I have been a Tom Peters fan since he published In Search of Excellence in the early 1980s. I didn’t expect I’d read another of his books until I heard part of his interview on 1A. I was in the car, tuned in late, and it took a minute or two before I realized that it was Peters. I realized immediately that he had something powerful to say. When we got home, I downloaded the book and dug right in.
There’s way too much in the book to cover in a short summary/review like this one. Instead, I want to focus on three broad themes which I’ve done without using the often lengthy acronyms Peters likes to include in his books. If you want to see more, Peters has pulled these ideas, the PowerPoint slides he uses for them, and a lot more on his new website—Excellence Now,
First, if you have read his other books, you know about his demand for excellence. Not just from the company or from its employees, but from you. That point have been at the heart of everything I’ve done for the last thirty years. Though I routinely fall far short of excellence, the quest for it still motivates me every day. The same holds for one of his leadership memes—managing by wande
ring around. In fact, I first saw the importance of that in the way my wife dealt with her team of foreign policy analysts. Don’t call them. Don’t summon them to your office. Go see people on their own turf. Show them respect. Show that you care.
Second, that leads to a series of long-time Peters issues that get new and deeper attention here because they are more important in the world and therefore have gotten more of his attention over the years. While his focus is on business, I’m struck by how broadly three of them apply, including in the two fields I work in, political science and peacebuilding:
- Put people first. As a leader (or a teacher), you get the most of your team (or your students), if you make them the focus of everything you do. You get more out of it as well. Peters doesn’t quite get there, but he comes close to saying that I win the most when you win, too. As he so often does, Peters refers his reader to other books that make his point even more powerfully, in this case Peter Aceto, the Canadian digital banker and author of Weology.
- Culture counts. Peters doesn’t like beancounters or our current obsession with metrics. It isn’t that he opposes quantification. He is, after, all an engineer. However, he thinks soft measures are even more important, especially the cultural norms that often get short shrift from his fellow MBAs. Although he could not have read the book since it came out at about the same time as The Excellence Dividend, Peters certainly echoes what Daniel Coyle gets at in his equally thoughtful The Culture Code.
- Innovate. In today’s complex world, problems rarely have simple, clear solutions. So, Peters picks up more than he has in the past on the notion of experimenting and prototyping by drawing on the work of IDEO and other companies that emphasize design.
Third, Peters gives a lot more emphasis than he has to two issues that are near and dear to my heart in ways that few others have stressed:
- Gender. It’s not just #MeToo though both Peters and I see its importance. Rather, he stresses two other things. First, women are often better leaders than men because they listen better, cooperate more easily, and so on. Second and perhaps even more importantly, they make many of the business decisions that really count, from corporate purchasing to choosing family vacation sites.
- Old People. As I age, I increasingly take still-active people who are older than me as role models (Peters was born in 1942 and thus has me by five years). Peters, however, actually makes a serious point here. We seniors both have more disposable money and more time on our hands than the younger generation(s) that are the targets of much of today’s marketing. And—here I really hope he is right—we still have lots of productive years ahead of us during which we can pursue excellence and all of the other goals he (and I) endorse.