Interview with Tom Peters On Managing During The Madness Of Covid Times And Beyond
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:
- In Search of Excellence (1982) — Dan Pink (my guest in Episode #107) said (here) that it launched the modern biz book genre
- Thriving on Chaos (1987)
- Liberation Management
- The Pursuit of WOW!
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 codified 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)
Virtually all Tom's written and speech material covering the last 15+ years is available — free to download — at tompeters.com and excellencenow.com.
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 on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7KEqp7vJl9w
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Tom Peters On Managing During The Madness Of Covid Times And Beyond
I'm excited about this episode. My guest is the Tom Peters. He wouldn't make me say it that way, but that's the way I feel about it. He is an author, a speaker, and a consultant. I've been a huge fan of his since I first saw him give a talk in the late '90s. We're going to be talking about one of his themes. He's been tweeting about it a lot and writing about what he calls leading amongst the madness of COVID-19. We're going to be talking about a document he calls his Excellence Manifesto 2020. Tom gives away a lot of material for free at his websites, TomPeters.com and ExcellenceNow.com.
He is well-known for his books, including In Search of Excellence, which was published in 1982. Dan Pink is another great author who was my guest in episode 107. I've heard him say that this book, In Search of Excellence launched the major mass market popular business book genre. Thriving on Chaos, Liberation Management, and The Pursuit of WOW! are some of the other books that Tom has written.
As far as his background, he's a civil engineer with a degree from Cornell. He served in the US Navy. He earned an MBA and a PhD from Stanford. He worked for Richard Nixon the White House in the Office of Management and Budget. He also worked for the consulting firm McKinsey for almost a decade. Much of what Tom says in our discussion here, beyond being thought-provoking, engaging, and a lot of fun will resonate with Lean practitioners and the audience.
His focus on people, the need for leaders to love leading people, and his concept of management by walking around. We'll also talk about why good management methodologies often start to fail when they get too codified and bureaucratic. This episode is a lot of fun. As with his writing and his tweets, Tom often speaks in all caps, and part of that is that he does curse a couple of times. It's mild cursing. It doesn't offend me, but if you're in your workplace, be aware of that. If this was a movie, it would probably get a PG-13 rating, but I still need to give this the explicit label. I hope that doesn't get in the way of anybody diving into my conversation with Tom Peters.
I'm excited about this episode. We're joined by the legendary Tom Peters. We might also use words like incorrigible. What do you prefer, Tom?
Legendary is sweet, but I'm not exactly young. I got some lifetime achievement awards, and my wife and I had been to some Monty Python thing, and I got a T-shirt. I wore the T-shirt at a tuxedo event and the words on it in very big letters were, “Not dead yet.” I said that's the definition of a lifetime achievement award. “He's still around?” I'll take the legendary if you insist, but “the always fresh.”
Thank you for being here, Tom. As I mentioned to you before, my first real exposure to ever seeing you speak stuck with me. In particular, there was a story that you told about Motorola and Six Sigma. It seems unfair for me to tell the story but in a nutshell, you were talking about Six Sigma and that Motorola had taken that so far. You felt like they had gotten off track because they were bragging about how their cafeteria had chocolate chip cookies, where the number of cookies per chip was so tightly controlled within Six Sigma boundaries. Why did that seem a bit crazy to you?
One of the GE alumni went to work for 3M, which along with HP and 3M has weathered the storm better than HP, 3M was probably my favorite company in search of excellence. I was a McKinsey guy and I'd been working with people like Chase Manhattan, and first of all, they were people from Minnesota and Minnesota lives up to its Minnesota-ism with some problems associated there. The culture in the place was, in retrospect, what you'd expect. It was very innovative and so on. A GE guy left and brought Six Sigma into 3M.
I remember reading the story when he left. It was a cover story in Bloomberg Business Week or something and it was how Six Sigma almost killed 3M's innovation capacity. All of these systems that make it to maturity are started for good reasons. They do good things, and then they calcify. Years ago, a friend of mine at McKinsey did a study on the top 1,000 publicly traded companies in the United States, and over a 50-year period, none of them outperformed the market.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.… Click To Tweet
The best of the best calcify and a brilliant productivity and quality improvement tool becomes a bureaucratic nightmare. Frankly, it's not an exaggeration to use the word inevitable. It's like the following in a trivial way. My wife and I had a house renovation a few years ago, and there was a fabulous guy who was the head carpenter. We got to talking about this and that, and he has to go to school to renew his license. He has to go to his school annually for a couple of days to learn about all the new building regulations locally and in the state.
I had read something that said, you read through public regulations and we all are like, “Damn public bureaucrats.” Very few of them are stupid. The stupidity comes when one gets piled upon another and suddenly, the place is literally locked up. This is very unfair to a lot of incredibly talented people, and on top of that, I am a smartass. Agile was good until they started capitalizing on 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 bothers me.
