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Consistent with Gerstner's cold and impersonal management style, "Elephants" is a clinical and sterile analysis of the author's days at IBM. What is surprising is that while living in the eye-of-the-storm through this mostly tumultuous period in IBM's extraordinarily rich and often bizarre history, Gerstner writes from afar, more an outsider looking in than the leader credited with the turnaround. It is the success of the System 360, which carried IBM for decades and helped entrench an already insular and isolated culture, that was the villain, claims Gerstner. IBM needed to get in touch with the customer, get focused, and get back to the basics of execution. This is all true, and provides some interesting reading and insightful observation, but it leaves the reader yearning for more of the infighting and political maneuvering that was occurring both inside and outside the boardrooms. Those not familiar with IBM's unique culture will chuckle at some of the sparsely used anecdotes, while insiders will be disappointed in the virtual absence of any of the real drama that occurred, especially in the early months of Lou's tenure. Always the politician, names aren't named except for fleeting praise for select individuals. While Gerstner closes by claiming his deep love for a devotion to IBM, he still comes off as the perpetual outsider. Perhaps one of the more interesting elements of the book is not what is told, or even what is left out, but rather what yet cannot be told. That is, five-years from now, will Gerstner's grand but unfinished plan to transform IBM into a services company still be considered a brilliant and bold strategic coup? Or will many of the changes in IBM over the past decade be simply attributed to adroit realignment of employee-related benefits and retirement benefits and long overdue expense reductions? We'll have to wait for Sam Palmisano's book to find out.
Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.'s WHO SAYS ELEPHANTS CAN'T DANCE? is Gerstner's account of how he managed the turnaround of ailing computer mainframe giant IBM during his years as CEO (1993-2002). The book is at its best when Gerstner gives his personal account of his first experiences with Big Blue. For me, though, the details of the IBM revival are less captivating, and my interest began to flag about halfway through the book.
I picked up WHO SAYS ELEPHANTS CAN'T DANCE? for leadership and management training purposes. The section in which he talks about corporate culture--in particular, the chapter "Leading by Principles" --includes what I think are valuable insights into what aspects of IBM's culture were self-defeating, and what principles Gerstner introduced to help turn this moribund culture around. These eight principles, listed on pp. 201-202, are worth reviewing. Like many management principles, they are not particularly earth-shattering, but I have found that organizations that can adhere to such principles as "We never lose sight of our strategic vision" (#5), and "We think and act with a sense of urgency" (#6) are more than likely going to be successful--and be, moreover, places that attract and retain good employees.
It's true that Gerstner is self-aggrandizing at times, for example, in his description of his philanthropic efforts. I'm willing, though, to tolerate a little chest-beating from people who are devoting their personal resources to the greater good. (As an aside, I think he underestimates the good that corporate money can do for charitable efforts--he favors rather the donation of a company's expertise to the community--but this is a minor point.)
Gerstner's book isn't one to be devoured, I think. But it is worthwhile reading in parts, in particular, those sections in which he shares his experience of and knowledge about managing people. If you are interested in learning how to lead an organization to greatness, you should definitely check this book out.
As an IBMer, I can still see most of the underlying issues which the IBM organisation suffered from in the 1990s, still in existence today. Which points to the fact that many of the issues which Lou confronted are re-growing, not defeated and it is an ongoing fight to stop the destructive forces.
The generic principles and insights cited were useful for any Global 500 company however. A good, light read.
IBM was a company that had begun to flounder after designing the first business computer. Louis Gerstner Jr. takes you inside his historic turnaround at IBM to show that culture can be changed. From not offering the high placed salaries to a culture where not everyone's job is secure were all remarkable to the folks at IBM. You really get an inside look at the company during his tenure and this book is invaluable if you are trying to study the computer industry.
Considering the career path that Lou Gerstner has followed, this book doesnt come close to its potential. That being said it is an interesting book about the turnaround for IBM and a few key insights of a high level CEO is shared with the reader. The book never comes really under the skin of neither IBM or Lou Gerstner, but ofcourse thats an opening for a sequal.