Tom Peters is the archetypal management guru, though he dislikes the term. While there were influential writers before him, like Peter Drucker and Charles Handy, it was Peters’s blend of bestselling books, sell-out speaking events and snappy soundbites that set the now familiar mould.
In Search of Excellence, his 1982 debut with Robert Waterman, sold millions in its first few years, and has remained a staple of the business book shelf ever since. Peters is currently working on a manuscript for his nineteenth book. This is part 1 of an edited conversation MT had with him earlier this year.
Rewind back to 1960. What did you think the future held for you? Presumably you didn’t think you’d be a ‘management guru’ when you grew up...
For some reason I wanted to be an architect, but my headmaster told my mother it wasn’t going to work out. It was a snotty remark given my lifelong desire, but he was right. I went on to do civil engineering at Cornell, because it was relatively close to architecture.
We were hardly poor – middle of the road middle class - but there wasn’t enough money to pay for Cornell, so the Navy paid my way. I paid them back with four years, two in Vietnam, two in the Pentagon. Not because of patriotism or anything like that. If you’re my age everyone’s dad had gone to fight the krauts: nobody thought about it.
You’re glad of your time in the Navy?
One hundred percent. I unwittingly walked out of Vietnam with two complete leadership models. My first commanding officer in the Navy construction battalion, the SeaBees, was the epitome of the can-do spirit: don't tell me about the four-month monsoon or the bad guys shooting at you, you're here to build shit, so build it. The second, whom in retrospect I call Voldemort, would rather have a perfect report for a job never finished than a crappy report for a job finished on time.
How did you end up at McKinsey?
When I got out I didn't know what I wanted to do. Business schools were becoming cool, believe it or not. I thought what the hell, I haven't got anything honest to do for a living. I applied – late – to Stanford and Harvard, and went to Stanford because the weather was better.
While I was doing my PhD, I ended up, as I like to put it, doing drugs in the White House: I was broke and went for a job in Washington, and got involved advising President Nixon on drug abuse. There was much more logic to the McKinsey decision: I was following a girlfriend to San Francisco.
You’re beginning to see why I have long been an enemy of overblown strategic planning.
It worked out though - you’ve said before that you were at McKinsey at just the right time.
I don’t believe in fate, I believe in randomness. I was there at exactly the right time. McKinseyites walked on water, and if you didn't believe us, all you had to do was ask us. Then BCG came along, organised around ideas. So McKinsey said holy shit we'd better get some ideas.
Your ideas about organisational effectiveness later turned into In Search of Excellence. The author Duff McDonald wrote in his book The Firm that you were responsible for rebranding McKinsey as a group of thinkers.
It’s flattering but it’s 98% bullshit. The whole point of In Search of Excellence is hard is soft and soft is hard. There’s more to life than business strategy, and now there’s more to McKinsey to business strategy too.
We had a pretty decent product with ludicrously good timing. The week In Search of Excellence came out, Reagan’s budget had to announce 10% unemployment. The Japanese had invaded America and were beating the crap out of us. Much more so than in the UK, your identity was your automobile in America, so when you wipe out the automobile industry, you’re really hitting the ego.
The story was about 43 companies in the US that were actually doing stuff right, so it was looked on as a good news story, even though if you bothered to read it, it was 98% a bad news story.
Are the ingredients of an excellent company the same now as then?
There’s not enough time to come close to touching that. There’s a book, The Soft Edge by Rich Karlgaard, I call it In Search of Excellence 2. His argument is that fundamentally the stuff we said was important in In Search of Excellence is important for tech companies now.
Throughout human history, when the shit hits the fan you always blame the other. Now we're blaming immigrants. The real problem is technology, but it doesn't make a good battering ram when you're campaigning for Brexit or President of the United States. I think the labour markets are going to go through such a staggering disruption in the next 20 years that God only knows what kind of radicals we may end up with in 10 Downing Street or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
That’s not very optimistic...
I’m not hopelessly pessimistic, but I don’t know what the hell happens in the next 20 years. That’s your problem, not mine. I’m 74.
Read part II of MT’s interview with Tom Peters, where he discusses the tyranny of the bean counters and how to master public speaking.