The Legendary Tom Peters on Managing During the Madness of Covid

Tom Peters and Mark Graban

I'm really excited to be speaking to my guest for Episode #382 of the podcast… he is the legendary Tom Peters — author, speaker, and consultant. His response to me calling him “legendary” at the start of the episode gives you a glimpse into the fun conversation we had on some very important topics.

Today, we'll be talking about his “Excellence Manifesto 2020” and a theme he has tweeted about a lot, leading amongst the “madness of Covid-19.”

He is the author of 18 books, including:

I've been a huge fan of Tom's since I first saw him give a speech around 1997 or so. The story about Motorola's “six sigma chocolate chip cookies” (read about it here) stuck with me and my recall of that story leads to Tom talking about the risk of any good program becoming calcified and bureaucratic, as we discuss early in the podcast.

Highlights of Tom's background and early career include:

  • Civil Engineering, Cornell
  • US Navy
  • MBA and PhD at Stanford
  • White House / OMB (Nixon)
  • McKinsey

Virtually all Tom's written and speech material covering the last 15+ years is available — free to download — at and

Much of what Tom says will resonate with Lean practitioners — his focus on people, the need for leaders to really love leading people, and Management by Wandering Around (an approach that might be more like Lean “gemba visits” than you might think).

As with his writing, Tom often speaks in ALL CAPS (which I love). With that does come some mild cursing — like a PG-13 movie, but I still need to give it the Apple Podcasts “explicit” rating I do warn you if you are listening in an open workplace with others (and if you are, wear a mask!).

I hope you enjoy the conversation, whether you listen or watch.

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For a link to this episode, refer people to

The Quotable Tom Peters:

  • Putting people REALLY first? What does that mean? Why is that not optional?
  • The FIRST item on your list is “TRAINING, TRAINING, TRAINING” Why is that that most important thing?

“My punchline — if you don't think training is important, ask an Army general, ask a Navy admiral, ask a police chief, ask a fire chief, ask a symphony conductor, ask a director of a movie — they are all exactly the same. It's so insane and stupid to me that it's so obvious for a symphony or a 4-star general in the Army but it doesn't seem to be obvious to the average businessperson.”

From his manifesto:

[The secret to coming back after Pearl Harbor was] “… training, TRAINING, and M-O-R-E T-R-A-I-N-I-N-G”
–Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief/Pacific, communication to Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King in 1943. (Fact: The U.S. Navy was woefully unprepared at the time of Pearl Harbor. The fix: T-R-A-I-N-I-N-G. Yes, more training was more important than more ships at the outset of the conflict.) (Note: The capitalization and punctuation in the quote above are Admiral Nimitz's, not mine.)

“Every company ought to have a CTO — a Chief Training Officer.”

Tom Peters

“And all these systems that make it to maturity are started for good reasons, they do good things, then they calcify. The best of the best calcify and a brilliant productivity and quality improvement tool becomes a bureaucratic nightmare. And frankly, it's not an exaggeration to use the word ‘inevitable.'”

Tom Peters on Six Sigma and the like…

“This is unfair to a lot of talented people (and, on top of that, I am a smartass) Agile is good, Agile was good until they started capitalizing the “a.” It's when a damn good idea, and I'm sure there are great Agile Coaches, but an Agile Coach with a capital ‘a' and a capital ‘c' — that bothers me.”

Tom Peters on Agile

“The checklist isn't worth a damn unless the culture's right.”

Tom Peters
  • Management by Wandering Around — might be widely misunderstood as going around shaking hands. What is YOUR definition?
    • “It's not about inspection… it's about 90% social.”
    • “Any workplace is a Community.”
    • How does this work in a Work from Home era?

“My epiphany is this: If you are the boss and it's 1 AM and you're in the distribution center with the all-night crew and if it is not FUN — if it's not pure, raw, unmitigated fun — I want you to do me a favor: go home, go to your desk, get out a pen, take a piece of paper and resign your job as a leader.”

Tom Peters

“You don't need to like your players, but you need to love them.”

Football coach Vince Lombardi, quoted by Tom
  • You've been talking for a LONG time about the need to have more women on corporate boards… you tweeted “Boards of Directors with gender balance have profits 56% above those that don't.” — tell us more about why this is?
    • Applies also to racial diversity? What does “white privilege” mean to you? How do we erase inequality in organizations? In Communities?
  • Women are better leaders? Data shows…

“If you give me a room of 100 managers, and you ask me “how many of them are skilled at giving negative feedback?”, I will respond by saying, ‘Stupid question, none.' Giving effective feedback makes neurosurgery look like child's play… that's one of the 832 things they don't teach you at Harvard Business School.”

Tom Peters
  • Why is the word “acknowledgment” so important to you?
    • The most important thing I can say to you is, “Thank you.” It means you're alive, you matter, you're important to us.
  • Your healthcare slide deck (PPT) trumpets that American healthcare delivery is often very unsafe… so many patients harmed and killed unnecessarily
    • The American Hospital Association tried to muzzle you through your Speaker's Bureau – what happened?
    • In Search of Excellence in Healthcare?

“My comment, after watching some real shit shows that went on in hospitals, ‘I'm going to pass a law that no male is allowed to be a hospital CEO. I'm not 100% serious, but I'm directionally serious.”

Tom Peters

“Anybody who doesn't think there is ‘white privilege,' unfortunately was born without a brain. There are three types of people I dislike in this world 1) mass murders 2) child and spouse abusers and 3) successful people who think they deserve their success. Why am I brilliantly successful? The first 98% was an excellent choice of parents. I was born white, male, Protestant, American in 1942 and I would have had to work hard to screw it up.”

Tom Peters

“The part that makes you want to punch the screen in healthcare is that about 75% of what those nurses are entering [into computers] is billing data. That's when you want to start wringing necks. What's tragic is when something like 80% of doctors would prefer their children not go into medicine. That's an ‘oh shit' sort of thing.”

Tom Peters on healthcare IT

“My leadership advice in an age of Covid-19… don't be an asshole!”

Tom Peters

Tom's “Covid Leadership 7”:

  • “Be kind
  • Be caring
  • Be patient
  • Be forgiving
  • Be positive
  • Be present
  • Walk in the other person's shoes”

“Hire people with pretty damn high EQs! Don't hire the jerks! One bad apple can spoil the bushel.”

Tom Peters

“Google does something that disgusts me, people are classified as ‘A' players or ‘B' players, which I do get sick to my stomach on that one, but it is a great tool for demotivating 50% of your population. What they found, in terms of innovation, is that the B teams beat the hell out of the A teams.”

Tom Peters

“People are NOT the organization's most important asset; people ARE the organization. Period. All stop. I am not a human resource. Wash your mouth out if you ever say ‘H.R.' People aren't resources. People aren't assets. People are people!”

Tom Peters
  • AI vs IA — Artificial Intelligence vs Intelligence Augmented
  • The people side of Lean” — what's the other side?

“What is an organization? People serving people serving people. Leaders serving the front line people who do the work, who in turn serve the customer. Two key words in that sentence — people, service.”

Tom Peters

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