both engaging for a wide variety of readers and easy to read. It is never a dry history of the events of a corporate turnaround. Instead, Gerstner's insights help bring the reader into the story, and help to make the book an engaging read.
The book's engaging and crisp prose makes it a true joy to read. Gerstner intelligently resists the impulse to use mindless business jargon, and never uses needless computer and IT jargon either. The result is a book that manages to be informative, while still being clear and interesting. Ultimately, much of the book's success lies in how effortless the text is to read and absorb.
Gerstner's insights into industry and society in the last section of the book are particularly revealing about his personality and belief system. He describes his insights into a great number of groups, and his analysis of investment bankers is especially interesting. When Gerstner joined IBM, one of his first moves bold moves was to get rid of investment bankers who were readying to sell off the disintegrating IBM piece by piece. Gerstner categorizes investment bankers as opportunistic providers of "hooch for all of the wild speculative periods in our economic history."
Gerstner's accounting of the decisions that had to be made to keep IBM afloat is vivid and crisp. He tells tales of pressure-filled, high level meetings where he encountered a great deal of opposition to his strongly held views. His accounting of the degree of stress and pressure is engaging, and he really brings the reader a sense of the stress and finality of many of his decisions.
When Gerstner took over the reigns of IBM, they were faced with the challenge of providing mainframe computing to a marketplace that viewed the technology is a negative light. Competitors had created a climate where mainframe technology was seen as obsolete, expensive, or at best inaccessible. However, IBM new that their technology was reliable, powerful, and useful, and yet the company seemed unable to relay this to the company. It took Gerstner's leadership to reengineer the company, and return the customer to IBM through expanded service and software lines.
Gerstner describes IBM's culture, when he arrived, as insular and dysfunctional. The company's culture is described as "a kind of hothouse quality... It was like an isolated tropical ecosystem that had been cut off from the world for too long. As a result, it had spawned some fairly exotic life-forms that were to be found nowhere else." Gerstner found it necessary to change IBM's culture so they were once again aware of the outside world, and the demands and needs of consumers.
There are some inconsistencies within the book, especially in Gerstner's appraisal of himself. He repeatedly makes much of his ability to listen to input from his employees throughout the book. At the same time he somewhat brutally mocks a long, email from an employee critical of some of his methods, and even goes to the trouble of showing the email in its entirety in the book. He even includes an unnecessary and long collection of internal email between himself and IBM employees at the end of the book, most of which praise his style. However, his attempt at showing his attentiveness to his employees is destroyed with the remark, "its a good thing I don't have time to read all my email." Apparently, Gerstner is only good at receiving input from his employees if that input is positive.
Further, Gerstner seems less than sympathetic to the difficulties that employees faced as a result of many of his changes. Even before Gerstner arrived, they had reduced benefits, frustrated communication within the organization, and a poor corporate culture. He focuses his attention on the recruitment of new personnel, rather on understanding and helping existing employees.
In essence, Gerstner's book is a study of how the strength of personal leadership can change a company's fortunes. Leadership has proven important…