Lewis Gerstner’s Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?: Executive Management Book

Who says an arrogant guy can’t write a helpful book?

There are a lot of people who don’t like this book. Some don’t like it, because they perceive Lewis V. Gerstner as arrogant. Some don’t like it, because his tenure at IBM saw thousands of people lose their jobs. Some don’t like it, because they don’t think there is anything new here. I like this book.

I like the book, because it is one of the most cogently and personally presented stories I’ve seen of a major corporate turnaround by the person who was in the CEO’s job at the time. Here’s a quick outline of the story.

Gerstner became Chairman and CEO of IBM in April, 1993. At that time, IBM, once the icon of American management, was in big trouble. The deathwatch was on. The conventional wisdom among the pundits was that IBM needed to be broken up and sold off piece by piece to create lots of small businesses that would create income for shareholders.

This was the heyday of the dot com boom. Smaller, networked computers were expected to rule the future. Big mainframe computers, the stuff that IBM sold, were supposed to be the troglodytes of American business, and heading for extinction.

Gerstner came to IBM after being a McKinsey consultant and after a successful eleven-year career at American Express, and four years as Chairman and CEO of RJR Nabisco. He describes what he calls “the courtship” that brought him to IBM in the beginning of this book.

The company he took over was once seen as the very model of the best in management. When I was starting out in business some thirty-five years ago, we looked to IBM as an exemplar of all that was good, effective and profitable. In 1982, Peters and Waterman featured IBM in “In Search of Excellence,” with a long list of references in the index.

But by the time Gerstner took over many of the things that had made IBM great had fossilized. Many of the practices that had been touchstones had turned into radioactive rocks.

Gerstner started off with three critical challenges. He needed to stop the hemorrhaging of cash and stabilized the company. He needed to learn enough about the business and the people he had walked into to make good strategic choices. And he needed to put together a strategy to turn IBM around.

This book tells us about how he did all of those things. It does so candidly and that’s one of the reasons I like the book.

While lots of people see Gerstner as arrogant, I found him, at least in this book, to be humble. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t think he had a lot to offer and had made lots of good decisions. It does mean that he understood that many of his decisions didn’t work out the way he thought, and some of his ideas weren’t the best. Those get play, too, and that’s rare in a book like this.

I also appreciated the refreshing style of the book. It was not written with a ghostwriter or co-author. Gerstner did it himself. The language may not be the language that a professional writer would have chosen. But it is the language that’s common to businesspeople everywhere, and that makes this a good read.

The big advantage of this is that we get a real view inside the head of someone who led a successful corporate turnaround. We don’t get a view that’s filtered through a collaborator.

Because Gerstner wrote the book, it’s short on some of the details that might be here if a business historian or journalist did the writing. For my money, that’s OK, because this is a real inside view.

This book is for you if you want a lucid discussion of a difficult turnaround process by the CEO who did the CEO’s job. It is all of that and a good read besides.

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