Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism

by Tom Peters (Networlding Publishing and un/teaching, 2021)

Tom Peters is an older man in a hurry. In his short new volume, he tells us things he’s told us in his many previous books, and he insists we need to run out and do every one of them right now. He tends to rant. Exclamation points and capital letters abound. The phrase “damn it” appears 19 times by my count. But the book, the best business book of the year on leadership, is significant for one big reason: it is the avowed summa of a man who has been the nation’s premier management guru for decades. And at the heart of his new volume is the urgent recognition that above all else, leaders will have to pay far more attention to people from here on out. To do that, they may well have to rethink their business’s presumed purpose. For the traditionally loquacious Peters, the book is a model of economy. Excellence Now captures the highlights of a lifetime of reading, thinking, and making observations by the man who rocketed to fame in 1982 when he and Robert H. Waterman published In Search of Excellence, one of the most successful business books of all time. Some of the quotes are pretty good, such as this crack by economist Paul Ormerod, which reflects Peters’s love of small and medium-sized enterprises: “I am often asked by would-be entrepreneurs seeking escape from life within huge corporate structures, ‘How do I build a small firm for myself?’ The answer seems obvious: Buy a very large one and just wait.”

At the heart of this new volume is the urgent recognition that above all else, leaders will have to pay far more attention to people from here on out. Many of Peters’s traditional themes are here, including a conception of excellence as a way of life and business as a path of virtue. Small is preferred to large, and action to inertia. Get your hands dirty, damn it! Treasure your frontline managers, and treat your part-timers right, too. For heaven’s sake, get out and talk to customers, and listen to people. Apologize when you need to, and do so like you mean it. Profit is hardly mentioned; business here is about making the world better, about beauty and compassion and meaning. Peters has never ignored the human factor in business, and his contention that a focus on people will be paramount going forward couldn’t be timelier. For one thing, birth rates are plummeting in much of the world, often in countries that were already aging. So working-age people, although still numbering in the billions, will grow more scarce and expensive in many areas. That means firms will have to compete harder to win and retain both workers and customers. Businesses will also have to maximize the productivity and adaptability of their existing workers, who may be hard to replace. “Your principal moral obligation as a leader,” Peters writes, “is to develop the skill set of every one of the people in your charge—temporary as well as semi-permanent—to the maximum extent of your abilities and consistent with their ‘revolutionary’ needs in the years ahead.”