My old friend is an MIT professor. His name is Michael Schrage, relevant to innovation, wrote an entire book that had one of the most wonderful titles known to humankind. It was called Serious Play. The whole notion was, “We're in a damn serious business, but there's got to be a bit of playfulness to it.” As I told you, when we were doing our little warmup discussion, I finished a big book on Chernobyl.
The systems that existed within that plant weren't stupid, but they just had been designed so effing tightly that human beings couldn't intervene at the right time. They hadn't taken the real human factors into account. They had taken as AI will do every damn human factor known to humankind, except the, “What if you have an epidemic that only comes along once every year or every century?” That's my difficulty. When I'm talking to big audiences sometimes and giant companies, I always say, “You people ought to be playful. You have a losing hand. Your company is going to go downhill. Have fun on the trip down. I am half facetious, but also very half non-facetious.
This is going back to W. Edwards Deming and others we talked about. When you have good people in a bad system, a bad system will defeat good people. I saw the HBO series on Chernobyl, and the one thing that's striking is the denial in the leadership of bad news trying to bubble its way up, and that not happening.
Let me just say to reinforce what you said, and maybe it's only old people like me who remember the Cold War, but people who deny what's going on sounds like the Soviet Union. It bloody well happens in any company of probably, frankly, over ten human beings. It certainly happens in the big corporate bureaucracies. In a place that has eight levels of middle management, who wants to be the one who tells the executive vice president that the world just came to an end?
Even on a smaller scale, hospitals. I've worked a lot in healthcare in the last few years. I've seen what you've written and shared about healthcare. We're trying to change that culture of executives being in denial or not wanting bad news to go upward. When you've shared and rightfully ranted about the number of people harmed and killed by medical error, what a shame that is.
To use the sports term, “By unforced errors.” It's not the ones that are inevitable, but the ones that could be prevented. I want to toss something in when you said that, which is consistent with what we're talking about. I live in Massachusetts now. There was a study that was reported in The Boston Globe done by the Massachusetts General Hospital, MGH, which is one of the top five hospitals in the United States.
One of the things they discovered is when nurses are at the bedside now, they are always carrying a tablet and they have data entry requirements. The measure of both conclusions was that nurse-patient eye contact has gone down by 70%. That makes you want to weep because the reality is with hard psychological research, eye-to-eye contact is, at least, as good as penicillin or whatever your favorite miracle drug is. The part of it that you'll appreciate as somebody who works with healthcare is the part that makes you want to punch the screen. About 75% of what those nurses are entering is billing data. That's when you want to start wringing necks.
The doctors often want to wring the necks of some.
There was proof of that, which is tragic. I read this a few years ago, and I would assume it's even gotten worse. Don't trust me entirely, but I'm pretty sure what I'm saying is something like 80% of doctors would prefer that their children not go into medicine.
I've heard that anecdote.
Excuse my language. That's an, “Oh, crap,” kind of thing.
It's sad. Also, the levels of burnout that you see, and then that lead to them wanting to tell the children to do something else.
Find something else.
Of all the things that you publish and make available on your website, one is your Excellence Manifesto 2020: The 29 Number Ones. I'd like to explore some of those, but how much of that document, if any changes now that we're in the midst of a pandemic and social unrest around race and other important issues? Is leadership and what's required from leaders consistent or has some of that changed right now?
It's not as easy a question. The answer is, it may seem. The answer is everything has changed and I hope this doesn't sound as arrogant as it might, but the stuff that I've talked about for the last many years, people's stuff, etc. has now gone from optional to required. I don't know enough about your audience or what's appropriate or not, but I've said leadership advice in the age of COVID-19. Again, my apologies if required, don't be an a******.
In a slightly more polite language, I wrote something, which is in an updated version of what you've read that I called the COVID Leadership Seven and they are be kind, be caring, be patient, be forgiving, be positive, be present, and walk-in the other person's shoes. It might sound like it came out of like it came out of the Presbyterian handbook or something, but it's true. My evidence says that if you treat people incredibly well, you make an incredible amount of money.
I'm not telling you this because I want you to be a better person. I want you to get rich and that's my storyline all the way along but this is the real deal. It's not the question you ask, but it's something I get off on these days. This is on that list as well. I hired people with pretty damned high EQs. One of my favorite examples that I used in my last book came from a guy by the name of Peter Miller. He heads a biotech company that's called Optinose. His one-liner was, “We only hire nice people.”Hire people with pretty damn high EQs. Don't hire the jerks! One bad apple can spoil the bushel. Click To Tweet
The real key to this for our audience is that he said, “This is an incredibly sexy business and I need somebody with a PhD in some obscure realm of molecular biology,” but he said, “I learned something.” Give me the most obscure degree in the world. There are a lot of people who have that degree and don't hire the jerks. He's got 200 people. It's not GM, but it's also not two people in a garage somewhere. His line, which again, is exactly accurate was, “I believe that one bad apple can spoil the bushel.”
