Tom Peters‘ first book In Search of Excellence, which became a bestseller, was published in 1982. It sold 3 million copies in its first four years, and was the most widely held monograph in the United States from 1989 to 2006. It reshaped global business thinking and has been anointed time and again as “the best business book ever.” Twenty books and thirty-nine years later, Tom is still at the forefront of the “management guru industry” he single-handedly invented.
Tom’s 20th book, Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism, was released in March 2021. Tom repeatedly says that he does not understand why this straightforward, “not rocket science” message, which he has been ranting and raving about for 43 years, seems to be so hard to grasp — but he will continue to “sell” these timeless ideas “until his last breath.” Tom’s tireless focus is on putting people first and developing leaders who stay in intimate touch with the front-liners who do the real work. In November 2017, Tom received the Thinkers50 Lifetime Achievement Award.
To learn more about Excellence Now, Ray Wang, CEO and founder of a Silicon Valley-based advisory firm Constellation Research, and I invited Tom Peters to our weekly show DisrupTV. Here are the key takeaways from our conversation with Tom.
“What you are doing right now will be the hallmark of your entire career,” said Tom Peters. How can we focus on “excellence” after living through 2020, a year which brought the worst healthcare, economic, climate, racial and equality injustice, and large-scale dissemination of misinformation crises in a lifetime? Tom Peters’ answer is to actively engage and to serve our employees, our communities, and the planet, to aim for no less than the betterment of society. And do it “with all your heart and all your soul and all your energy.” Excellence Now is the guide book we can all use to overcome and shift from surviving, to growing and thriving, after experiencing the deadliest pandemic of our lifetime.
The 7 commandments – leadership in the time of pandemic
Be kind. Be caring. Be patient. Be forgiving. Be present. Be positive. Walk in the other person’s shoes. Tom reminds us that: “This is an unparalleled opportunity to enact positive change and plant the seeds for a better world. To react with less than full-scale engagement and commitment is, to me, unconscionable. Please act. Don’t blow it!” Tom gave an example of shopping at a bakery and treating the employees with empathy and care and how much of a difference it makes for all. Small is more important than big. Act and behave in a way that shows humility, kindness and empathy.
“Resume Virtues” vs. “Eulogy Virtues”
“I’ve been thinking about the difference between the ‘resume virtues’ and the ‘eulogy virtues.’ The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being-whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful, what kind of relationships you formed.” -David Brooks, The Road to Character
Tom reminds us of the importance of eulogy virtues. Living a recommendable life is about understanding that what people may say about you at your funeral will be eulogy virtues, and not resume virtues.
Hard is soft. Soft is hard.
Soft Is Hard: “Compassionomics”. Compassion saves lives. Compassion boosts the bottom line. “We are often led to believe that sentiments like compassion and kindness are expressions of weakness rather than signs of strength. And we are often all too ready to give into the false belief that meanness somehow equates to toughness and that empathy is empty of power. But the evidence in this book suggests the opposite.” –from the foreword, by Senator Cory Booker, to the book Compassionomics.
Tom spoke to us about the book Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence That Caring Makes a Difference. “The book is by two healthcare researchers-practitioners. It is a healthcare book. Except it is not. It is a leadership book — the best one I’ve read in years. It is a business book about behaviors that provide dramatically better results, regardless of the context in which those behaviors occur. And Compassionomics may provide the best illustration of “Hard is soft. Soft is hard.” that I have come across,” said Peters.
“Memories are long. And I believe that those who behaved well — those who put people truly first — may finally move center stage and nudge to the side the professional cost cutters, mindless technology adopters, and soulless “shareholder value maximizers.” The phrase “the new normal” has been horridly overused, but maybe, just maybe, this is the “Hard is soft. Soft is hard” moment. Leaders who buy in — in enterprises, from tiny to enormous, and particularly given the consequences of the pandemic and our greatly enhanced awareness of staggering social inequity — will become our premier and celebrated role models,” said Peters.
Design for Humanism
“Design by my lights is “humanism,” pure and simple. In fact, the term I’ve taken a shine to is what I call “Extreme Humanism.” And, perhaps most important of all, I believe Extreme Humanism applies equally to 6- and 6,000-person firms. I believe Extreme Humanism applies to purchasing departments and sales departments and accounting departments as much as to the product development team,” said Peters. Peters shared with us what Jony Ive thought about good design — an appreciation to humanity. Tom also talked about Steve Jobs being more of tinkerer versus being a designer. Design excellence is a process of experimentation, iteration and working backwards — knowing what the end user is looking for in terms of value and jobs to be done.
Tom Peters reminds us that, designing for extreme humanism is about:
- Design / Extreme Humanism is . . . life.
- Design / Extreme Humanism is . . . soul.
- Design / Extreme Humanism . . . makes us smile.
