Nov 22, 2008

Mktg - In Conversation with Tom Peters

Stefan Stern

Outside the markets were tumbling, traders were panicking, and the end of the world seemed nigh. But inside, seated quietly in his favourite French restaurant, Tom Peters was calmness itself. This is not how most people would picture the world’s most famous management guru. Mention Peters to business types and they will recall spectacular (and noisy) stage presentations, filled with loud assertions, garish PowerPoint slides and rarely a pause for breath.

Roussillon in Pimlico, central London – Peters’ choice – provided a weirdly tranquil setting for a discussion about management and the meaning of life when disaster appeared imminent. When he is in London, the 66-year-old likes to eat here. Not only is the food good but – full disclosure – the owner is a distant relative of his wife’s. We were certainly well looked after, given a large table that sat proudly in the restaurant’s attractive bay window.

Peters looked at home in this elegant setting. He was wearing a tweedy jacket, blue shirt, yellow tie and charcoal slacks. His hair was greyer than it was the last time I had seen him but, then, so was mine. The only obvious concession to age was a pair of spectacles that remained perched on his nose throughout our chat.

He was in London for a rare non-work trip – a family reunion. His mother-in-law had been born in England but had emigrated with her new American serviceman husband after the war. Sixty years on, various siblings had gathered on the Isle of Wight off the south coast over the preceding weekend but now the scene had moved on to London.

We had been studying the menu for only a few moments when the first amuse-bouche arrived: a dainty construction involving smoked eel and beetroot with a mustard sauce. Peters, of course, possesses one of the most amusing bouches there is, and my battle this lunchtime was to try and elicit answers to a few specific questions without getting sidetracked by too many of the nice old stories.

The mad days of rampant globetrotting are now behind him but Peters is still in demand at home and abroad. Overall he is a bit less busy – by choice, he says – than he used to be. There is now more time to be spent with his artist wife on his farm in Vermont, clearing brush, blogging, and marvelling at the continuing idiocies of management around the world.

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. When people think about the great management blockbusters, this is the text they have in mind. Search made the business book news. It has sold more than 10m copies and is still the model to which many business authors – whether they realise it or not – aspire. It also launched Peters on the path to global, jet-setting guru-dom, a status that has left him open to mockery and criticism.

Few,however, have criticised what he does for a living as ferociously as Peters himself. “I say to people, ‘You got a bad deal, paying money to see me,’” he tells me. “I have utterly nothing new to say. I am simply going to remind you of what you’ve known since the age of 22 and in the heat of battle you forgot. You’d have to be one of those television preachers to believe that you’re going to work with a group of 500 people and change their lives. First of all, most of them agree with you. You’re not going to pay £1,000 [a head] to go and see someone if you think the guy’s a jerk.

“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.

Time to order. There may be a crisis in the outside world but there’s a crisis at Roussillon too: no foie gras. But it has been replaced by equally delicious sweetbreads, so I take that as my starter, followed by pigeon. Peters opts for delicate ricotta gnocchi first, with red mullet as a main.

And to drink? Just water for Mr P. “I don’t drink now. It’s not an AA thing, it’s a getting old thing,” he says. “Being on the road a lot – there’s nothing worse than drinking by yourself. I didn’t always have the willpower I should have had. I was sitting in too many hotels and raiding the mini-bars. I stopped about four to five years ago and I’ve never looked back.” So, just me then: a glass of pinot grigio.

Fortified, I give him my best shot. 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.”

The reference to warfare is significant because Peters himself saw active service in Vietnam. He talks about it reluctantly – it takes several (impertinent? distasteful?) nudges and a degree of patience on my part to get him to describe it.

“I was there as a combat engineer – so we weren’t trying to kill Vietnamese,” he says. “We were trying to build bridges for the Marine Corps who would go out to kill Vietnamese. I’m not saying it wasn’t a bloody affair, I’m just saying I was one step removed.”

I ask if he ever came under fire. This question produces a slightly disappointed look. Perhaps you just never ask war veterans about what they have seen and done? “Never confuse us with a marine infantry battalion but, yes, we routinely came under fire. People shot mortars at us, we had some people killed in our battalion – it was a war zone, and there was no doubt about that,” Peters explains.

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!”

The US Navy funded Peters through his postgraduate years at Stanford in California. He returned there after Vietnam to complete an MBA and PhD in decision science and organisational behaviour, leaving his home city (Baltimore) far behind. He only came back east to settle in Vermont after two decades on the west coast.

After Stanford, Peters spent several years working in McKinsey’s San Francisco office in the 1970s, developing the ideas that were to form the guts of In Search of Excellence. But the book did not have an easy birth. Its breezy tone did not play well with earnest colleagues at The Firm, as its authors were to find out. “There’s no way to describe the viciousness with which Bob and I were attacked within McKinsey,” Peters says. “This was not the Holy Writ. It was the intellectual challenge to what McKinsey stood for at the time.

“To some extent what Waterman and I were looking at was the business of ‘execution’, and execution is fundamentally a management thing. We were saying, ‘If you can execute well, it doesn’t matter what the hell the strategy is. The doing is what counts.’ But this was when ‘strategy’ was at its apex. We were pushing back. We were just royally pissed off by it all.”

Peters has been criticised for the way he assembled data for the book. He even fuelled the controversy himself a few years ago in a free-wheeling interview for a business magazine. But today he is clear and concise. “We were looking for companies that worked,” he says. “We went to Chris Lorenz [the FT’s management writer of the time] and McKinsey partners, collected 100, sieved it, and 20 came out.”

It was not hard science. But what in management is? “It’s mostly luck, for God’s sakes!” Peters says. He feels the same way about this mega blockbuster that made his name: “A decent book with perfect timing” is his verdict. “There’s not an ounce of false humility in that.”

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 per cent 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.

A few other 20th century management gurus worth knowing about

Peter Drucker (1909-2005): the original and best. He said most of it, really, over seven productive decades. He also said people only called him a guru because they weren’t sure how to spell “charlatan”.

Russ Ackoff (born 1919): former Wharton professor who rejects much business school orthodoxy with his advocacy of “systems thinking”. Worries that managers waste too much time “trying to do the wrong thing righter”.

Charles Handy (1932): Irish-born former Shell trainee, Handy is the most significant management thinker to have emerged from the British Isles in the postwar years. Co-founder of London Business School and author of more than a dozen books.

CK Prahalad (1941): professor at the University of Michigan, continues to be one of the most original and clear-thinking of all management commentators. His analysis of “the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” (ie in the developing world) has been hugely influential.

Gary Hamel (1954): fighting the good fight for innovation and for management that is fit for the 21st century, Hamel is a maverick figure and a risk-taker. His “management innovation lab”, based at London Business School, is an attempt to help businesses find new ways of working.

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