In his case, which I love is I'm the person with the PhD, and my CV is so good that you, Mr. Miller, CEO are weeping with joy and would desperately like to offer me the job. Even though I'm CEO and even though you are CEO, you can't because they have a rule. The rule is to run the gauntlet. After you and I are finished, Tom Peters, the genius will have a 5 to 10-minute conversation with about half a dozen people who will be the receptionist, the 27-year-old in the finance department, somebody in R&D, and so on. Any of those people can blackball him.
We don't have forever and I hate to go on about this but I loved it so much. Back to your healthcare, almost every darn list I see and I suspect you would agree. If the Mayo Clinic's not in first place, it's never lower than about third place. Also, relative to exactly what I said, there's a wonderful book out. It's called Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic.
One of my many favorite things in the book is, once again, I, Tom Peters, the greatest ocular surgeon in the history of humankind is interviewing you. In this case, maybe you're not the CEO. You're the senior HR person or something. We're interviewing, and one of the things I don't know, and maybe we do it on our iPhone or do it with a pen on the back of our hand is as I am speaking to you, you are counting the number of times that I use the word I and the number of times that I used the word we.
To exaggerate a little bit, if the Is beat the Wes, Tom, the greatest living human being ever known in history relative to that thing, you don't get the job. Also, they trace it back, which is cool. For many years, Dr. Mayo of the Mayo Clinic invented what he called team medicine. You go through the book and you want to weep. There's a story, for example, of a kid, a young resident, and the young resident gets a call on his pager or his iPhone or whatever it is. On the other end of the line is one of their top surgeons, and the top surgeon is in the OR.
The top surgeon says to you, the 28-year-old who just finished med school a couple of years ago, “I'm in the middle of something and I got a problem. I'm, honest to God, not sure what to do.” Here are my options. What do you think I ought to do?” Again, it's not a BS question. That's the way they work. This young man who was interviewed for the book said, “Here's the most amazing thing in the world.”
Evelyn Peters' little boy, Tommy Peters, age 27, is being asked by Dr. God, “What should I do in operating on somebody's mother or father or what have you?” Some woman who worked there and even though she's an MD, it's rhetoric and not reality. She said, “I'm 100 times more powerful at Mayo than I was before because we practice team medicine.” Part of the answer is to hire for EQ. Hire nice people and wonderful ones. I'm like, “Oh, my God, I love this and I'm pissed off because I didn't find it until after my last book came out.”
It was a story reported on internal Google Research, and they had studied two things. The best employees and most innovative teams. If you use the G word, Google, you know that the research was pretty tight and not anything other than top flight. In their top employees, there were eight traits that were the most important, and 1 through 7 were all soft things. Listens, I respect you, and they did the same thing with teams. Also, Google does something which disgusts me, and people are classified as A-players and B-players, which I do get sick in my stomach on that one but it is a brilliant tool for demotivating 50% of the population.
What they found was in terms of innovation, the B teams beat the hell out of the A teams. Again, you can imagine an A-player at Google with an IQ of 315. He is certain that he is the smartest human being God ever put on earth and he thinks you're charming. That was one of the things that came out on the bad side of the list in the A teams. There is too much intellectual bullying. Again, the point being is that you could say, “Your EQ thing, Tom, is great if we're talking about a hotel but it's great in the tech part of the Google organization and just as bloody important.”
You talk about putting people really first. Why is there a need to insert the word really? Is that because companies say things like, “People are our most important asset, but they don't really mean it.”
What it really means is that you pass the test. When I did my last book, it was my first book in the modern world. Meaning, in ten years or something. Suddenly, instead of going to bookstores, I was doing podcasts. This is probably not accurate, but let's say I did 20, and the wonderful news was that 18 or 19 were like you, and the people were prepared.
I don't mean prepared because they've read every line of my book but they were ready to have an intelligent interview. I swear to God, 15 of the 19 prepared people always started by saying, “Tom, you write a lot about people.” I was an old Navy sailor, and I will not use the language that went through my head in this particular incident, but it was, “What the blank else is there to write about?”
I used Twitter a lot, and I had a testy conversation about a week ago with somebody. They said, “We get what you're saying, Tom. People are our most important asset.” My response in print was, “BS. You didn't get it at all. People are not the organization's most important asset. People are the organization.” I don't remember whether it was on that list or not, but one of the things I said is, “Wash your mouth out if you ever used the term HR again.”
I am not a human resource. I was an only child and on the night of November 7th, 1942, my mother popped me out, and let us say at 4:00 AM, my father got to come into the birth room. My father, Frank looked at my mother, Evelyn. They've been trying for a long time for this child, and said, “Evelyn, how wonderful it is. We now have our very own human resource.”
