Contentious American business expert Tom Peters has seen some of his ideas turn full circle over the last 20 years.
Yet the colourful 63-year-old is still giving lectures all over the world on how he believes success should be achieved, particularly in the bigger companies, and how they should get rid of middle management.
Described by many as the business guru, he first entered the limelight in 1982 after writing In Search of Excellence with Robert Waterman, which remains one of the best-selling business books in the world. He followed it up with A Passion for Excellence and, in 1985, with Thriving on Chaos, which also proved very successful.
His binding principles of effective management focus on the mantra of solving business problems with as little business process overhead as possible, stripping down what he sees as the bureaucratic. Instead, he says, managers should concentrate on giving power to staff on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder, giving them responsibility to solve as many problems as they can.
But some of the companies Peters used as role models in his first book, including
computer firm IBM, began to struggle and one, the cheap airline People Express, went so close to bankruptcy it was forced to sell to competitor Texas Air.
Peters later apologised, claiming “there are no excellent companies”, and has made even more money putting right his theories in later books. But he still believes that business is 90 per cent people — although his ageist policy in saying firms should go for youth may grate with some — and only 10 per cent technology.
Despite this, his ideas continue to have weight in the UK, as larger businesses take
over smaller ones, removing management levels at local bases. This could be seen as passing the buck, creaming ideas off the workers without the more expensive middle management getting in the way.
He says: “I hate labels. OK, for a while I was ‘the excellence guy’, but now I like to think I can’t be categorised. I’ve done my excellence thing, my customer thing, my women’s thing and my design thing, so people cannot easily pin me down.”
“I got so damn sick of excellence, so worn out by excellence for years after the book became a hit. I distanced myself from it, ran from it, though I willingly collected the royalties! Now I have come full circle. Sure, I think In Search Of was a pretty good book, but I also think a lot of its success stemmed from the word ‘excellence’ per se.”
For Peters, the central management structure of running a business is imperfect, as it requires business managers to know too much, overburdening them with needless small details. Businesses, he says, should give employees the chance to fail, on the suggestion that doing nothing is usually much more expensive for a business than doing the wrong thing.
He believes that a business decision-maker should be versatile and adopt a policy of quick actions, which changes as dictated by market forces.
He uses the example of Nordstrom, a US chain store which employs thousands of workers who are given leeway to do almost anything it takes to please the customer.
Peters says: “I’m on a new campaign based on sales; an old campaign really, but with renewed vigour.”
“I am trying to put sales back on the pedestal it deserves. In the process I suppose I’m down grading marketing — and that’s more than OK by me.”
“Of course I think marketing is incredibly important, but I think it intellectually comes second after sales, and the likes of MBA programmes have largely eliminated sales from the picture. Stupid! Hence one of my favourite quotes these days is from Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘Everyone lives by selling something.’
“This all came up at a presentation recently. I championed my client’s cause — the more intense and focused use of databases and analytics associated therewith in
marketing. I said, fine, as long as you’ll substitute the word ‘sales’ for ‘marketing’. That is because my two favourite businessmen’s terms are: Sales. Revenue.”
I suppose that could be seen as stating the obvious, but it seems to have worked well for Peters in the way he has dressed it up and sold it as a package over many years.
Born in Baltimore, Tom Peters has come a long way since In Search of Excellence gained exposure across the US when he hosted a series of television specials based on the book.
He studied at Cornell University, gaining a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1965, and a master’s degree in 1966. He went on to study business at Stanford University, getting an MBA and PhD. That is backed up with an honorary doctorate from the State University of Management in Moscow, which he received two years ago.
Peters served in the US Navy from 1966—70, including two terms of active duty in Vietnam, then later worked at the Pentagon. He followed that by working in the White House as a senior drug-abuse adviser during the Richard Nixon administration from 1973—74.
He then branched out into management consultancy and in 1981 became an independent consultant.
Peters is still a prolific writer on business management and continues to give around 80 lectures a year on personal and business empowerment and problem-solving methods.
He lives in Vermont, on a farm with his wife, Susan.
He is founder and chairman of the Tom Peters Group. He is responsible for his personal appearance and consultancy work — but I wonder how many decisions in the chairman’s own empire are made by the workers?