The secrets of great managers

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 28 March 2014

The first management book I ever read, back in the late 1980s, was the sequel to In Search of Excellence, the book that established Tom Peters as the world’s leading management guru. A friend had given it to me. Its title was in keeping with his previous tome: A Passion for Excellence or, as it was called in my German translation, Leistung aus Leidenschaft — Über Management und Führung. (I must admit that ‘leadership’ sounds nicer than ‘Führung’. At least it has none of the unavoidable connotations of the German word.)

Peters’ book helped trigger my interest in business and economics. So when late last year I found out that he might be available to give the dinner lecture at the New Zealand Initiative’s members’ retreat, I did not hesitate a second to confirm him as our speaker. As it just turned out when he spoke to us in Auckland a couple of weeks ago, it was an ‘excellent’ choice.

Time has not diminished Peters’ passion for outstanding business practices. The only funny thing is that none of his insights, beliefs or recommendations can claim to be revolutionary, novel, ingenious or particularly sophisticated. In fact, not even Peters’ himself would claim that they were. What they are instead is something even rarer: complete common sense.

That was indeed the core message I took from reading Peters’ books. At the time, I was a high school student and it seemed perfectly plausible to me that when managers want to find out how their companies are working, they would talk to their staff. Peters called it “Management by wandering around” and gave it a nice MBWA abbreviation. But I wondered if that made it a radical management philosophy.

It is strange that executives have to learn such simple practices from management books or in expensive seminars. Pablo Picasso once said: “Every child is born an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist”. Maybe something similar could be said about managers as well. Perhaps the world’s best leadership practices are the ones we forget while we are collecting our business degrees and get embedded in corporate management routines.

Let’s take a look at another of Peters’ collected wisdoms, which he presented to us in Auckland. On a bright red slide, using bold white letters, he proclaimed:

EXCELLENT customer experience depends entirely on …
EXCELLENT employee experience!
If you want to WOW your customers …
FIRST you must WOW those who WOW the customers!

With his PowerPoint technique of using grossly over-crowded or half-empty slides, often in shock colours and using a multitude of different fonts, Peters would not win any prizes for aesthetics. But this did not stop him from ‘wowing’ his audience. It is pure passion that jumps out from his presentation, and it is this passion that he expects from anyone in business. As he asked his audience: “If you don’t want to be excellent in what you do in your day job, what’s the point in getting out of bed in the morning?”

Once again, none of this should come as a surprise to anyone outside business. It is a passion for excellence that drives us in every other field: the passion to be a good footballer, piano player, parent or chef. Few people set out to be mediocre and just get by in what they do.

To most of us, striving for success or fulfilment through achievement comes naturally. Even children already behave this way in the playground. Why would it by any other way in business?

The last question is one that neatly sums up Peters’ approach to most management issues: Why should business be different from other walks of life?

Take training, for example. “Why is your world of business any different than the competitive world of rugby, football, opera, theatre, or the military?” Peters asks. “If ‘people/talent first’ and hyper-intense continuous training are laughably obvious for them, why not you?”

It does not make any sense, Peters claims, that competitive sportspeople train hours and hours every day, and that their coaches are paid extremely well, when in most companies training is seen as a side-activity.

Peters estimates that more than half of all CEOs regard training as an expense and not as an investment; a necessary evil rather than a strategic opportunity. With such an attitude, no sports team could ever win any trophies, but companies somehow believe they can get away with it.

When I talked to Tom Peters prior to his speech, I asked him about this strange tension between being a management guru and preaching simple and commonsensical solutions.

To him there was no such tension, except that he was befuddled why anyone would require his services or pay him huge amounts to speak at conferences. (We didn’t pay him at all as he was speaking to us pro bono.)

Just because a recommendation was simple and straightforward does not make it wrong. It is the obvious solutions that sometimes work best.

And so Peters mentioned the Starbucks chief executive who aims to visit as many of his branches as possible to literally ‘smell the coffee’. How else would he know what is going on in his company? He explains that he believes most executives develop a tunnel view for their businesses. Why? As the co-founder of one of the world’s largest and most successful investment services firms recently said to Peters: “If I had to pick one failing of CEOs, it’s that they don’t read enough.”

It is perhaps not management books that they should read, but practically everything else. At least that seems to be Peters’ own recipe, who has a voracious appetite for books. Maybe that is what keeps him grounded and creative, despite his decades of success as a management guru a remarkable modest and easy-going person.

Excellence comes in many forms indeed.

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