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Book Summary: “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?” by Louis Gerstner

We have been exploring employee engagement these last few months. The issue is that employee disengagement is increasing, and this is not a recent trend or one driven solely by the poor economy. Sarah Van of Raleigh Consulting Group informed me recently that more Americans left their jobs voluntarily last month than were laid off. What does this say about the state of employee engagement in America…especially in these difficult economic times?

For my birthday a few years ago, my friend Anish Shah, now President & CEO, India at GE Capital, gave me former IBM chairman and CEO Louis Gerstner’s book "Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?" In revisiting it recently, I found Gerstner’s section on culture to be especially thought-provoking and relevant to our discussions on employee engagement.

 

If you can imagine the effort required to change the culture of a large, iconic company like IBM, possibly it may help cultural challenges you are facing seem a bit less daunting. Following are a few excerpts and key takeaways from Gerstner’s chapters on culture.

  • "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." Values such as outstanding customer service, teamwork, excellence, integrity, and stakeholder value don’t translate into the same kind of behavior in all companies, such as how people actually go about their work, how they interact with one another, and what motivates them. Employees’ actions and behaviors emanate from an organization’s culture, not from agreed-upon values or written policies.
  • "Successful institutions almost always develop strong cultures that reinforce those elements that make the institution great. They reflect the environment from which they emerged. When that environment shifts, it is very hard for the culture to change. In fact, it becomes an enormous impediment to the institution’s ability to adapt." Essentially, what got your company here may not be what is needed to take it to the next level. As difficult as it may be to transform what has been a successful culture, the alternative is to operate in a culture that has become outdated and ill-suited to supporting sustained growth and achievement.
  • It is important to identify and inculcate the company’s values or "statement of principles." "All high-performing companies are led and managed by principles, not process. Decisions need to be made by leaders who understand the key drivers of success in the enterprise and then apply those principles to a given situation with practical wisdom, skill, and a sense of relevancy to the current environment." A company’s culture can be proactively developed and cultivated or it can merely result from haphazard intentions and behaviors. No culture that merely "happens" is going to be an effective source of employee motivation and organizational success.
  • Never let a culture of "No" develop. Paradigms and past experiences heavily influence how individuals and organizations address the new. Fixating on the negatives and what didn’t go well previously causes you to be less open to the opportunities and the "good" that can be derived from seemingly "bad" situations. This negative outlook then embeds itself into the culture, impedes progress, lowers morale, and becomes extremely difficult to change.

Highly engaged employees believe they can positively impact areas such as product quality, customer service, costs, and company growth much more than do the disengaged. Their emotional bond to their organization fuels a willingness to commit time and effort to help the organization succeed. Leaders who understand and leverage the linkages between employee engagement and a company’s culture can help their organizations rise above those that are mired in people issues and ineffective working environments.