Transforming Culture: Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?

Transforming Culture – Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?

“Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?”

A story of leadership in culture transformation

Time.com’s Callie Schweitzer recently blogged about the “3 Books Every Leader Should Read to be Successful.” The second book on her list was “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?” by Lou Gerstner, former IBM CEO. This book has a special place on my bookshelf and has been loaned out so many times that I’ve owned more than 5 copies of it. Why? Because I lived the story.

Life at IBM

IBM Corporate CultureWhen I saw Callie’s blog, my mind went back 20 years to the time Lou Gerstner came to save IBM from potential disaster. It was a much-needed change of leadership in a rapidly evolving technology landscape. The Internet had arrived and our lives and the way we worked were never to be the same again.

Callie is correct when she says “the book reads like a thriller.” It is a story of transformation that begins with Lou’s walk on a beach with President Bill Clinton and ends with the successful turnaround of a perceived “dinosaur.”What my former IBM colleagues and I remember is the leadership vision that inspired us. In spite of Mr. Gerstner’s dislike of the “vision” word, it is what ultimately helped us become leaders of change.

Callie says the best quote from Mr. Gerstner is:

“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”

During that tumultuous time at IBM where some leaders were leaving to be replaced by new ones and lots of change was occurring, we experienced a culture shift from what was to what would be. A much needed shift to aim at success without losing the true sense of who we were.

In my memory, the story had four themes – themes that led the changes we made as an IBM team:

Corporate Culture Allegory InstitutePurpose

  • We knew our reputation was based on being a thought leader in technology. But what thoughts were we leading in this new era of the emerging Internet with fragmented messages about hardware “speeds and feeds” rather the world-changing usefulness of technology?
  • Wasn’t the Internet a virtual system? Customers couldn’t understand what we were selling or leading.
  • We needed to break down the “brand silos” within the company and work across lines of business to better represent IBM with one voice – a voice that said we were a company creating “Solutions for a Small Planet.”

Responsiveness

  • Were we listening to the market? We began to reflect on the competitive landscape, the reactions of our clients, and the need to adapt to their needs while adding value.
  • Were we listening to each other? In a very large, global company, we needed to find a way to use our own technology tools to connect people and enable them to work together as a team – we became supportive of each other.

Engagement

  • How could we listen and not engage?
  • We began to work in collaborative teams with each other, we created customer councils on specific topics and industries such as Linux and Healthcare.
  • We engaged other like-minded thought leaders from outside IBM and creative minds at our agencies to inspire our own thinking.
  • We pushed ourselves to hear another point of view and create dialogues.

Efficiency

  • Mr. Gerstner says it best: “People do what you inspect, not what you expect.”
  • We became a more efficient IBM. This is a theme some of us laugh about now as we recall becoming watchful of expenses where nothing was spared, not even the envelopes in the mailroom.
  • We had an obligation to our shareholders and to each other to build and sustain a profitable IBM. We became measured on profit.
  • We participated at every level in reviews of our budgets in spring and fall planning cycles.
  • We measured our projections and results against goals and expectations.

Much has changed in 20 years at IBM. The transformation that occurred during that time has ebbed and flowed. IBM has come under criticism lately as it transforms itself again. But, What I know to be true is that a company that knows itself and cares about its culture can survive a transformation.

Leading from the Lover Archetype: Rick Blaine

Why Rick Blaine is a Leader

Rick Blaine is the protagonist in Casablanca; and, more famously, the quintessential Humphrey Bogart.

Beside the fact that Rick/Humphrey immortalized the chic, iconic trench coat and was the owner of an ultra-cool Moroccan bar, he also led a dangerous mission that united would-be enemies during WWII. His cleverness and bravado was a leadership capability that for me represents a cultural “win-win.” And, not for nothing, Casablanca is such a romantic story; if you have never seen it, you need to watch it this weekend.

The ultimate Lover Archetype

The lover ArchetypeWhile some may think of Rick as a Hero for what he did for Ilsa and Victor Lazlo, I prefer to think of Rick as the ultimate Lover Archetype. His intense love for Ilsa was by appearances unrequited. This was wartime and the stakes were high…even for romance. Victor Lazlo, Ilsa’s husband, was a Czech resistance fighter and Rick an American businessman. What they shared, even though their motives were different, was a dislike of the reason for the war – the Nazi aggression. They were truly culturally aligned and in love with the same woman.

So what was Rick to do? He chose to favor a greater cause – the safety and wellbeing of Ilsa and her husband over a second chance to run away with Ilsa. Rick couldn’t live with himself if the Nazis captured Ilsa’s husband or, for that matter, Ilsa herself. In the process, Rick was able to see past Isla’s unexplained disappearance years earlier and heal their breach of confidence by learning what really happened and by doing the right thing. The time-honored story unfolds around three behaviors of Rick’s Lover Archetype.

His scenes and lines from the movie illustrate useful leadership lessons:

  1. Lover leaders have a knack for helping individuals and groups appreciate one another.

    Ilsa: “I can’t fight it anymore. I ran away from you once. I can’t do it again. Oh I don’t know what’s right any longer. You have to think for both of us. For all of us.”
    Rick: [Using best Bogart gravelly voice] “All right, I will. Here’s looking at you kid.”

  2. Lover leaders see others as peers.

    Rick: “I congratulate you.”
    Victor: “What for?”
    Rick: “Your work.”
    Victor: “I try”
    Rick: “We all try. You succeed…”

  3. Lover leaders heal breaches through communication, usually for the greater good.

    Rick: [As he’s about to send Victor and Ilsa on a flight to safety] “There’s something you should know before you leave.”
    Victor: “Mr. Blaine, I don’t ask you to explain anything.”
    Rick: “I’m going to anyway because it may make a difference to you later on. You said you knew about Ilsa and me.”
    Victor: “Yes.”
    Rick: “What you didn’t know was that she was at my place last night when you were. She came there for the letters of transit. Isn’t that true, Ilsa?”
    Ilsa: “Yes”.
    Rick: “She tried everything to get them and nothing worked. She did her best to convince me she was still in love with me but that was over long ago. For your sake she pretended it wasn’t and I let her pretend.”
    Victor: “I understand.”
    Rick: “Here it is.” [He hands the letters of transit to Lazlo] Victor: “Thanks. I appreciate it. Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win. [Plane engine starts, they all look at one another] Are you ready, Ilsa?”
    Ilsa: “Yes, I am ready…”

  4. Lover leaders learn to let go even when they want to hang on.

    [As Victor walks ahead to the plane, Ilsa lags behind for a moment…] Rick: “You better hurry. You’ll miss that plane…”
    Ilsa: “I don’t understand, what about you?”
    Rick: “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life…we’ll always have Paris.”

Rick Blaine let Victor and Ilsa leave without him to protect someone he loved from harm. He left his angry judgment aside and sought to understand what he could not see. He survived a betrayal and opened communications between his peers and his foes. He demonstrated respect. He may have been a Lover Archetype or a combination of several archetypes. In the end it was his authenticity and his knowledge of himself above all that made him shine as a leader.

“Here’s looking at you!”