I recently read a book called “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance”, about a dying company and the man who would save it. IBM is a company that had revenues of $62 billion in 1993, which is larger than the economic size of more than 150 countries. If it were a country, IBM would be the 35th largest country in the world. At some point in history, you can say that IBM was a symbol of the technology and innovation in America. But in 1993, it was dying and almost everyone thought it was beyond resuscitation. To give you some context on how bad a shape this company was in, just image the Pittsburgh in the 1980s married with the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1990s.
The Mario Lemieux for IBM was Lou Gerstner, Jr., a man with an impeccable business pedigree and decades of experience giving advice to companies on how to run their organizations. Gerstner had his doubts on the possibility of success, but he also believed that taking over as the next CEO of IBM is the job he had been training for all his life – the Stanley Cup for a Harvard MBA and McKinsey consultant.
Business and hockey both rely on strategy. Gerstner summarized his strategy for the people of IBM as “Win, Execute, Team”. However, strategy is not just bold slogans, you need to put plans and actions behind the words. I’m going to share the five key lessons that Gerstner gained from his experience.
First, a leader needs to be firm and stand by what he wants. Whatever hard or painful changes you have to make, do them quickly and let everyone know what you are doing and why. Change is hard to implement in an organization because people naturally resist it stemming from the fears of losing control, having to put in more work, concerns about competence, facing uncertainty. Leadership is about keeping the urgency for change front and center, being responsible to seeing plans implemented, and staying firm so your new principles come alive.
Second, instill a culture of winning and motivate your players to win and succeed. IBM was failing not because it lacked talented individuals, but due to complacency with the status quo and a mindset that “good enough” is ok. Winning organizations are led by individuals who are passionate about winning and who reject mediocrity. In reality, distance between winning and second place can be very small but the results are very different. In “Any Given Sunday”, Al Pacino delivers a rousing speech to his team, "The inches we need are everywhere around us ... we fight for that inch ... because we know, when we add up all those inches, that's going to make the ... difference between winning and losing." To win, a leader needs to build world class culture for success that does not allow the team to give excuses and pointing fingers to say you are not where you want to be because of him, or that or anything.
Third, set up a reward system that links your principles to encourage the behaviors you want. Also, reward current performance that is independent of tenure or past achievements. Policies are only credible and enforceable when they are backed-up by concrete reward and punishment. The organization needs to learn that no one gets to rest on the laurels and are entitled with benefits. Players need to go out there every shift of the game and earn…