Summary and book reviews of Who Says Elephants Can't Dance by Louis Gerstner

Who Says Elephants Can't Dance

Inside IBM's Historic Turnaround

by Louis Gerstner

Who Says Elephants Can't Dance
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2002, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2004, 304 pages

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Book Summary

The first-hand story of an extraordinary turnaround, a unique case study in managing a crisis, and a thoughtful reflection on the computer industry and the principles of leadership.

In 1990, IBM had its most profitable year ever. By 1993, the computer industry had changed so rapidly the company was on its way to losing $16 billion and IBM was on a watch list for extinction -- victimized by its own lumbering size, an insular corporate culture, and the PC era IBM had itself helped invent.

Then Lou Gerstner was brought in to run IBM. Almost everyone watching the rapid demise of this American icon presumed Gerstner had joined IBM to preside over its continued dissolution into a confederation of autonomous business units. This strategy, well underway when he arrived, would have effectively eliminated the corporation that had invented many of the industry's most important technologies.

Instead, Gerstner took hold of the company and demanded the managers work together to re-establish IBM's mission as a customer-focused provider of computing solutions. Moving ahead of his critics, Gerstner made the bold decision to keep the company together, slash prices on his core product to keep the company competitive, and almost defiantly announced, "The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision."

Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? tells the story of IBM's competitive and cultural transformation. In his own words, Gerstner offers a blow-by-blow account of his arrival at the company and his campaign to rebuild the leadership team and give the workforce a renewed sense of purpose. In the process, Gerstner defined a strategy for the computing giant and remade the ossified culture bred by the company's own success.

The first-hand story of an extraordinary turnaround, a unique case study in managing a crisis, and a thoughtful reflection on the computer industry and the principles of leadership, Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? sums up Lou Gerstner's historic business achievement. Taking readers deep into the world of IBM's CEO, Gerstner recounts the high-level meetings and explains the pressure-filled, no-turning-back decisions that had to be made. He also offers his hard-won conclusions about the essence of what makes a great company run.

In the history of modern business, many companies have gone from being industry leaders to the verge of extinction. Through the heroic efforts of a new management team, some of those companies have even succeeded in resuscitating themselves and living on in the shadow of their former stature. But only one company has been at the pinnacle of an industry, fallen to near collapse, and then, beyond anyone's expectations, returned to set the agenda. That company is IBM.

Chapter One
The Courtship

On December 14, 1992, I had just returned from one of those always well-intentioned but rarely stimulating charity dinners that are part of a New York City CEO's life, including mine as CEO of RJR Nabisco. I had not been in my Fifth Avenue apartment more than five minutes when my phone rang with a call from the concierge desk downstairs. It was nearly 10 p.m. The concierge said, "Mr. Burke wants to see you as soon as possible this evening."

Startled at such a request so late at night in a building in which neighbors don't call neighbors, I asked which Mr. Burke, where is he now, and does he really want to see me face to face this evening?

The answers were: "Jim Burke. He lives upstairs in the building. And, yes, he wants very much to speak to you tonight."

I didn't know Jim Burke well, but I greatly admired his leadership at Johnson & Johnson, as well as at Partnership for a Drug-Free America. His handling of the Tylenol poisoning ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

The New York Times Book Review

The book leaves the reader thinking that a few more Gerstners around in the '90s might have prevented the bubble from swelling so large -- and popping with such a bang.

Publishers Weekly

For those who follow business stories like football games, his tale of the rise, fall and rise of IBM might be the ultimate slow-motion replay... a well-rendered self-portrait of a CEO who made spectacular change on the strength of personal leadership.

Reader Reviews

naidyo

this is one of the best books i ever read after "only the paranoids survive" of andrew grove.this is an excellent book for the people who are doin MBA cos it speaks about how you can change a sinking ship reach a harbour safe because of ...   Read More

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