The Excellence Dividend: Meeting the Tech Tide with Work That Wows and Jobs That Last
April 06, 2018
Tom Peters' latest book is in many ways a culmination of all he has learned over the past half-century, and a reminder of the simplest way to succeed in business: put people first.
The Excellence Dividend: Meeting the Tech Tide with Work That Wows and Jobs That Last by Tom Peters, Vintage, 496 pages, Paperback Original, April 2018, ISBN 9780525434627
“Management” often gets a bad rap, especially when put up against the more lofty and lordly idea of “leadership.” But consider the “father of management,” Peter Drucker, and where he was coming from when he pioneered the field. As Joseph A. Maciariello wrote in his great book, A Year with Peter Drucker, "His driving force was to provide for the needs of citizens of free societies so they would never be tempted to authoritarian substitutes, which history … had shown to be disastrous." Drucker knew this danger well. He produced two of his earliest works as a young writer in Frankfurt, Germany—one a pamphlet on Friedrich Julius Stahl (1802-1861), a legal philosopher and parliamentarian (and, of considerable consequence at the time, a Jew), the other on “The Jewish Question in Germany.” The Nazis burned and banned both works.
The simple fact of the matter is, when it comes to leadership and management, if you’re separating the two, you’re probably doing it wrong. (I should probably acknowledge here that, at 800-CEO-READ, we did split the Leadership & Management category of our yearly business book awards into two separate categories, but that was more a practical matter—as a single category, it received a lion’s share of the overall submissions and we were leaving great books out every year—than a philosophical one.) It doesn’t matter what your leadership vision is if you can’t manage to bring it about in the real world.
If Drucker is the proverbial “Voice of God” in management, it was Tom Peters who led its exodus out of the ivory tower. In Search of Excellence, his 1982 book with Bob Waterman, is, as we’ve stated here many times before, the book that popularized the business book genre, and it also introduced the concept of humanistic management to corporate culture. Tom Peters’ self-proclaimed “first management assignments” came as a twenty-three-year-old, as a member of the Navy’s construction unit, the Seabees, with which he saw two tours of duty in Vietnam. What he learned there was a bias for action—“JUST BUILD IT. NOW. CAN DO.”—which would become the first of eight bedrock management traits of In Search of Excellence. (I believe this is also when he gained a healthy disdain for the management-by-numbers ethos of Robert McNamara, who was overseeing the Vietnam war effort as Secretary of Defense.)
As 800-CEO-READ founder Jack Covert said when presenting him with his award for contributions to the business book industry in January, “Tom’s first book took business books from the dusty part of the bookstore to the window.” Peters doesn’t lack for accolades, and also won Thinkers50 Lifetime Achievement Award this past year, but he is far from the end of his achievements and contributions. His latest (beyond his endlessly entertaining and informative Twitter feed) is The Excellence Dividend, which sprang from an effort to “pull everything together.”
Peters has dedicated over a half-century to thinking about management and its effects upon the world, so calling that a tall task would be an understatement. It is monumental, and the result of that effort is something he calls THE WORKS, “a seventeen-chapter, 4,094-slide PowerPoint product that included one hundred thousand words of annotation.” That was his raw material, and since the book went to print, that raw material, which covers “categories from Innovation to Branding to Leadership,” replete with “hundreds of his best Powerpoint presentations, PDFs, videos,” and more, is available for anyone (read, you) to access at excellencenow.com.
Being drawn from such a wealth of material, The Excellence Dividend could be seen as an anthology of quotes, and Peters’ pontifications and reflections upon them. But it is much more than that. The book itself is both deep and delightful. It is conversational, but the conversation is extended to include all those influences on his thinking, and what he has seen and heard and read over the course of 50-plus years on the road witnessing businesses up close, studying what makes them work (or not). And, in the process (which is fast-moving and hard-hitting while having the advantage of actually offering real world examples and advice at every turn) he clears away the murk and myopia of so much of modern management dogma.
The book is being delivered amidst the rise of AI and Big Data, and as those technologies are integrated into the workplace, we are in dire need of such sage, straightforward common sense and sense of purpose. As always, it is about putting people first, but the breadth of this new book is so staggering that I’m not really sure how to convey it all. But damn the torpedoes, I'd like to think Peters himself would say, here goes:
Do you have a problem improving communication and integration across functions or departments (cross-functional excellence, or XFX)? Institute a “Lunch Diversification Program” to make sure people are not only communicating, but forming personal relationships across functions. Make a calculated effort to focus on the social accelerators in the organization (Tom provides a long list of them for you to do so). Embrace politics and use them as the art of what's possible to improve things rather than avoiding them.
