Corporate Communication Strategy

“If you’re not listening, you’re not learning.” — Lyndon Johnson

Before articulating your grand vision and business strategy, and before conveying your genius plan-of-action to your team, you must gather the troops and stop talking: just listen. How else can you possibly know what is needed or fractured within an organization without first hearing its heartbeat and taking its pulse? By listening—to everyone—you’ll find out where the cracks are in the foundation; what needs revitalization; and, most importantly, who among your team will mostly likely be part of your coalition, to offer support along the way.

Duarte, Inc. has long been a leader in business communication and corporate strategy. Duarte’s CEO, Nancy Duarte, and her partner, Patti Sanchez, have spent decades compiling research and data to come up with the best strategies to tackle corporate change and communication. In their new book, Illuminate, Duarte & Sanchez expand on a case study about IBM’s beginnings, struggles, and eventual rebirth. Learn more by reading an excerpt below.

Excerpt from Illuminate: A Behemoth Is Born ~ IBM ~ part I

Embarking on a major organizational change is likely to ruffle many feathers and stir up a lot of fear. To prepare for a big shift, torchbearers do a lot of asking and listening before they start telling and acting. When you start by listening empathetically, you’ll uncover the root causes of problems and build a coalition of support to help you solve them.

Formed in 1911 from the merger of three office equipment companies, IBM was destined to be big. Thomas Watson, Sr., who took the helm in 1914, believed that large companies like his had a role to play on the global stage, an ambition that showed in the slogan “World Peace through World Trade” that was carved onto IBM’s building in New York. In the 1920s, the company even published a book of songs meant to fill employees with pride, including a ditty that went like this: “International is our name, it well befits our line. Serving in all nations we’re known in every clime. Just watch us grow from year to year until the end of time.”

Through the decades, that ambition drove the company to innovate in many areas, from tabulators and calculators to mainframe computers, storage systems and application software. Each innovation spawned new lines of business and complicated the organizational structure, which over time turned the once-nimble company into a sprawling and slow-moving bureaucracy. Because of that bloat, IBM lost touch with its customers’ needs and struggled to keep up with rapid technology shifts in the 1980s and 1990s.

During that time, companies like Apple introduced smaller, easier-to-use personal computers. Soon the move toward flexible “client/server” environments that PCs enabled ate away at IBM’s premium-priced mainframe business. Meanwhile, process inefficiencies and uncontrolled spending eroded IBM’s once healthy profit margins. By 1993, the company had racked up $8 billion in losses, and the threat of bankruptcy loomed.

IBM’s board of directors began searching for a candidate to replace then-CEO John Akers, who had been with the company for 33 years. Convinced that an infusion of fresh blood was the best way to turn the company around, the board hired Louis Gerstner, Jr.—the first CEO to come from outside IBM’s ranks.

Gerstner had been following IBM’s troubles in the press and had already met with board members and key executives to get the lay of the land prior to his first official day of work. Even though he had initial ideas about what needed to be done in his first ninety days, he knew he had much more to learn. So he set out on a listening tour, meeting with employees far from the company’s main office in upstate New York to hear the unvarnished truth.

See more of Illuminate: