In part one of our interview with the archetypal management guru, we heard his thoughts on Vietnam, McKinsey and Trump. In part two of our edited conversation, he takes on the tyranny of the dreaded bean counter. Warning: contains some colourful language.
Your co-author of In Search of Excellence, Robert Waterman, once said about you that you’re not happy unless you’re pissed off about something. What pisses you off now?
A lot. In my definition, an idea remains new until it’s implemented. When someone says to me Tom, you’ve been writing about this stuff for twenty years now, give it up, my response is we haven’t f***ing done it, dimwit, hence it remains new.
In a world where jobs are in jeopardy, it’s no longer enough to give people a good job, you must give them a growth experience. It’s your moral obligation as a human being to have people leave your employ more capable of moving forward in this crazy world than when they got there.
Whether people have listened to you or not, you’ve been at this a while now - how do you keep your creative juices from drying up?
It’s all due to my mother. She made me a fanatic reader by the age of five and nothing’s changed. My role in life is to do the reading you don’t have time to do and do the translation for you in shorthand.
A much more important answer is that for 25 years I arrogantly felt I was a quarter of a step ahead of what was going on. I woke up three years ago and thought holy shit I’m 20 miles behind, so I took a de facto 18 month sabbatical and did nothing but read.
I don’t want to listen to a f***ing 17-minute TED talk either, give me a 1300 world article please. I hate those goddamn things.
You're not exactly a novice speaker yourself. Any tips?
I’m pretty good a presenting. I’m 74, my bank account’s not $0, but I still believe I out-prepare anybody in the world. That’s my dirty little secret. I’m a lot better after 3000 speeches than I was after three.
The key to effective speaking is effective listening, and I’m damn good at listening to body language – he says with total modesty. In a one hour speech I bet I make 500 adjustments based on how someone’s wriggling their butt in the fourth row because they’re bored, or smiling in the second.
It’s the life of the stand-up comic. I’ve got a good line and nobody reacts, so the next time I tell the story I adjust it, and I adjust it 23 times, until the 24th time I get the connection I was looking for. It only comes from hard work and repetition.
The key idea of In Search of Excellence was that soft is hard and hard is soft, that we need to end the tyranny of the bean counters. Why does the bean counter approach die so hard?
A -It’s a lot easier to write a budget than it is to develop a relationship with somebody. I’m an engineer and believe in measuring things but that’s a by-product. B - We have too many MBAs.
Any advice for a repentant bean-counter?
Manage your exposure to people who make you uncomfortable. The average Brit or American has 220 work days a year – that’s 220 lunch opportunities. Go to lunch with other functions. Invite a car dealer in. Invite a restaurant owner, even though you run a finance department, just expose yourself to people who look at the world in a different way than you do.
One of the least happy days in my life, I was talking to the CEO of FedEx, Fred Smith, and he turned to me and said who’s the most interesting person you’ve met in the last sixty days and tell me how I can get in touch with them. I didn’t have a good answer. It was all I could do not to break into tears.
What are you interested in now?
I’m really interested in the £10m/$15m companies that dominate the landscape. We just don’t look at those role models. In terms of domestic employment of Fortune 500 companies, it’s something like 7-8% of the American working population - they’re not who employs us.
There’s a company in New Zealand that’s the world leader in sea anchors, for example. Fifty people in a town of 2,500 and they’re the best in the planet. We need 10,000 more W A Coppins, quit worrying about frigging Google.
Image credit: Kenny Louie/Wikipedia
This article was originally published in March 2017