The turnaround at IBM over the past decade is one of the most impressive in recent business history. After a stunning decline—from being named America’s Most Admired Corporation four years in a row during the 80s to being called a “dinosaur” by Fortune magazine—IBM bounced back under new chief executive Lou Gerstner to become a very different, but highly respected company.
In Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, Gerstner tells the story of that turnaround, from the situation he found on arriving at IBM to developing a strategy, to executing against that strategy and restoring the company to its rightful place among the leaders of the technology world. It’s clear that communications—particularly internal communications—was a key.
His chief public relations executive, David Kalis, “inherited a shambles at IBM,” he says. “There were some talented people, but the communications department was staffed for the most part with well-meaning but untrained employees.” There was constant pressure to deal with the media in the early days of Gerstner’s tenure, but the real focus was on employee communications.
“No institutional transformation takes place, I believe, without a multi-year commitment by the CEO to put himself or herself constantly in front of employees and speak in plain, simple, compelling language that drives conviction and action throughout the organization. For me at IBM this meant, in some respects, seizing the microphone from the business unit heads, who often felt strongly about controlling communications with ‘their people.’”
There’s a whole section of the book—20 pages long—dealing with the importance of corporate culture, and the role of communication in creating it. Gerstner’s conclusion: “Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it is the game.