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

Rachel Maddow Gives a Lesson in Self-Care

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“I knew that I needed to make the change for me just in terms of my health. I’ve had a lot of back trouble over the last five years, and that is something that I’ve mediated a little bit through physical therapy… But bottom line, that’s about working, you know, 10 to 12 hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year for more than 12 or 13 years. I mean, … there’s a bottom line there that I knew I needed to make some kind of change.”

Rachel Maddow explained to Terry Gross on Fresh Air why she decided to give up her flagship daily evening slot on MSNBC. What Maddow revealed is a recognition that there’s more to work than working harder. It’s a welcome message for any hard charger. When is enough enough?

Gross herself, who has hosted Fresh Air since 1975, noted that the pressure of producing a show focuses attention, but there is a cost. “I hate to admit this because I know constant adrenaline is really unhealthy for a lot of reasons, but it is kind of energizing. But it can get too much like having too much coffee to drink does.”

Beware of doing it all

Again, good advice for so many of us. Energy is good; use it wisely. But, unfortunately, you can only be on some of the time. And if you are, there will be a price to pay. Sadly, some too many self-styled experts advise going for it full-tilt. Management corridors are littered with people who did just that and today live lives of quiet desperation, alienated from family and friends. And when they retire, they have no social support network.

Today, in part because of new ways of working accelerated by the pandemic, employees can have more say over their schedules. Women executives also set the tone by setting an example of how to succeed with a family, even when it means forgoing work events. This is not to say women have it easier than men; they do not. Instead, it is to acknowledge that many women executives — having overcome barriers men did not face– are bound and determined not to inflict unrealistic expectations for work on their subordinates, both women and men. 

Demanding jobs are just that demanding. When you are paid well, you are expected to produce. The challenge is to make time to determine how much longer you want to do what you are doing. You also need to ask yourself if there is not something else you’d rather be doing. Finally, recognize that just as you have earned a seat at the table, you have also made the right to step back or away.

Middle path

Maddow, for her part, was able to pare down her schedule to Mondays only and guest-hosting special coverage events. It also enables her to focus on other work, including her award-winning podcast work, notably her latest Ultra about a domestic seditious conspiracy in the Thirties aligned with the Nazi government.

Maddow was also able to do something for her colleagues. “And that is the right solution because I have the best staff working in the news. And they are absolutely phenomenal. And I want them all to keep working in news and keep working with me and keep working with me both on the time that I’m on MSNBC and on other projects. And that’s working out great so far.”

Working hard can facilitate success, certainly, but when you are at the top of your game, you need to look around and see if you want to keep playing at the same pace. Of course, some do and will, but others say I need to take a different path, one healthier for myself.

First posted on 1.01.2023