- Design / Extreme Humanism . . . makes our partners smile.
- Design / Extreme Humanism . . . makes us proud.
- Design / Extreme Humanism is . . . Marketplace Differentiator #1.
- Design / Extreme Humanism is . . . “a tiny mirror about as big as a Band-Aid.”
Tom reminds us that designing with the customer in mind, designing for simplicity and beauty is not just about introducing new products or services. Design your life to appreciate excellence in yourself and others.
Orchestration versus Choreography
In 1977, Peters had just started his career as a consultant at McKinsey. Peters had just earned a PhD from Stanford Graduate School of Business. In less than a day’s notice, his manager asked him to present his upcoming research and focus areas to clients. The night before the big presentation, Tom attended the San Francisco Ballet. The show transformed Peters. That night he asked of himself, why can’t businesses be like the ballet? Why can’t businesses pursue excellence at what they do. That started your 43 year journey of search for excellence. A beautiful dance performance is all about choreography, not orchestration. When I think about the lessons from Tom Peters — importance of training, importance of management by walking around, the importance of empowerment and collaboration vs. control — I think about the beauty of choreography in business versus the need for orchestration and presence of authority to guide forward motion and desired outcomes. Tom believes that every high performing team should include a musician or an artist. Tom shared incredible stories with us in our conversation that spoke to the power of including an artistic dimension to achieve excellence.
Why Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism
I wrote the Foreword for Tom Peters’ Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism. Here is an abbreviated version of my foreword that describes my thoughts on what may be Tom’s last book, a culmination of a 43 year pursuit of defining and celebrating excellence in others.
When business leaders’ conversations turn to “excellence,” they most often think of Tom Peters and In Search of Excellence, a book I first read in graduate school, which is widely considered to be one of the most influential management books of all time. Over the last 40+ years since that book, Tom has traveled to 50 states and 63 countries, presenting to over five million people. And now comes his 19th and, according to him, last book, Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism.
It is a book for today. Tom may have been around for quite a while, but there is no grass growing under his feet. He has taken to the digital age with a vengeance. His abundant daily engagements on Twitter are an example of constant excellence in advocacy for living and leading a commendable life. He has tweeted more than 125,000 times and earned over 170,000 followers. He is the principal reason I fell in love with Twitter. I first corresponded with Peters on Twitter, and he instantly became my mentor from afar. He is radically transparent and generous, willing to engage with everyone. The wisdom of Tom Peters, especially evident on Twitter, is knowing that everyone you meet knows more than you about something.
Why is Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism arguably Peters’ most important contribution in his illustrious career? Forcefully, Tom says, “What you are doing right now will be the hallmark of your entire career.” There are no truer words. In his book, Tom powerfully articulates how excellence in leadership is achieved by singularly focusing on helping others grow. Peters has long and passionately said that the job of a leader is not to gain more followers, but rather to develop more leaders.
Excellence Now is a must read for college students wanting to learn about how to succeed in business, for small business owners who deeply care about their employees and customers and communities, for middle managers, the most strategically important people in any businesses, and senior executives like me (in my case, working at the most successful and fastest growing technology company in the world), who understand the critical need to cultivate and maintain a culture of trust, personal growth, innovation, and true equality.
Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism is a beautiful reminder of what matters most as you pursue life and career goals. Putting people first by deeply and passionately caring about and abetting their holistic development and success; creating uplifting products and services that bring no less than joy into our lives; paying unstinting attention to details, knowing that small and continuous incremental improvements can add up to game-changing moments; recognizing the power of emotional intelligence and that the soft skills are the hardest skills to develop and the most important skills over the long haul. Peters also reminds us to have an unmistakable sense of urgency about big issues like the pressing need to for gender equality, the impact of climate change, and affordable and accessible education.
One of the most profound lessons I learned from Tom is that excellence, as he sees it, is not a long-term plan, not a mountain to climb. Excellence is the next conversation, the next meeting, or the next presentation. “Excellence is the next five minutes,” says Peters, “or it is nothing at all.”
I believe Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism is Tom Peters’ best work, a culmination of four decades of data-driven research, collaborating with some of the most accomplished business and management leaders around the globe. I for one, plan to follow in his footsteps and learn as much as I can from a trailblazer like no other in the field of humanities, leadership, business, excellence, and life.
I highly encourage you to watch our entire interview with Tom Peters. Tom passionately spoke about the need for companies to promote more woman business leaders — the research supporting the business benefits of leadership diversity, specifically more women executives and board members, is well documented in Tom’s book. He also spoke passionately about the importance of training, equality, development of soft skills and empathy. This interview is a masterclass on life, work, leadership, and how to live a recommendable life by arguably the most influential management thinker of the past four decades. I also highly encourage you to engage with Tom Peters on Twitter (he is one of my favorite followers on Twitter at @Tom_Peters).