Lunch With The FT : Tom Peters

Monday, November 24, 2008

…..Twenty-six years have passed since the publication of In Search of Excellence, the book he wrote with his fellow former McKinsey consultant Robert Waterman…..It has sold more than 10m copies and is still the model to which many business authors – whether they realise it or not – aspire…..“In a room of 500 managers, there are going to be four who are on the verge of doing something really interesting, whether inside or outside the company, and you simply give them the will.  In American football terms, they are five yards short and you push them over the line.  To claim anything more than that is grotesque egocentrism,” he says…..Is management getting harder?  “No,” he replies firmly – and in defiance of the conventional wisdom.  But what about all that new technology, the end of deference, the increased pace of life, and the heightened expectations of employees?  Doesn’t that all make management harder?  On the whole, Peters thinks not.  We exaggerate the extent of change, he feels.  It is the arrogance of modernity to believe that we face unique and unprecedented challenges.  What people say now about the internet they used to say about the railways, the telegraph, the radio … “You know, I get paid large sums of money for running around and saying that the past was simple and the current generation faces immeasurable difficulties,”  Peters says.  “But my mom died two years ago a month short of her 96th birthday, which means that she lived through the arrival of long-distance telephones, automobiles, airplanes, jet airplanes, a man on the Moon, the great Depression, world war one, world war two, the cold war, Vietnam, Iraq one, Iraq two, and I have the nerve to stand in front of people and say, ‘Life is tough!’ So, yes, I think we way overdo it.” 

…..Vietnam gave Peters something else: a crucial insight into man management.  “I had two tours of duty, two commanding officers.  I’m not exaggerating but I really spent the next 40 years of my life writing about Dick Anderson.  He was a guy who believed that young men aged 23 needed a chance to express themselves.  He believed that [writing] reports was incidental but that building stuff for your customers, typically the Marine Corps, was what you were there for.  “On tour two I had a naval academy graduate who would rather have produced an excellent report about things we hadn’t built than a lousy report about things we had.  One guy wanted you to do something, the other guy wanted you to write reports.  It was the best management training that one could possibly have had.  Do what Dick did and avoid what Dan did – there’s the book … it’s a very short book!”…..We both round off the meal with peach parfait and coffee.  It is now nearly 3pm.  Time for complete candour about the secret of his success.  “Look,” Peters confesses, “I was born in 1942, in the US.  I was protestant.  I had relatively intelligent parents and I was white – that’s the first 99.9% of it.  Hard work may have done the rest.”  There is no secret: try hard, then try again.  “Are you throwing enough spaghetti at the wall so that some of it will stick?  Whoever does the most stuff has the highest chance of doing well.  It’s about getting stuff done.  “I had a neighbour who won a Nobel prize for his work on kidneys – he carried out the first effective transplant.  I once asked him how he’d done it.  ‘We did the most operations,’ he told me.  At any point in time there are 10 people up there – one of them does the most.”  You see, if you just keep at it for long enough something good is bound to emerge.  It’s a bit like having a long, amiable chat over lunch with Tom Peters.

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