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’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.”


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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!”

Develop a Culture of Listening

Ladies and Gentlemen, Listen Up!

How to develop a culture of listening

At a business breakfast meeting recently I was standing with a fresh, hot cup of coffee in hand and “schmoozing.” These gatherings are a great way to make new business connections yes, but they are also a way to learn a lot. Once the conversation gets rolling between two people others tend to stop by and join in, particularly if you pause to smile and look their way. Either they know you or they want to know you and the group widens.

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” ― Ralph G. Nichols

As the group gets bigger lots of agendas are in place simultaneously. Sometimes as many as 4 or 5. Just like a conference room in a meeting. This is when eye contact becomes important and worth waiting for. In meetings if you actually look at someone while they are talking to you, you can hear and be heard. It sounds pretty basic right? Parents and teachers intuitively understand this. If they want a child to listen to them, they know they need to get the child to look at them. It is a “meets min” requirement to being understood. Without it there’s a huge chance of “talking into air.”

When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen. – Stephen Covey

Lately, we’ve seen a lot of talk about male/female communications and a concept called “manterrupting” (ref. Sheryl Sandberg). This is one way to look at the issue. To me it feels a bit negative and too gender specific.

I prefer to look at the goal:

Setting in place a culture of listening.

As a leader, placing an importance on creating effective communication behaviors in your organization has so many benefits. For starters, you role model listening behaviors that create better overall leadership behaviors. You can achieve a culture where respect for individuals, collaboration, and engagement thrive.

Let’s take a closer look at how to be both a role model and a participant in team conversations.

  • Look at someone while they are speaking to you.

    It demonstrates that you respect what they have to say. You are showing them they have your attention. On the other hand, if you are addressing a room full of people who aren’t looking at you, there is a strong chance they are not hearing you. Getting their undivided attention is a good first step.

  • Take a pause.

    Jumping in and interrupting others while they are speaking is rude, right? However, many organizations reward individuals for brainy ideas shouted out in the midst of a meeting – even if the ideas don’t belong to the person shouting them out. A leader can hold a hand up to ask for patience or say, “you will be next” vs. allowing the interruption to happen. And, if you are the one doing the interrupting, take a pause and wait until you have the floor. You will be heard – I guarantee it.

  • Put it in writing.

    Let’s say you didn’t get a chance to speak and you have a very valuable comment to add to the discussion. As soon as the meeting wraps up, send a note to the leader saying you were encouraged by the lively discussion and that you have one more thought to add. Why not even request a one on one meeting to discuss your thought? Now you have succeeded in demonstrating that you are a good listener, that you have something to contribute, and that you have a great attitude. How can you go wrong with that? And leaders can benefit from allowing time, within reason of course, for employees who want to share their ideas. It can help to build a culture of innovation as well as listening.

  • Be focused on the results you want vs. the emotions.

    Lastly, people interrupt. They just do. Sometimes in the “heat of the moment” people cannot contain their passion to express their ideas. (OK, guilty as charged!) Rather than focus on the interruption stay very focused on your mutual goals and what you need to achieve for your organization. Some things become very personal and in that case, you might even think about pausing. But overall, believe that most people are not intentionally rude to others and believe that you can lead more effective communications through your own behaviors. 

We’re all human. Sometimes we don’t listen or communicate well. Being determined to achieve a culture of listening will also set in place a practice of listening within your organization. And just like golf or playing the piano; if you practice a lot, you get better at it. Next time, let’s talk about how to achieve this behavior while leading conference calls. Stay tuned.