If You Care About Change, You Need To Learn To Leverage Shared Values. Here’s Why:

Greg Satell
6 min readOct 28, 2023
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/group-of-people-holding-their-phones-while-seated-by-the-window-3863770/

When Lou Gerstner took over at IBM in 1993, the century-old tech giant was on its knees. Many thought it should be broken up into smaller, more focused companies. Others had different ideas. So at Gerster’s first press conference, people were curious about his strategy and disappointed when he failed to deliver one.

“The last thing IBM needs right now as a vision,” he said. What he meant was that IBM’s culture was broken. “Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game,” he would later write. “It is the game. What does the culture reward and punish — individual achievement or team play, risk taking or consensus building?”

What Gerstner saw was that IBM had lost sight of the values that had made it successful in the first place. He wasn’t “disrupting.” He was making IBM culture safe to innovate again and, by doing that, he achieved one of the most remarkable turnarounds in corporate history. If you want to achieve truly radical change, you need to start with shared values.

Making The Shift From Differentiating Values To Shared Values

IBM wasn’t Gerstner’s first stint leading a company. He’s been President at American Express and CEO at RJR Nabisco, both of which were very different from technological companies. Yet Gerstner didn’t focus on how his experiences were different, but on how they were the same — each of these businesses have to serve the customer.

“Lou refocused us all on customers and listening to what they wanted and he did it by example,” Irving Wladawsky-Berger, one of Gerstner’s chief lieutenants would later tell me. “We started listening to customers more because he listened to customers.” It was upon that simple principle that he changed the course of IBM’s future.

In a similar vein, when Nelson Mandela wanted to create a new future for South Africa, he organized a Congress of the People, a multi-racial gathering which produced a statement of shared values that came to be known as the Freedom Charter, which is still revered even today. He would later say it would have been very different if his organization, the ANC, had written it by themselves, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful

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Greg Satell

Co-Founder: ChangeOS | Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Wharton Lecturer, HBR Contributor, - Learn more at www.GregSatell.com