He didn't say that and people aren't resources. People aren't assets. People are people. The other thing without going off on yet again the longest thing in the world is it's incredibly important. I talked about it a little bit with the COVID world, but it's incredibly important in the artificial intelligence world. They talk about AI versus IA, Artificial Intelligence versus Intelligence Augmented. Bringing the people part more front and center, to my mind, is clearly the best way to differentiate yourself.
I've had similar reactions when we talk about Lean manufacturing as a methodology, and people will write things. There are articles titled The People Side of Lean, and I cringe the same way. I'm like, “Wait a minute.”
My shorthand for this, which again, is somewhere in that paper. It is, what is an organization? It's people serving people. Leaders serve the frontline people who do the work and who in turn serve the customer. There are two keywords in that sentence, people and service.What is an organization? People serving people serving people. Leaders serving the frontline people who do the work, who in turn serve the customer. There are two key words in that sentence - people and service. Click To Tweet
In that list of the 29 Number Ones, the first one, all capitals are TRAINING, TRAINING, TRAINING. That's not a sexy issue. You have a Stanford MBA and McKinsey mind. People might look and say, “Tom, why are you writing about training?”
I'll jump to the punchline and then say more. My punchline is 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, and ask a director of a movie and they're all exactly the same. It's so insane and stupid to me that it is so obvious for a symphony or a four-star general in the bloody Army but it doesn't seem to be obvious to the average business person.If you don't think training is important, ask any army general, navy admiral, police chief, symphony conductor, or movie director. It's so insane and stupid that it's so obvious for a symphony or a 4-star general in the army but not to… Click To Tweet
That quote that I used came from a guy by the name of Chester Nimitz, who ran the Pacific fleet to the United States during World War II. When Pearl Harbor happened, the Navy was pitifully unprepared. We lost a lot of ships in Pearl Harbor, but it was Nimitz's communication with the guy around the Navy. He said, “The secret to us coming back is training, training, training. It is not more ships.” They hadn't had the money. They hadn't had the time. They hadn't had the interest.
It's related. I said I'm a pretty good speaker, but I sure as heck am often not the smartest person in the room, but maybe thanks to my parents, among other things, there is no living human being on earth who can out-prepare me. It's all about preparation. There's a wonderful one-liner that I love that is attributed to Abraham Lincoln. He was giving a management lecture that day, and he said, “If somebody gives me seven hours to cut down a tree, I will spend the first four hours sharpening the ax.”
It seems so obvious to me, and again, one of the things I say in there, and this is back to generals and admirals in part, is, “If you had a 45-minute étude de réseaux with the CEO of a pretty big company, you would hear gajillions of things about the new tech investments and the word training would never pop out of that person's mouth. It's ridiculous, but again, this is one of those times when the one-liner is key. Ask an admiral. Ask a general. Ask a fire chief. Ask a police chief. You and I were having a prior conversation about Chernobyl. Ask the operations director of a nuclear power plant.
I always laugh. I was an old Baltimore Colts fan and then a 49ers fan, but I live in the Patriots world. I said Bill Belichick calls me in and I do a study of the organization. I sit down with Coach Belichick, and I say, “I studied your football organization and I want to say one thing. First, your players are very important. Second, having a practice is very important.” At which point, Belichick reaches behind him, takes one of his 73 Super Bowl trophies, and throws it in my face and that's the last thing you ever hear from Tom Peters but isn't that accurate?
It's bloody true to a seven-person purchasing department and to an automobile dealer that people who are trained, learning, and growing, that's the ballgame. Why the heck do I have to waste my time at the age of 77 training? I said to somebody at one point, “If you want to understand all my work and understand the full intellectual power of it, if you want to understand the book of mine, you must produce for me a signed slip of completion from the fourth grade.”
I've got all these quant degrees from grade schools. It does not take third-year Calculus to understand that people who are well-trained. You tell me. Stop asking me questions. Why in the heck is it obvious to a fire chief and a police chief but it doesn't seem to be as obvious to even somebody who's gotten rich as a car dealer? Let alone me who is running a $75 million division embedded in GE or whomever. Why?
It's a rhetorical question, but I'll answer it. It is because ego gets in the way of that. Even though executives had education, do they think, “I don't need training. Training is for some?” They're looking down upon people. It's something for human resources instead of investing in people.
I wish I had the skill, and it again, may be embedded in that paper to use the whole quote, but there's a book written by somebody who's serious. He has sat through an operations and results meeting at a big company and it's incredible stuff. They talk about teamwork and how they did all those kinds of things. Our buddy who is writing the book turns to the CEO and he said, “This stuff is so obvious. Why do you think that other CEOs don't do it?”
