I had worked for several congressmen, senators, cabinet members and, indirectly, for two presidents of the United States. But when I went to IBM as head of global media relations in 1991, John F. Akers was my first CEO. As many have remembered in the wake of his passing on Friday at the age of 79, Akers was a gentleman. Although I reported to the vice president of corporate communications, I worked directly with Akers for two years, helping him navigate an adversarial press environment as he strove to respond to the forces battering IBM during his tenure.
I can't say we were close. Even though we spent many hours together, traveling to media interviews all over the world and dealing with difficult problems, including the announcement of the first layoffs in IBM's long history, our relationship was marked more by mutual respect than by intimacy. I don't know if that was due to the fact that I was a rare outsider in IBM's inner circle, but more likely, I think, it was just John's nature to be somewhat reserved.
He was, however, a pleasure to be around, always polite, thoughtful, friendly and appreciative. Both he and my boss, Mary Lee Turner, were determined to live balanced lives and to provide room for their teams to do the same. My family and I appreciated that.
When his efforts to save IBM proved to be too little, too late, I was tasked with writing the press release announcing his resignation. I was in my office in Armonk when I received a call from Mary Lee outside the board room at the IBM building in Manhattan and told to jump on a helicopter to get to the city to prepare for the announcement. It was a sad day.
Lou Gerstner is rightly credited with turning around IBM – with teaching the elephant to dance, as his 2003 book title suggests. But Akers deserves more credit than he gets for laying the groundwork for Gerstner's success. Akers was an astute strategist – advised by Jack Kuehler and John M. Thompson – who understood that IBM needed a radical transformation in order to compete with the entrepreneurial upstarts that were chipping away at IBM's dominance of the information technology industry.
Akers had a plan in place to respond and – with one major exception – it was essentially the plan that Gerstner executed. Gerstner himself has admitted that his strategic path was not altogether different from what some people at IBM had been espousing before he arrived. In brief, Akers was already downsizing the company; in fact, Gerstner quickly completed the process that Akers was pursuing bit by bit. Akers also was pushing the transition to software and services that is the core of the IBM business model even today, more than 20 years later. The biggest change Gerstner made – a critically important one – was to reverse Akers's plan to move IBM toward a breakup into smaller, more autonomous businesses.
But Akers was moving too slowly on the downsizing and the transition of the business model. That failing, I'm convinced, was rooted in the fact that he was just too respectful of the old ways that had produced IBM's stunning dominance of the industry for a generation, even as he knew that they needed to be changed.
Akers was the epitome of the old IBM, of everything that made it great. "We were very square," Akers said in an interview in 2010. "We wore the blue suits, white shirts with button-down collars, striped ties, fedoras and wingtip shoes." He was a Yale graduate, an all-Ivy hockey star, a Navy aircraft carrier pilot, a star salesman and a CEO – an over-achiever, to be sure, but hardly a revolutionary.
IBM needed to change its very nature, and it took an outsider to force the company to come to grips with that. What most people don't understand is that Akers already knew the culture had to change and he was trying to change it. He brought in John Kotter, the Harvard Business School expert on organizational change, to convince the senior team that it's very, very difficult for a team of insiders to drive fundamental change. It was Akers's way of telling the leaders to push beyond their comfort level.
Unfortunately, it still wasn't enough. Despite his intellectual commitment to change, Akers was unable to generate the sense of urgency – in himself and his team – that was required to drive a transformation. As Gerstner told a Harvard Business School class in 2002, "No institution will go through fundamental change unless it believes it is in deep trouble and needs to do something different to survive." Akers believed it, but was unable to convince the company.
The bottom line is that culture change is both extremely critical and extremely difficult. At the Page Society, we have argued that the CCO should play a leading role in driving culture change when needed in an enterprise. I wish I had been able to do more to help Akers, but I am content to remember him as a smart, thoughtful leader – truly a gentleman – whose leadership laid the foundation for IBM's stunning turnaround.
 “Gerstner: Changing Culture at IBM - Lou Gerstner Discusses Changing the Culture at IBM," by Martha Lagace, HBS Working Knowledge, Dec. 9, 2002: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/3209.html
 IBM website, “An Appreciation: John F. Akers, Dec. 28, 1934 – Aug. 22, 2014: http://www.ibm.com/ibm/us/en/john_akers.html?lnk=ushpcs2
 Lagace, ibid.
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