That is the kind of action-oriented, immediately applicable, people-focused piece of advice (perhaps admonishment) that blesses every one of the book's 496 pages. Others include: Focus more on implementations than analysis, execution over strategy and philosophy. Semantically but not practically converse to that, a philosophy degree, not an MBA, best prepares you for business leadership. Management as “a humanistic endeavor,” and a liberal art rather than an administrative, quantitative, or analytical assignment. You’ll be more successful—even financially—if you focus on increasing human well-being rather than on increasing profits. Small and medium-sized enterprises are where almost all job growth and innovation occurs in the economy; large firms and M&As are generally impotent on both accounts. It’s your job as a manager and leader to work in service of your employees, not the other way around. Your employees work to serve your customers, not you. It is on this point that he is able to quote a wide range of successful business people—Richard Branson and Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher being the ones you’ve likely heard of—on why their own employees are their “Customer #1.” It is here he writes something that applies to every lesson in the book:
These are hard-nosed, profit-maximizing, practical approaches in enterprises large and small in tougher-than-tough industries than can be…
It’s why he believes you should hire for curiosity and character and enthusiasm above all else. It is why creativity is the number one differentiator, and we should not squash it with Big Data and AI. It is why training (and the personal development of your employees by providing ongoing training) should be seen as an investment, not an expense, as offense instead of defense, a strategic opportunity rather than a necessity. It is why you, as an individual in a labor market being eaten by AI and other technologies, must differentiate yourself, focus on your own creative and professional development and personal brand as much as those of the companies you work for. It is why diversity is so important, in the trenches of an enterprise and in the boardroom. It is why it is so important to make personal connections and form real human relationships, because who you hang out with largely determines who you are. It is why women are more effective leaders than men (sorry, fellas, including me I guess).
He explains, as passionately as he does everything, why listening is the most important quality of leadership. He uses his time in the Navy to help define the preeminent importance of frontline bosses in employee retention and on-the-ground, organizational effectiveness. He tells us that, three decades later, it still bothers him that his coauthor, Bob Waterman, was the one who got to say MBWA (Managing by Wandering Around) on The Today Show with Bryant Gumbel when In Search of Excellence became a surprise success, and why he has never stopped talking and writing about the importance of that concept since. He explains why it’s more profitable (in every way) to focus on your allies than your enemies, why developing relationships—indeed, friendships—is more important than creating strategy, why “the four most important words in any organization are … WHAT DO YOU THINK?” He speaks of the importance of a simple, spontaneous, and fully meant “Thank you” and of a real, in-person apology. He states simply that what leaders do for a living is “They HELP!”
What it all boils down, or adds up, to is that your job as a manager is “no less than excellence in the arrangement of human affairs, thus making your employees and the world a bit better off.” Always cognizant of the bottom line, he adds, “[i]t also turns out to be the best way to grow, create relatively stable jobs, and turn a profit.”
Let me give you a direct example (while catching my breath) of how intensely he touts approaches that may seem antithetical to our current speed-or-die business culture. Here he writes of the importance of patience, even as you maintain a sense of urgency:
THE DAY THAT PATIENCE DIES IS THE DAY THAT EXCELLENCE DISAPPEARS. … WHILE THE TIMES REQUIRE EXTREME URGENCY, PEERLESS QUALITY OF WORK WILL ALWAYS DEMAND CARE AND THOUGHTFULNESS, WHICH BY DEFINITION, CANNOT TO ANY SIGNIFICANT EXTENT BE RUSHED. … EXCELLENCE IN ALL WE DO IS BY FAR THE MOST, AND PERHAPS ONLY, EFFECTIVE RESPONSE TO THE COMING TECHNOLOGY MAELSTROM.