The actual answer to the question, which I'm simply repeating to you, is the guy said, “I think they're embarrassed.” It's too simple in a way. I think also the part where you say, “They're here. They ought to be trained, or we shouldn't have fired them,” which is the same thing as saying, “He came from the University of Michigan. Now, he's here with us and playing for the Lions. We need to train him. He should have been trained there.” It's that low IQ discussion. It frustrates me because I've had to write eighteen books. Fundamentally, I'd love to have your royalty money, but every damn one of them says exactly the same thing that all the others say. Please, buy all eighteen, by all means.
As you say, put people really first. You could also use that word and say, “Training people,” because organizations will go through the motions and do a poor job of training. This happens in healthcare, and then when something bad happens, they throw the employee under the bus when it was a matter of bad systems, poor training, bad supervision, and bad management or however you want to call it. It's unfair to people.
Every company ought to have a CTO, but instead of a Chief Technology Officer, it ought to be the Chief Training Officer. He or she ought to be on the executive floor with the COO and the CFO and the other top people. As you said, don't get me going on the healthcare issues in any dimension. I got to know the guy at Johns Hopkins who did the checklist, Peter Pronovost. There's a book called The Checklist Manifesto written by Atul Gawande. He said in the book, Peter Pronovost saved more lives than any MD in the United States with a checklist.
However, the fascinating thing which you know better than I, given what you do, is Pronovost said the real breakthrough was understanding that the checklist isn't worth a damn unless the culture's right. It's because the checklist says that the nurse has to be able to say to the surgeon, “You only washed your hands for 15 seconds.” Again, as you know from healthcare, you don't tell the surgeon his fly is unzipped. It's a huge cultural change.The checklist isn't worth a damn unless the culture is right. Click To Tweet
Back to your point about how things get calcified, you are bureaucratic. There are organizations that will go through the motions with the checklist, and then there are organizations where it's the right culture.
You said you triggered something else that's pretty closely related. Both of these are related. I was at a private dinner near our home. It's a social dinner. I was sitting next to a guy who is a very big deal in the investment world. He is not a Buffett, but up there with the high and the mighty. I don't know what we were talking about, but he said, “Do you know what the number one failing is of CEOs?” I don't know where I got it, but I have the gift or whatever of being a smartass. I said, “I can think of 50 things that are wrong with the average CEO, but I'm not sure which one I'd put as number one.”
It wasn't that we were having this sobering conversation, but he looked at me. He said, “Number one is clear. They don't read enough. They aren't professional students.” I ran across something from Charlie Munger who is Warren Buffett's number two. He said, “You would be astonished by how much Buffett reads.” The second thing I wanted to say about the training thing I think is pretty directly related.
Our dear friend who saved bajillion lives in the Hudson River is Sully Sullenberger. I read the stuff and I never did read his book so I can't say I did that. I don't know how old he was at the time, but he was not a child. He was 50 or something like that when he had the event happen. He loved flying and he was a student of flying. He was always studying and always trying to keep up. A lot of the reason that he reacted so well is he was better prepared than the other folks.
Again, it seemed so simple to me and it's a perfect example. With Chernobyl or Sullenberger, you are dealing with a very sophisticated technological machine so you can't say they didn't invest enough in the technology, and yet, it was those instincts to pull things together that led to his being able to do the truly miraculous thing he did.
I've seen him speak and he'll talk about how checklists were so important. There was no checklist for that exact specific situation. He'll say, “There was no checklist for what happens when you're taking off from a New York City airport and both engines are taken out by birds.” He said the skill of what he and his co-pilot did, and he gives so much credit to his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, is that they were able to figure out which checklists to pull from. Also, the culture of teamwork made sure that one of them was flying the dang plane because planes crashed when both the pilot and co-pilot were trying to figure things out, and no one was paying attention to the altitude. That's brilliant teamwork and that comes from training.
I remember, which is also the checklist thing, in that regard. Delta Airlines was one of the first to do this. They pushed hard on the culture of the co-pilot and are allowed to tell the pilot that he's full of crap because surgeons and whatever have nothing on pilots and co-pilots. This is a little bit of what we've been doing in the policing situation by saying, “You are required to stop so-and-so if his knee is on the neck of the offender,” and this didn't say to the co-pilot, “You're allowed to interrupt the pilot.” It said, “Your performance means that if you've got a problem, you tell the pilot.” This is a required task and not, “It's okay.”
Again, the thing which surprised me in retrospect is that was a BFD of the first order. The Pronovost checklist thing was based on a kid who was burned in the shower at home and went to God's gift of hospitals, Johns Hopkins University. I was a Baltimore boy so it means more to me than many. Fundamentally, there was something they should have done for the kid in the ER, but the head resident was either taking a pee or what have you and you couldn't do this thing until you had the permission of the head resident at that point in time, which it makes you want to weep and it is an incredible tragedy. However, relative to what you and I have been talking about, it is an insane system's tragedy. As you and I have been talking about, it is as normal as normal can be, alas.
