TOM PETERS is a co-author of In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, which is often referred to as “the best business book ever.” Sixteen books and more than 30 years later, he’s still at the forefront of the “management guru” industry he helped invent. As CNN has said, “While most business gurus milk the same mantra for all it’s worth, the one-man brand called Tom Peters is still reinventing himself.” His most recent book is The Little BIG Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence. Tom’s bedrock belief is: “Execution is strategy—it’s all about the people and the doing, not the talking and the theory.” Tom has given more than 2,500 speeches, and his speech and writing materials are available for free at tompeters.com.
What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Frank Partnoy’s Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, Linda Kaplan- Thaler’s The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness and The Power of Small: Why Little Things Make All the Difference, and Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.
Cain’s book embarrassed me. It suggests that most of us undervalue introverts and, thus, effectively take a pass on about 40 percent of the population. In particular, introverts tend to be more thoughtful and deliberate. And it’s not that they don’t like people—in fact, they tend to have deeper relationships with fewer people relative to extroverts.
Speed is everything! Right? Frank Partnoy says . . . NO! The ability to pause and reflect separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Given the acceleration frenzy, “slow down” is no less than profound advice.
As to Ms. Kaplan-Thaler’s books . . . Wow! She built a large ad agency from scratch and is in the Advertising Hall of Fame. I happen to believe that “nice” and “small” rule! These ideas animate and have animated my life. (She also mocks the idea of a “vision”—the point is instead the quality of today’s work.)
Then there’s Kathy O’Neil’s book: It gives “big data” a much-needed punch in the nose. Bravo! Big data can be invaluable but can do incalculable harm as well. We need to be much more wary of the latter than we currently are.
Okay, a couple more: I happen to believe that economic success lies in the hands of SMEs, small and medium-sized enterprises. Four books I give away on SMEs are: George Whalin’s Retail Superstars: Inside the Twenty-five Best Independent Stores in America (Favorite line: “Be the best, it’s the only market that’s not crowded.”), Bo Burlingham’s Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big, Bill Taylor’s Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways, and Hermann Simon’s Hidden Champions of the Twenty-first Century: The Success Strategies of Unknown World Market Leaders.
I love giving books away! I bet, crazy as it may sound, I’ve given away a minimum of 25 to 50 of each of these books. FYI: One of the world’s great investors once said to me, “Tom, what do you consider the number-one failing of CEOs?” After I hemmed and hawed, he said, “They don’t read enough.”
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
I love to row, and I’ve been doing it since about age five. I don’t mean competitive rowing—I mean jumping into a rowboat and spending an hour or two on a river. I grew up on the Severn River, near Annapolis. After 60 years of row-row-row your boat, I discovered paradise: my sleek, light (Kevlar) 14-foot Vermont Dory. The maker is Adirondack Guide Boat of North Ferrisburgh, Vermont.
(FYI: It was a lot more than $100 . . . but it sure as heck was my favorite purchase in a long, long time.)
What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
I’d like to think I spent a couple of decades a half step ahead of the pack. But about four years ago, I felt as if I couldn’t even see the tail end of the pack because I was so far behind. So I took a de facto one-year sabbatical, and . . . READ and READ and READ some more. When it comes to tech change, where I felt so out of it, I think I can now effectively deal with its implications with some degree of confidence.
What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
It’s an annoying habit that really drives my wife nuts. I am trained as a civil engineer, and engineers love redundancy. We expect the worst and design to deal with it.
Translation into real life: For even short trips, my bags weigh a ton. I have duplicates or triplicates of everything. If you stole my bag, you could, for example, open a small electronics store on the spot.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore? All sorts of people will give you this or that approach to your job. My advice is of a different sort: Good manners pay off big time. I assume you’re smart and I assume you work hard. But being civil and decent and kind is the bedrock of career success, as well as personal fulfillment. (And if anybody tells you that’s a “soft” idea, send ’em to me and I’ll give ’em a “hard” punch in the nose.)
Oh, and two other things: First, become a superstar, all-pro listener. How? Work on it. It does not come naturally. Read up on it. Practice it. Have a mentor grade you on it. Second: Read. Read. Read. Read. In short, the best student wins, whether at age 21 or 51 or 101.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
They say: “Think big! Have a compelling vision!” I say: Think small. Do something super cool by the end of the day! I write about “excellence.” Most see excellence as some grand aspiration. Wrong. Dead wrong. My two cents: Excellence is the next five minutes or nothing at all. It’s the quality of your next five-minute conversation. It’s the quality of, yes, your next email. Forget the long term. Make the next five minutes rock!
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
Walk. Walk. Walk. A 30-minute (or even 15-minute) out-of-the-office walk with no devices almost invariably clears my head.
My book In Search of Excellence got its de facto theme during a single 1977 meeting with Hewlett-Packard president John Young. He said the HP mantra was “MBWA.” Translation: Managing By Wandering Around. It stands for being in touch, being human—and learning from everyone. Years ago, I worked with a wildly successful Nordstrom store manager. She said (approximately), “When I’m stuck or down, I stand up from my desk and take a 30-minute ramble on the floor. Just talking with our gang for a few minutes clears my head and unfailingly inspires me.”