The Excellence Dividend is not an exhaustive exploration of that coming technology maelstrom (though it’s a damn good start). The good news is that there are plenty of those books out there, and he gives you a list of them, along with the encouragement that “the best weapon circa 2018” is “READ! READ!! READ!!! READ!!!!.” There are, in fact, reading lists provided on multiple topics. And as a book that is built around around quotes and influences, The Excellence Dividend cites a veritable library of books. All of those books influenced his thinking. Some even changed his mind. But he particularly calls out Susan Cain’s Quiet which, he says, has changed his life. All of them, as well as his on-the-ground, inside-organizations experience have led him to this understanding of management:
Management as conventionally perceived is a dreary, mechanical, constrained word. Consider, please, a more encompassing, more accurate, more fulfilling definition:
Management is the arrangement and animation of human affairs in pursuit of desired and societally worthy outcomes.
Management is not about Theory X versus Theory Y, “top down” versus “bottom up.” Management is about the essence of human behavior, how we fundamentally arrange our collective efforts in order to survive, adapt, and, one hopes, thrive and achieve excellence individually and organizationally.
If that sounds too high-minded for you, let him explain:
Odd as it may sound, I’m attempting to stress the abiding importance of and moral and artistic nature of management—that is, to make it clear that in fact good management and EXCELLENCE in management are the pinnacles of human achievement (i.e., accomplishing remarkable and worthy things though development of one’s fellow humans).
Okay, that sounds even more ambitious. It should be. Whether managing a hunting and gathering expedition, our first forays into planned agriculture, a Fortune 500 company, or a neighborhood corner-store, it has always been not just an obligation to the community to provide the bare necessities, but to excel, to improve as much as possible every life that you touch along the way. Human connection makes the difference, and will continue to make a difference.
In the face of the likely dislocations steaming toward us, business’s moral role relative to its employees and community moves front and center; it should not and cannot be evaded.
Same as it ever was, you may say. But it is a truth too often and too long ignored, and has become even more of an imperative for business. He asks the reader to reflect on a lot in the book. He literally asks for it—and acknowledges the asking. Not analyzing numbers, or devising strategy, but reflecting on the human condition of business, considering ways to improve it, and implementing those improvements today.
The term “corporate culture” didn’t exist when Peters began his work. His ideas were anathema to the consulting mentality of McKinsey, the firm he worked in at the time, and the firm that commissioned the work that led to In Search of Excellence. The original print run of that book, Peters tells us, was “a meager five thousand.” No one imagined it would amount to much. It ended up selling a million copies in its first year. The so-called “soft stuff”—focusing on us soft and squishy humans, rather than finance, quantitative analytics, or robots and artificial intelligence—those sales proved, is what we are intuitively drawn to. And yet, Peters has to keep reminding us of the importance of putting people first. And he damn well will.
Tom is not averse to the “hard” stuff. As he points out, he has four degrees in those subjects—two in engineering, and two in business. His point, perhaps his life’s work even (his words, not mine), is something he learned when he hit the ground in Vietnam, and has witnessed again and again in his professional career: “Hard is soft. Soft is hard.” You can see it in the engineering and coding culture of Silicon Valley, where brilliance in the hard stuff “engineering, coding, software, algorithms, the cloud, and big data” are taken as a given. “The real value added,” says Peters, “comes from people who can sell and humanize. Which is why tech startups suddenly crave liberal arts majors.” Of course, Silicon Valley, with its bro culture and rampant misogyny, has much greater people problems than a lack of empathetic salesfolks. And Tom makes sure to focus on the wider picture outside of the valley, on the small and medium sized enterprises in the broader economy that are getting it right, actively focusing on making lives better for their employees and the world.
In a 2002 conversation on Leadership and Organizational Development, Peter Drucker said:
None of our institutions exist[s] by itself and as an end in itself. Everyone is an organ of society and exists for society. Business is no exception. “Free enterprise” cannot be justified as being good for business. It can be justified only as being good for society.
Tom continues to make Drucker's point even more accessible, and attainable, and inclusive. Free enterprise, Peters says, can only be justified as being good for your employees. He also makes it more immediate by reminding us that change comes not from what we plan for, but in what we do in the next five minutes:
Excellence is a way of life that sustains us and inspires us day in and day out, minute in and minute out.
There's more. I'm telling you, there is a lot more wisdom that Peters has gathered for our immediate benefit. And so I will close by echoing a point Tom makes throughout the book, that “the best weapon circa 2018” is “READ! READ!! READ!!! READ!!!!.” (Thank you, Tom.) You can start by picking up a copy of The Excellence Dividend.