Tom Peters: Excellence By Design

So what do you do after you have written 19 books and reached the age of 80?

If you are Tom Peters, you do the twentieth book and call it Tom Peters’ Compact Guide to Excellence. The word “excellence” harkens to Peters’ first book, co-authored with Robert Waterman, In Search of Excellence. The first book was a research-based study of how the best companies succeed and why. The new book, (based largely on Peters’ previous book, Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism) does the same, in a way, but with a different approach – the power of design.

Nancye Green, a noted designer, is Tom’s co-author. As Peters says, the content of this book is design. Design communicates in ways we may not always describe, but we know it when we see it because it feels right. And so it is with this book. The left-side pages contain the headers, with the right-side pages featuring insights, statistics, and quotes – plenty of them from authors like Peter Drucker, Edgar Schein, Jay Chiat, and philosophers such as John Stuart Mill.

Treating people right

The message of the book, as Peters writes in his introduction, is:

“It is my conclusion that ‘Extreme Humanism’ – putting people really first and helping them prepare for a rocky future, vigorously and passionately supporting our communities, providing products and services that stun our clientele with their excellence and verve, serving our ailing planet – is, perhaps counterintuitively, the best path forward.”

Organizations are all in the people business. If we do not recruit the right people, put them into roles where they can succeed, develop them, listen to their needs, and treat them with kindness, then we sabotage the future of our enterprise.

In a recent interview with me, Peters addressed the importance of front-line leaders. “Because the data hard-nosed, well-researched data is clear…. The correlation between variables [such as retention, quality, productivity, employee satisfaction] and the quality of the first line manager is just intimate.” 

Leadership on a personal level

Peters’ connection to the front-line manager is rooted in his experience as a Navy ensign in the Seabees during the Vietnam War. There he learned the truth of the old saying about the military, “The sergeants run the Army, the chief petty officers run the Navy.” His commanding officer told Tom and his fellow junior officers, “’Now boys, I want you to have a truly superior deployment.’ And he said, ‘I’m going to tell you how to do that. You are going to have a superior deployment if you do precisely what the hell your chiefs tell you to do.’” 

The key to valuing people is listening to them. “Superior listening is the number one contributor to organizational effectiveness, leadership effectiveness, and so on.” Peters told me that listening “is not about hearing the other person. It’s about empowering the other person.” A key to empowering others via listening is to do it actively, aggressively, or, more aptly, fiercely. That is focusing on the individual speaking without interrupting them, a fault plaguing many people in positions of authority.

Make kindness felt

Kindness is an essential theme of this book. “Three things in human life are important,” wrote Henry James. “The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Peters told me, “Being thoughtful, and caring is a great motivator. It’s a great productivity tool. It’s a great customer satisfier. And far more important, it makes you a better human being.”

Kindness complements grace, and in the book, Peters quotes the designer Celeste Cooper who said, “My favorite word is grace – whether it’s ‘amazing grace,’ ‘saving grace,’ ‘grace under fire, Grace Kelly.’ How we live contributes to beauty – whether it’s how we treat other people or how we treat the environment.”

Peters’ message, carried throughout the book, provides a roadmap for a way forward that enables people to do their best because their bosses have their backs and treat them as contributors.

Note: You can watch my full interview with Tom Peters here.

First posted on 1.02.2023