The last thing IBM needs is right now is a vision,” is a quote attributed to Lou Gerstner, the legendary leader, who was brought in from RJR Nabisco to turn around the lumbering giant. 

His book Who says Elephants can’t dance presents the way he worked with the IBM leadership to ensure that IBM did not go the way of many other tech giants. He did this by refocusing the business on what the customers needed the most from their IT partner.

Towards this end, he got rid of businesses but more importantly smashed silos and ensured that the company worked together to ensure that IBM not only survived but, in fact, became a shining example of a turnaround case. Lou was the seventh CEO of IBM which traces its origin to a company called Computer Tabulating Recording Company.

When I picked up Good Power by Gini Rometty, the ninth CEO of this company, I had high expectations. As I finished the book, I realised that my expectations were biased by the fact that I was a big fan of Lou Gerstner’s book. And that is not being fair to Gini Rometty. Let me explain.

The first part of the book takes us into Rometty’s background. A poignant story of a girl from a humble background, brought up by a single mom (with a helpful grandmother who was close by). Rometty started at IBM on November 2, 1981, and in October 2011, she was appointed as the CEO of IBM.

A spectacular career path indeed. She won the nod of the Board because she played many critical roles including the big acquisition of PWC’s consulting arm and the way she integrated PWCC with IBM’s own consulting practice.

Simple mantra

The second part of the book is about her learning to run one of the world’s most respected corporations. She reminds us that in 2011 there were just 18 women CEOs running Fortune 500 companies; she was the nineteenth.

As she took over the big job she set out a 100-day plan, specific strategic beliefs she wanted to embed into the fabric of the company.

Along the way, she got many not-so-complimentary reviews about the prospect of IBM in the world of new agile rivals. ‘Can IBM ever be cool,’ said Fortune. One of the first things she did was to meet key clients and one of them gave her a simple mantra ‘Just be the best IBM you can be’.

Rometty remembers the words of Thomas Watson Jr, the second CEO of IBM: “.. if an organisation is to meet the challenges of a changing world, it must be prepared to change everything about itself except the belief on which it bases all its policies and actions”.

While IBM had invested heavily in AI and had gained public attention thanks to Watson, they had missed the cloud bus to Amazon and later Microsoft. The book talks about how IBM doubled down to create its new enterprise-based cloud business. There are many other stories about what Rometty did to keep IBM’s flag flying high.

The third part of the book is about the larger role corporations can play in society or being the ‘Good Power’. She observes “I believe society gives a business license to operate, and that license can get revoked if large swathes of society don’t trust that business”. 

This section of the book talks about pioneering programmes that IBM ran to help get kids into IT jobs without an expensive four-year college education. This P-Tech programme deserves a book on its own merit. There are many other tales of how big corporations can be forces for good. 

This is indeed very relevant today when big tech companies are being blamed for many of our social ills (the book The Chaos Machine by Max Fisher is a loud alarm bell). 

Gini Rometty’s quote makes a lot of sense “How do we create positive change at scale of an entire society? To me this is the ultimate use of good power — the power of us”. I wish there was more meat and a more critical review of tech companies in the last section.

Check out the book on Amazon.

(Ambi Parameswaran is an independent brand coach and best-selling author of eleven books)

Good Power: Leading Positive Change in Our Lives, Work, and World by Gini Rometty.
Publisher: Harvard University Press.
Pages: 256.
Price: ₹1,199