“What is Tom Peters’ theory?” This question, which appears when you google the bestselling business author of all time, is hard to answer because he has had so many.
The reply, from Study.com, is partially right. He does believe that customers have more insight into a product or service’s strengths and weaknesses than anybody inside the business, but he has also urged leaders to search for excellence (in his most famous - and probably still his best - book, published in 1982), thrive on chaos and embrace innovation.
Way back in 1999, he advised everyone to focus on ‘brand you’. And he still hasn’t given up on excellence – in 2021, he redefined it as “extreme humanism” which can be roughly translated as “putting people first”.
No-one can accuse Peters of not walking the walk with his ‘brand you’ theories. In part, this reflects a change of emphasis in his work. He made his reputation as one of the shrewdest critics of corporate America – which he observed at close quarters in seven years at McKinsey. But, sometime in the late 1990s, he seemed to give up trying to transform companies (did he conclude it was a lost cause?) to focus on transforming individuals.
In pursuit of individual excellence, he has bombarded white collar workers with exclamation marks, one-liners (“There is no future for the person whose identity is Desk 163”) and insights drawn from experience (top of his list of the 20 dumbest things businesses do: “The pursuit of synergy: it rarely works”). All of this is delivered with the confident, almost evangelical, manner of snake oil salesman in 1920s America.
And that, in essence, is the charge against Peters - that since his first breakthrough book, co-authored with fellow McKinsey alumni Robert H. Waterman Jr, he has been selling hype over substance. Indeed, even 20 years ago, many CEOs who were influenced by him were reluctant to publicly admit it. Gravitas had never been his strong suit, posing for photographs in his boxer shorts made him look more like P.T. Barnum than Peter Drucker.
Such revision is understandable yet unfair. For a start, it’s not his fault that his success spawned books extolling the habits of highly effective people, magical tricks for success and lessons in leadership from George W. Bush. (And no, we’re not making that last title up.)
And the fact that Peters does not have an all-embracing theory of management is not necessarily a flaw. Having interviewed more than 100 business leaders over the years, I have found them all resistant to the idea that a theory such as Six Sigma can ‘solve’ management. In the words of a veteran finance chief in the oil business: “Most of the issues we deal with are so specific – to the company, sector, or territory – theories don’t help.”
What he lacks in gravitas, Peters makes up for with relatable insight, often gleaned from the corporate coalface, advice of use to managers at every level and in every sector. He acquired his distrust of strategy and planning the hard way, challenging these shibboleths at McKinsey so vehemently, the partners felt obliged to fire him.
He was prescient, too, in recognising that the long-term strategic plans so beloved of corporate America in the 1970s and 1980s were as relevant as the Soviet Union's five-year-plans. Instead of long-term strategy, which in reality often took a back seat to short-term crisis management, he advocated long-term thinking. His insistence on listening to customers, which irked the higher ups at McKinsey, was decades ahead of his time.
Although Peters may have been too prolific an author for his own good, he has consistently returned to particular themes - autonomy, decentralisation, innovation, people management, quality – as he exhorts companies and individuals to seek excellence.
One of his most significant achievements was to change the discourse of management, especially in America but in other developed economies too. As Mark Gimein put it in an excellent article in Fortune magazine, back in 2000: “You don’t even need to have read Tom Peters to be living in a Tom Peters’ world.”
His greatest contribution to the theory and practice of management is probably his tone of impatient optimism. (His co-author, Waterman, said “Tom’s never happy unless he’s angry”.) In various guises, his central message is that, whatever business throws at you – and that is likely to be much greater than was thrown at your predecessors 50 years ago – you can do something about it.
Although some will cavil that his credo amounts to an individual solution to a systemic problem, his spirit does, at least, offer some hope. And that is a commodity that has been in short supply in the workplace over the past four decades.
Actionable insights from Tom Peters
1. “The essence of strategy is not the structure of a company’s products or markets, but the dynamics of its behaviour.”
2. “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.”
3. “Make it happen. Action counts. No one ever sat their way to success.”
4. “There is no such thing as a minor lapse of integrity.”
5. “The simple act of paying positive attention to people has a great deal to do with productivity.”
6. “We must simply learn to love change as much as we have hated it in the past.”
7. “Excellence is not an aspiration. Excellence is what you do in the next five minutes.”
In Search of Excellence has stood the test of time, even if some of the companies praised - like Atari and DEC – no longer exist and Peters later owned up to finessing the data. Many of the book’s ideas – particularly the importance of trusting and empowering employees – are still pertinent today. Also, unlike many business bestsellers, it is a pleasure to read. Liberation Management is not as revelatory but is so crammed with insight, drawn from such a wide field, that it almost makes every other business book seem superfluous.