There are two more things I want to ask you about while I've got you. One is Management By Wandering Around and then talking about women in leadership. First off, management by wandering around is one of those things where maybe if people haven't read your work, they've heard about it, and then it gets watered down.
An example is a manufacturing manager I used to work with when I was in that industry who prided himself. He would go and walk first thing in the morning and go shake every person's hand but the problem I saw was that he wasn't taking the time to stop and engage with anybody. However, I wanted to ask you since we've got the source. You've got a much richer definition of management by wandering around.
Management by wandering around is not about inspection. It's exactly about what you said. It's 90% social. I had a big Twitter spat about, “Can you call a work team family?” Some of the purists said, “No. That's only my whatever.” I'm willing to, if you require me to drop the word family, but I will say any workplace is a Community in the capital C sense. I'm going to jump ahead and then I'll come back.
My wife and I typically spend a couple of months of the winter in New Zealand and we have a house that is more appropriately called a shack that's by the sea and a wonderful beach. This is so tragic. Here I am, walking on the most beautiful beach in the world and thinking about MBWA. Tell me if there's anything more tragic than that.
However, at that point, I have been talking about it for many years. I hate epiphany, but I had a real epiphany. My epiphany, which is exactly what you're talking about, is this. If you are the boss and it's 1:00 AM and you're in the distribution center with the all-night crew, you learn about what's going on. However, if it is not pure, raw, unmitigated fun, I want you to do me a favor and go home. Go to your desk, get out a pen, take a piece of paper, and resign from your job as a leader.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's 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… Click To Tweet
If you don't get off on the people who are doing the work at 1:00 AM, it's okay to use words like fun. When I say that, what goes through my head is this wonderful line from maybe the all-time National Football League Coach of Green Bay Packers Vince Lombardi. The wonderful Vince Lombardi line and I would dearly audience to not say good wine, but reflect on this a little bit is Lombardi said, “You do not need to like your players, but you must love them.” This is coming from the toughest guy who ever walked on the face of the earth. You can make your own translation, but the idea is central to this all the time.
There was one by the name of Pat Carrigan, and she was the first woman to run a GM parts plant. We went to see her for a TV show. She was so fabulous at what she did that the State Legislature of Michigan gave her a congratulatory letter when she retired. What I remember is in MBWA, one of the people we talked to with the camera on was the head of the UAW in that plant, which had a couple of thousand employees.
He said, “Let me tell you about Pat Carrigan. Pat Carrigan comes to work on the 17th of September, XXXX. I knew she had come in.” The union head in a big plant is a guy who's got an office. It's not a part-time job. He said, “A couple of hours later, I hear a knock on my cubicle. I opened the door and there was this woman. She said, ‘I'm Pat Carrigan. Can I come in and chat with you for a while?'”
He said, “I have been in this business for many years, and a plant manager has never come to my office to ask if he or she can sit down and talk. I am always summoned.” I was then talking with the frontline people and this is not believable, except unfortunately, given my training, I do believe it. I had a bunch of these tough old dudes who have been around, and we got them right after they came off of the night shift.
I asked the question based on the union leader thing, and someone said, “I haven't seen the plant. I don't know. Maybe we don't have a plant manager. I've never seen one.” Again, it's so easy to say it and we're back to, “Only hire nice people.” You got to be somebody who gets off on people. To use incredibly sophisticated language associated with all of my PhDs and other degrees, if you don't get off on people, you shouldn't be leading people.
If you have nine people on your team and you do not know the names of all of their children and what their grade level is, I'm more than willing to toss you out onto the street and say, “Thank you very much. I'll give you a good severance, but you don't belong here.” It's not being intrusive. The reason you want to know about their kids is you give a crap. You're coming to work for me. You're spending eight hours a day, and I got a capital F, Family, and lowercase f, family, and community.
If we're going to get something done, we got to give a damn about each other. I'm not prying into your personal life. I've also put that the biggest problem in many big corporations is crappy cross-functional communication. Purchasing people don't talk to the accounting people and so on. This has a little bit of change to be sure in the age of WFH, but as I said, there is a secret to excellence in cross-functional communication. The secret is the word lunch. It's much more important than Oracle.
I'm a purchasing guy and I'm a proud professional. You're a finance guy and you're a proud professional and we seem to spend half our life fighting with each other. We'll take that example and set it aside. I, at some point, will say, “Why don't we get lunch?” Here, you and I have been at each other's throats for a long period of time and I'm probably pretty close. Statistically speaking, while we're sitting at lunch, we will discover that both of us have eighth graders who are in the same school.
