UK: The Gurus - Tom Peters.

UK: The Gurus - Tom Peters. - The soundbite king confesses that he only decides to write a new book when he feels 'disgusted and embarrassed' by its best-selling predecessor.

by Stuart Crainer.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The soundbite king confesses that he only decides to write a new book when he feels 'disgusted and embarrassed' by its best-selling predecessor.

It is 15 years since Thomas J Peters and Robert H Waterman wrote In Search of Excellence. It was a watershed: since 1982, the business book market has exploded into a multi-million dollar global extravaganza. And, in parallel, the management guru industry has burgeoned.

Tom Peters was both a beneficiary and the instigator of the boom in business books and the rise of the guru industry. He was, in effect, the first management guru. While his predecessors were doughty, low-profile academics, Peters was high-profile and media-friendly. After In Search of Excellence stormed unexpectedly up the bestseller lists, he travelled the world delivering seminar after seminar, quote after quote. The buttoned-down McKinsey consultant, Thomas J Peters, became a celebrity, charging celebrity rates. A business sprung up around him. First there were the books, then the videos, the consultancy and the conferences. The medium threatened to engulf the message.

Peters' critics suggest that while he may have raised awareness, he has done so in a superficial way. He has pandered to the masses. Though his messages are often hard-hitting, they are overly adorned with empty phrase-making - 'yesterday's behemoths are out of step with tomorrow's madcap marketplace' - and under-equipped when it comes to the details of implementation.

And then there is the fact that over 15 years the message has been radically overhauled. Peters' ideas have been refined and, in many cases, entirely changed. While academics shift directions slowly and quietly in the obscurity of academic journals, Peters does so in front of audiences of hundreds, if not thousands. The standard and often-voiced criticism of Peters is that there is little consistency in his thinking. What he celebrates today is liable to be dismissed in his next book: 'I decide to write a new book when I feel disgusted and embarrassed by my previous one,' he says.

In short, Peters vacillates as readily as he pontificates.

A look at Peters' six books proves the point. In Search of Excellence celebrated big companies. Its selection of 43 'excellent' organisations featured such names as IBM, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Exxon. 'The book's chief failure, in retrospect, was that Waterman and I - both from conventional roots - mainly examined conventional firms,' says Peters. Where the book was unconventional was in its celebration of customer service and in its robust optimism at a time when industrial obituaries were more commonplace.

Yet two years after In Search of Excellence was published, a US business magazine ran a cover with the single headline: 'Oops!' It then went on to reveal that the companies featured in the book were anything but excellent.

The article claimed that about a quarter of them were struggling. The single and undeniable fact that the excellent companies of 1982 were no longer star performers two years later has continued to haunt Peters.

Indeed, mention his name and this is often the first thing people say: 'Isn't he the one who got it wrong?'

'When the magazine ran the "Oops!" story, it was a bad week,' says Peters.

'I was certain the phone would stop ringing. I wouldn't disagree that I had been on the road too much and in that respect it was a great wake-up call.'

The phone didn't stop ringing and Peters' next two books carried on in much the same vein. A Passion for Excellence emphasised the need for leadership.

Co-written with Nancy Austin, it was hugely successful but added little in the way of ideas. 'A Passion for Excellence is probably my sixth favourite of my six books,' Peters admits. 'It was a collection of stories collected on the road.

It came from me talking to zillions of people and seminars, so it wasn't the best written book and the published version is a nightmare, but people still come up to me about the vignettes. People read it for the soundbites.'

But Peters' audience was increasingly restless. They believed what he said. They agreed that customer service was critical and that layer upon layer of bureaucracy was pointless. His next book, Thriving on Chaos, was an answer to the big question: how can you become excellent? The publication opened with the proclamation: 'There are no excellent companies'. This is probably the most quoted single line from Peters' work - either used as proof of his inconsistency, as evidence that he learns from his mistakes, or as a damning indictment of his propensity to write in slogans. Thriving on Chaos was a lengthy riposte to all those critics who suggested that Peters' theories could not be turned into reality. Each chapter ended with a shortlist of suggested action points.

The major change in Peters' thinking occurred with Liberation Management.

In effect, Peters dismissed the past and heralded in a brave new world of small units, freewheeling project-based structures, hierarchy-free teams in constant communication. Big was no longer beautiful and corporate structure, previously ignored by Peters, was predominant. After speaking on customer service for the previous decade, Peters noted, 'If you've done all the close-to-the-customer things that I begged you to do in my first three books ... I'm not sure you'll be any closer five years from now than you are today'. The final published version of Liberation Management was 834 pages long. It is his favourite book, though he admits that, 'Perhaps it was self-indulgent and certainly it was too long. But if I had to go back I wouldn't change it.'

Examining his output, Peters is engagingly candid. 'My six books could be by six different authors. I have no patience with consistency so I regard it as a good thing. I consider inconsistency as a compliment,' he says. 'When I'm writing, I think whether people who've influenced me would throw tomatoes at it or not. To some extent, I am a translator who is good at finding interesting examples which make the message relevant to people.'

To Peters, the moment is all important. He is a whirlwind of activity.

Thoughts stream from his head. He is bold, opinionated and over the top.

If what he sees and what he thinks run totally counter to what he has previously argued, it is simply proof that circumstances have changed.

(Not for nothing did Peters name his boat The Cromwell, inspired by Cromwell's comment, 'No one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going'.)

Indeed, what distinguishes Peters is that he is not shackled to a particular perspective. While Michael Porter covers competitiveness and Rosabeth Moss Kanter human resources, Peters stalks restlessly from one issue to another. His seminars roam widely, and at times indiscriminately, from customer service to free trade, from the Tiger economies to the managerial lessons to be learned from an afternoon in the kitchen.

He has proved remarkably adept at picking up ideas at exactly the right time. In Search of Excellence was successful because it brought good news at a time of depression; Thriving on Chaos was published on the day Wall Street crashed and promised a way through the uncertainty; Liberation Management anticipated much of the later work on teams and project-led organisations, and its case studies, of ABB and CNN, for example, have been relentlessly explored. Peters has moved with the flow of ideas, but always managed to be ahead of the tide.

If there is a consistent strand through his work, Peters claims it is 'a bias for action'. Forget the theorising, get on with the job. 'You can't think your way out of a box, you've got to act,' says Peters. This is a message which leads academics to shake their heads at its simplicity.

With managers, however, it appears to strike a chord, and Peters can claim a long list of adherents including ABB's Percy Barnevik and Northwestern's Herb Kelleher. 'Ideas and strategies are important, of course, but execution is the real challenge,' says Barnevik.

While making things happen is a consistent refrain in Peters' books, the shift in emphasis has been dramatic. Over 15 years, he has moved from a corporate world view to one centred on individuals. He is now working on a book entitled Rules for Radicals: A Provocateur's Guide to Management 2000. Corporate aid has metamorphosed into self-help, the world of gurus like Kenneth Blanchard and Stephen Covey. 'In the Covey-Blanchard world, there is something. It does boil down to personal transformation,' Peters observes. He has travelled far to conclude that, in the end, there is the individual.

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