Second, in a world of growing affluence, more people will simply demand better treatment, and they can afford to pay for it. They also have new tools for demanding it, such as social media, where they can broadcast a company’s callousness toward staff or indifference to customers. The third reason for a focus on people is the growing sense that free enterprise as we know it might be skating on thin ice. Last year, in an Edelman study of more than 34,000 people in 28 countries, 56% of respondents agreed that “capitalism, as it exists today, does more harm than good in the world.” In the United States, for example, economic populism has been on the rise, along with skepticism toward free trade and market concentration. In sum: leaders are likely to find it imperative that they demonstrate concern for citizens instead of just shareholders if they hope to retain the support of voters, legislators, and consumers. Fourth, there is the earthshaking and long overdue rise of women throughout society and especially in business. This phenomenon is not lost on Peters, who insists that women are better managers than men, and who opens the book by dedicating it to 11 women. “This is not a dedication to ‘the women in my life,’” he writes. “This is a dedication to 11 of the extraordinary professional women who have shaped my views about effective, diverse, humane, and morally focused enterprises.” His insistence in the book that business needs to pay more attention to communications, aesthetics, empathy, meaning, and most of all people is an implicit acknowledgment of the tremendous importance women have assumed as workers, customers, and voters. Finally, although rapid advancements in artificial intelligence could eradicate worker shortages—by eradicating jobs—firms and societies alike will have to deal with the social, economic, and political ramifications of a technology that increasingly does the judgment-based things people have traditionally done, only better. Peters, always the optimist, hopes businesses can use AI to augment and empower staff. Meanwhile, his advice to executives is to engage all parties, including customers, in discussions. “Do not run and hide when you hear the chant, ‘AI is coming around the bend.’… This should be a personal priority.” Peters is passionate about diversity and climate change, too. But one wishes the 78-year-old author had more directly faced up to some of the challenges implicit in his enthusiasms. Prioritizing people is great, but which people? If a family-friendly auto shop closes Friday at 5 p.m. sharp and reopens on Monday morning at 9, how friendly is that to the families of working single parents and other customers whose only window for getting cars fixed is the weekend? Are inclusiveness and excellence never at odds? What should you do if they are? No one truly in search of excellence in business and leadership should ignore these sorts of difficult questions. The value of Peters’s book—so brimming with optimism, enthusiasm, and belief in people—is in the way it grabs us by the lapels and reiterates one last time, in the most direct possible way, the humanistic message of his work. “Take care of people.” “Make uplifting…products and services that inspire our customers and make us smile and be proud.” “Embrace the urgency required to deal with—in your sphere of influence—the catastrophic implications of climate change.” “Behave honorably at all times and be an excellent and vigorous community member and moral leader.” “Aim for excellence day in and day out, not as a grand aspiration, but as a way of life.” Peters’s latest and perhaps last book—there is a valedictory air about this one—offers not so much argument as inspiration. And at this juncture, that’s more than good enough. When it comes to the very big things in business, Peters is right. Damn it! Source: Tom Peters’s Excellence Now exhorts leaders to focus on the needs of people. By Daniel Akst/Strategy and Business.

3 Skills New Managers Need to Succeed . . . .

To start, recognize that entire teams—and not just individuals—require clear feedback.

BASED ON INSIGHTS FROM Stephen King / Lisa Röper

Making the leap from individual contributor to manager can be fraught: for the new manager, their direct reports, and the organization as a whole. New managers tend to rise into their position based on past success. But few have the experience or training to effectively manage a high-performing team. Add Insight to your inbox. We’ll send you one email a week with content you actually want to read, curated by the Insight team. This is a huge problem for organizations large and small, according to Steve King, an adjunct professor of executive education at Kellogg and former Executive Vice President of Human Resources at Hewitt Associates, where he oversaw HR for the firm’s 25,000 associates. “Senior executives count on frontline managers to make things happen,” King says. After all, the vast majority of a firm’s employees report into frontline or middle managers, not those at the top of the organization. Yet, executives often overlook frontline managers’ need for clear guidance and direction about change efforts. Leaders often mistakenly presume that managers are already trained and proficient at rolling out changes with their teams—and that the benefits of the changes they are proposing are self-evident—so there is little need to explain or clarify things to managers and teams. In King’s view, new managers need to master three critical skills to succeed in their roles. Know What Kind of Team You Are Leading Frontline managers need to understand whether their team is comprised primarily of individual contributors or whether it is highly collaborative. And then, they need to set goals accordingly. “For example, a wrestling team and a football team have a very different kind of team dynamics,” King says. “They’re both teams; they just need to be managed differently.” Some sales leaders set revenue goals for each salesperson and offer financial incentives for their individual efforts. Others set team revenue goals and reward the team when they collectively hit their target. Neither approach is inherently more effective, but the team approach drives greater collaboration. Early in the pandemic, teams comprised of individual contributors were more nimble than highly collaborative teams because they had already established processes to work independently, come together as a group, and share information. Interdependent teams that relied on face-to-face interactions had to establish new ways to collaborate. But individualized teams require special attention, too. Many frontline managers fail to articulate what King calls “metagoals,” or the shared goals among individual contributors. If individual contributors don’t see their work in the context of the company’s larger goals, it’s easy for conflict to arise. It may also be a sign that the team … isn’t really a team. “More often than not, what presents as a relationship problem—people blaming one another, bad group dynamics in meetings—is the result of the manager failing to clarify the team’s goals.” – Source: Steve King

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