The Gerstner Decade at IBM, In His Own Words

Louis Gerstner's tome "Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?" is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the IBM of today or how any company can successfully undergo a fundamental and sustained turnaround.

The most remarkable thing about Louis Gerstners recently published book, "Who Says Elephants Cant Dance," may be the fact that he actually wrote it himself. Gerstner states explicitly there is no co-author or editor, so while one must assume that he received advice on the project and that someone eyeballed the final copy, there apparently is no one else who can claim responsibility for the content.

To an editor such as me, that says something about Gerstners integrity. And it says something about the value that Gerstner places on communication. Indeed, he says several times in the book that communication is one of his key management tools. There is an appendix of memos that Gerstner sent to the IBM workforce at key junctures, addressed "Dear Colleague." It is clear that Gerstner weighed his words carefully in each instance. Employees tend to note this kind of care and respect it.

But you dont turn around a $60 billion company from the brink of self-destruction with a bunch of e-mail memos. A Gerstner that the book implies but does not fully reveal is a CEO who is impatient; who can explode in anger; and who abhors corporate bull*. I have heard this Gerstner described by those who met and worked with him and this is no doubt the Gerstner that really saved IBM.

We catch a glimpse of this Gerstner in the scornful tone in which he describes certain practices of the "old" IBM—a company that had succeeded in creating a sort of Mandarin corporate culture on which it nearly suffocated. One such process was the so-called "nonconcur," in which a corporate manager might veto an order from a superior if he or she disagreed with it. There was a stilted procedure for handling such occurrences, which Gerstner describes with bemused disdain.

In another instance, a corporate executive composed a 60-page document on how he was to be served by his administrative assistant—down to replenishing packages of Carefree Spearmint chewing gum, "when an empty box appears in the out-basket." At the old IBM, an administrative assistant was not a secretary, but an up-and-coming executive in training for upper management. Gerstners amazement at the appalling waste of management manpower is palpable.

As a reporter covering IBM well before Gerstner arrived on the scene, the stilted nature of IBM culture certainly rings true with the company I knew—as indeed it does to current and former IBMers with whom I have spoken. Following IBM was like being a Kremlinologist, and my favorite expression for the company was "Moscow on the Hudson." Doublespeak was the lingua franca of its hallways, especially in its dealings with the press. The culture seemed suffocating and counterproductive to us reporters at the time so its reassuring that Gerstner also found it so. IBM had become a company more concerned with form than substance and a company that was intent above all on self-perpetuation at the expense of all else. As an oft-frustrated reporter, it offers some consolation to know that IBM was just as baffling to its own employees as it was to outsiders.