The whole world changes then. I am still a son of a b**** purchasing officer, and you're still a son of a b**** finance officer but when we chat with each other about a problem, it's two people who get off on each other, which is a totally different circumstance than, “I'm the finance guy. I know more than you. I'm the purchasing guy. I know more than you.” Once we got those two eighth-grade kids, we're about to give each other crap but the first thing I say is, “I hear George is on the soccer team. How are those guys doing?” The whole world changes. I'll take the lunch. You take the bloody software from SAP or Oracle.
I was going to tell you real quick. I'm a Michigan kid and my first job out of college was in my hometown at a General Motors' plant. As an engineer, I was out on the shop floor. The best advice I got was from the union chairman of the plant who said, “Get to know the employees. Don't just work with them.” I didn't have an eighth grader of course, but talking to these employees and they would discover, “You went to high school here in town. My kid goes to that school. The principal is a bleepity bleep.”
It's because you're doing the same thing I'm doing. How do we convince people of that? We could convince them to learn an Arcane new computer language and it would take seven and a half seconds, but how can we convince them to do what you just talked about? This is important to our conversation, given when we're having it is it's not going to come easily, and you have to experiment, but you can do the same thing in a WFH setting.
It's not the same lunch or what have you, but I've heard 100 people say 100 things we're having a WFH meeting with 12 people on an important topic, and you are a good guy. You're a huge contributor, and the whole meeting, you're frowning. I'm not going to do anything about it during the meeting but many of us have these things called phones. When the meeting's over, I'm going to give you a call and say, “It's none of my business, but you seem out of it. This is not a criticism. Are things okay?” It's infinitely important.
Just one other to toss in, which will take too much time to talk about so we won't do anything more than toss it in. If you'll give me a roomful of 100 managers and you'll ask me how many of those 100 managers are skilled at giving negative feedback, I will respond by saying, “Stupid question. None.” It's giving effective feedback that makes neurosurgery look like child's play. Again, it's one of the 872 things they don't teach you at the Harvard Business School.
A final point on EQ. You've been talking for a long time about the need to have more women on corporate boards and there's data that you share. It says that boards with gender balance have 56% higher profits, but beyond that, you talk a lot in the paper in that you shared that women are better leaders on 12 out of 16 different dimensions. Can you tell us about that?
It's also stuff that you can find at TomPeters.com, but there's enough serious research to sink a pretty sizable ship that says that women are better leaders. The one you referred to was a Harvard Business Review article and there were sixteen leadership traits and women well-outscored men on 12 of the 16. As the author said, including the one where you would be inclined to say the men were best, terms like driving for results. “You can do this and you can do that,” but women didn't use the same style, which is the point to a significant degree.
There is another one coming from Lawrence Pfaff. He took 20 dimensions of leadership and women outscored men on all 20 and 17 of them with statistical significance. I like to say two things that are important so that I don't get dismissed. I'm not suggesting that you fire all the men. I am suggesting that I'll give you eighteen months and I want to look at the stats on gender balance. I want them to be better than now.
It's not that I get in trouble, but people like to dis these kinds of things. I am not saying that men don't listen and women are great listeners. I am talking about bell-shaped curves and what the statisticians call central tendencies. There are good male listeners and there are lousy female listeners, but statistically, the odds are way on the side of better listening if the person is a woman than a man. I like to talk about what we're talking about.
I also like to put an asterisk in it and say, “The thing that got me focused on women in leadership thing was not women in leadership. It was when I learned the statistics, which say, ‘Women buy everything.'” If women are your market, it would be nice to have people who understood what needs and desires were running the joint as well.
Interestingly, or maybe it's boring as heck, women buy everything. We've long known that women buy all the consumer products and 85% or something like that. However, in 2020, over 50% of professional purchasing officers are women. Their role in the purchase of commercial products is as significant, essentially. I'll have to add one, which again, I'm adding it for you because you were talking about your work.
My comment after watching some real crap shows that went on in hospitals in the early days and probably still at this time, is I said, “I'm going to pass a law and my law is that no male is allowed to be a hospital CEO.” I'm not 100% serious, but I'm directionally serious. It's not statistically valid, but this thing that we see again and again that virtually all of the countries that have had the best COVID-19 reaction have been headed by women.
I am incredibly well-trained in statistics and I know the sample size is not that high, but I'm also suggesting that maybe it is not a coincidence. I do think that it's not a coincidence. This thing that the Harvard Business Review found is it's not being soft to say, “Thank you,” to listen, to do what you were talking about in the plant, and get to the point where we both understand that our dads were on the 19XX football team together at the high school. There's nothing soft about that.
If you want soft, let's go back to the recession of 2007 and look at the derivatives of crappy and useless mortgages that were turned into pieces of gold that turned out to be pieces of crap. My line has always been, “Anybody's been in business for three years or more who can't fake the numbers, that's a no-brainer.” I don't mean it in an illegal or immoral way, but we all know how to fudge numbers. Numbers are soft. They're abstractions and my relationship with you is not an abstraction.
