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Talking Bullsh*t With Management Guru Tom Peters

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar January 21, 2018

Early last year, after defining our '8 habits of highly progressive workplaces', we embarked on the journey of writing a ‘book. This required us, first, to do a deep-dive into the management classics: from Drucker’s ‘Innovation and Entrepreneurship‘, Tzu’s ‘Art of War‘, Collins’ ‘Build to Last‘, Covey’s ‘7 Habits‘, to Peters’ ‘In Search of Excellence‘. We ordered and read them all.

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Our first target

Our first target was the international bestseller, ‘In Search of Excellence‘, by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, published in 1982. It became one of the best-selling business books of all time. Over 3 million copies were sold in the first 4 years.

After scanning only the first page we were nervous. We were holding a book, written well before we were born, laying out the 8 basic principles ‘to stay on top of the heap.‘ Had we just invested months of hard work only to reinvent the wheel?

The 8 basic principles of 'In Search of Excellence'

  • A bias for action - facilitate quick decision making and problem solving.
  • Staying close to the customer - learn from the people served by the business.
  • Autonomy and entrepreneurship - break the corporation into small companies and encouraging them to think independently and competitively.
  • Productivity through people - create in all employees the awareness that their best efforts are essential and that they will share in the rewards of the company's success.
  • Hands-on, value driven - a management philosophy that guides everyday practice and commitment.
  • Stick to the knitting - stay with the business the company knows best.
  • Simple form, lean staff - have minimal HQ staff.
  • Simultaneous loose-tight properties - autonomy in shop-floor activities plus centralized values.

Luckily, we discovered there was no need to be nervous. Although the ‘8 basic principles of In Search of Excellence‘ are quite different to our ‘8 habits of highly progressive workplaces‘, they still show remarkable similarities (especially about autonomy, entrepreneurship and decentralization).

Indeed, this fact, and the many years separating our research periods, suggests these principles reflect universal human needs, rather than passing management fads.

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Decades of sales turned ‘In Search of Excellence’ into a blockbuster—and earned Tom Peters a reputation as a leading management guru (although he doesn’t like to be called as such).

It was now time to meet him. We did so a few weeks ago in London, at the biennial Thinkers50 awards gala. Shortly after our chat, Tom received a prestigious Thinkers50 Lifetime Achievement Award (handed out by Charles Handy, another guru).

When we spoke to Tom, it soon became clear that he wanted to banish management jargon from our conversation. He refers to it as management bullshit. We think along the same lines.

Tom Peters Thinkers50 1

Authenticity above bullshit

Tom starts by sharing his main goal: “I have given more than 2.500 speeches all around the world. But when I give a talk in front of 1.000 people, if only just 1 person agrees with me, then I’m happy. Because then I was able to give this person a little push in the right direction.”

And in doing this, he tries to make his work accessible to the entire workforce, especially front-line employees.

Tom: “I believe in taking your work seriously, not yourself. Many gurus blow up the audience. But I’m tired of all that bullshit. I prefer authenticity. Just use simple language for real people, for people doing the real work!”

It is Douglas Conant, the former CEO of Campbell Soups, who Tom cites as an example of the authenticity he advocates. In the 10 years Conant served as CEO, he successfully turned the corporate colossus around by putting the focus on the people doing the real work.

How did he do this? One example: over the course of his time as CEO, Douglas wrote around 30.000 handwritten “thank-you” notes to his employees. At that time, the company had only 20,000 employees! It created a culture where teams were there for the leadership, just as much as the leadership was there for the teams.

Tom: “It’s simple like that. If I work my ass off for 10 people, then these 10 people will work their ass off for me!”

Be real about fuck ups

Authenticity means being honest. It’s not only being honest about success and glory, but about being just as honest about failures and fuck-ups.

As Tom is talking about fuck-ups, another guru, Marshall Goldsmith, walks into the room to grab a drink. The two spot each other and start to joke—until Tom continues: “It’s important to be real about fuck-ups. And when you fuck-up, you say sorry!”

@tompeters: “It’s simple like that. If I work my ass off for 10 people, then these 10 people will work their ass off for me!
Click to tweet

The same principle applies to being honest with yourself about the environment in which you work. Tom: “Learn to ask questions and to have fun. And if it isn’t fun anymore, go away!” It’s about searching for something that fits you better—and that really interests you.”

Talk with people doing the real work

This is exactly how we started our adventure as Corporate Rebels. Being frustrated in our corporate jobs, we decided not to move to another corporation. It was simply no fun anymore. Instead, we quit, and began to search for the world’s most progressive and inspiring workplaces.

We visit them. We read everything about them. We talk to the people working there. We don’t want to talk exclusively to senior executives. We also want to talk with people doing the real work. We want to know what daily work looks and feels like.

We want to hear, and then describe, a real and honest story. We all know that at the end of the day it cannot all be puppy dogs and rainbows. It’s this balanced view Tom was after in his own research for ‘In Search of Excellence‘.

But ‘In Search of Excellence‘ was not born out of frustration. It started out as a consultancy project. Because, just after earning a PhD at Stanford, Tom is offered an assignment at consultancy firm, McKinsey. They ask him to look at ‘the structure-and-people side’ of ‘excellent companies’.

The project, however, did not have a designated plan, nor was Tom out to prove a theory. He just went out and talked to as many smart, interesting and inspiring people as possible. What attracted him most was that the project had an infinite travel budget. This allowed him to talk to as many cool people as he wished, all around the world.

Tom: “It turned out that we didn’t talk to CEO’s much, we wanted to talk to the operators!”

Screw the big, focus on the small

All these conversations are condensed into Tom’s book—one that explored ways of working and doing business in the 1980’s. In the end, they researched a total of 43 companies, all of them significant enterprises.

This led to years of frustration. Tom doesn’t want to focus on big enterprises anymore. “Who cares what the big enterprises are doing? They are boring! Just study, visit and write about small and medium-sized businesses. The really interesting stuff is happening there.”

We only partly agree. Yes, there is really interesting stuff happening at small and medium-sized businesses. That’s why our Bucket List contains organizations of all shapes and sizes—and many of them are in the small to medium-sized segment.

We don’t, however, agree that all big enterprises are boring. There are some very exiting exceptions out there (and on our Bucket List) that prove organizations with thousands of employees can be progressive and inspiring as well.

And just as Tom receives his Thinkers50 Lifetime Achievement Award, we receive an email from one of them. The Chinese multinational Haier invites us to China to visit and speak with as many employees as we want.

This is exciting! We will tell you soon why they prove that ‘all big enterprises are boring’ is just not true.

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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