That's rock-solid hard stuff. There's some investment guy, and I don't remember the quote. It may be in the piece that you've got who says, “The basis of all success is the quality of the relationships,” and it's true. It's as true in the AI world as it was where the phone was a tin can and a piece of copper wire hooked to another tin can.
One thought you've sparked from what you've said. Let me say this back to you and see if you agree or not. You said that a company or an organization is a community. It seems like it makes good business sense for the community of the company to very much mirror the community that they are serving or selling to. Does that seem like a fair statement?
Definitely, and it's also important to serve the community in which your workers work. There's an old friend of mine by the name of Bo Burlingham, and he wrote a wonderful book called Small Giants. The subtitle of which approximately is Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big. He had four attributes. One of the four great attributes of these companies is he said they were totally engaged in the communities where they were.
To me, again, it seems as obvious as the end of your nose, but as I said, the community's a bigger word for me. It should have been a bigger word a long time ago, particularly when we look at this world of COVID-19 and the racial inequality that we have discovered and it is discovered, which embarrasses the living heck out of me. It's because I was pretty heavily involved in the civil rights movement era in the '60s and I taught the first course that they ever taught at Stanford on affirmative action and so on.
I thought it was a done deal, and we found out it's not a done deal. Again, it's going to take hard work. I don't want to make this political, but it is. Anybody who doesn't think there's White privilege, unfortunately, was born without a brain. I said to somebody, “The three kinds of people who I most dislike in the world are mass murderers, number 1, child and spouse abusers, number 2, and number 3 is successful people who think they deserve their success.”
Why am I greatly successful? I have had a lot of success, and the first 98% was an excellent choice for parents. I was born a White, male, Protestant, and American in 1942, and I would've had to work hard to screw it up. It's important that we try to understand this. There was this wonderful piece. I'm sure you've read 100 of them. It was an African-American or a Black woman surgeon. It's a little story of Why I Wear Scrubs All Day.
One of the punchlines was, “If I'm a Black female surgeon and I've got my scrubs on, and I walk through Neiman Marcus, they don't treat me like, “She's going to be a pickpocket.” We are not there and it's going to take hard, conscious work not to get us there because we probably will never get there but it's important. I've got to run. You got one last one-liner if you want and then I'm out of here.
One other word that's important to you and acknowledgment. Maybe let's end on that.
You and I may do this again together, and the most important thing that I can say right now is thank you. We all appreciate being acknowledged by somebody. There is an asterisk on that one that's really important. Small stuff is more important than big stuff. If you make a $1 million sale for me, you're going to get paraded around the room, and so on and so forth.
However, what I need to say thank you is when I watch you being under a deadline, nonetheless, spend half an hour helping George with something that he's got that's important. That's the thing for which that thank yous are most important. It's saying, “You're alive. You're important to us. I care about you.” By God, thank you for doing that thing, and thank you for this fabulous interview. I mean it.
Thank you for being a guest. As a way of saying goodbye, I'm sure that you reply to people on Twitter. The first time you replied to something made my day. I'm like, “Tom Peters acknowledged me.” It was a little thing, but thank you for that.
I'm delighted to say I have trouble understanding that. I can't imagine why anybody would say anything but it is to the point. The answer is when you take relative to your world as a whole, and you used me as an example, to write that tweet probably took you 15 seconds if you're a slow typist and 11 if you've got a pretty fast finger. The acknowledgment is a nod.
I remember one time when I had a training and consulting company in Palo Alto. It's some pretty big clients. We had a quarterly bonus or whatever it was. With everybody gathered around, I gave our receptionist the biggest bonus. I said, “Let me tell you about her. If a client gets here fifteen minutes before a meeting, we do not have to make a sales pitch. Her attitude, her spirit, and her engagement, she makes the freaking sale and not this guy over here who knows all this stuff, but the sale is made.”
We're a company that people would like to work with once you've spent those fifteen minutes in the waiting room. An important thing about anecdotes like that is they aren't hyperbole and they aren't exaggeration. I'll give you two tons of research if you want, but that's not a cute story for you and me to end on. It is a deadly P&L growth-oriented story. The receptionist makes the sale far more often than the salesperson does.
Tom, thank you so much for the time and for the thought-provoking comments, and everything that you shared. I encourage everyone to go to TomPeters.com. Please do buy his books, but Tom, thank you for everything that you share freely on the website. There's a lot to learn from there.
As you can probably tell, I get off on this stuff and I enjoy the opportunity to talk about it. It's a great hour for me as well.
- Tom Peters
- Excellence Manifesto 2020: The 29 Number Ones
- In Search of Excellence
- Dan Pink – past episode
- Thriving on Chaos
- Liberation Management
- The Pursuit of WOW!
- Serious Play
- Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic
- The Checklist Manifesto
- Management By Wandering Around
- Small Giants
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