Corporate skunk: innovative, fast moving, sometimes eccentric, and often operating on the fringes

Tom Peters is the world's most famous management guru.
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One of the more intriguing business book titles of the current season is Corporate Man to Corporate Skunk, Inside, it is explained with two neat paragraphs. "Corporate man. A managerial worker whose career is characterised by security; grey suits; unwavering support for the status quo; an ability to pass the buck; and loyalty to the organisation. Regularly and wrongly reported as being extinct."

"Corporate Skunk: Someone who is part of a Skunk Works, an innovative, fast-moving, and sometimes eccentric activity operating on the fringes of a corporation. First used at Lockheed in the 1940s."

Though this is not an immediately obvious way of describing "The Tom Peters Phenomenon" - as the book is subtitled - Stuart Crainer's entertaining and informative biography makes clear that, besides inventing management thinking as we now know it, Peters has invented himself. He may rage against the system with suggestions that "neckties are diabolical" (see article below), but his roots are in such buttoned-up (not to say, button-down) institutions as Cornell and Stanford universities, the US Navy, the US Government and, most famously, McKinsey & Company, the mighty management consultancy known as "The Firm".

This is not to suggest that a man cannot adapt to his times. It is more by way of explaining how Peters can empathise with the crowds of middle and senior managers who pay $1,000 a head for the privilege of attending his energetic seminars. In the interviews which pepper the book, Peters is at pains to point out that in each of these institutions he came under the patronage of people prepared to put up with his less-than-total conformism. For instance, one of the funnier anecdotes concerns the naval superior who almost pleaded: "You really ought to salute, Tom, I am your commanding officer."

But thanks to this background, he has an intimate knowledge of the way organisations work and thus knows just which buttons to push to get a reaction out of them. Even some of his fiercest critics acknowledge the service he is doing business in general if he can encourage even a few managers to look beyond their immediate horizons.

And this leads to another of the contradictions explored by Mr Crainer's book; Peters has attended two of most prestigious universities in the United States and served several years with what is arguably the world's most highly regarded strategic consulting firm, yet his fame is not based on the rigour of his thought. It is all to do with his performances.

Often compared with a religious evangelist, Peters is this time put on a par with rock stars. Certainly, his wealth and the adulation he has attracted over the past decade and a half is typical of that branch of show business. And, while Peters himself has said: "I became a rock star after McKinsey", Mr Crainer extends the analogy to describe Peters's difficulties in coming up with a sequel to the ground-breaking In Search of Excellence in terms of the proverbially difficult second album.

Furthermore, some of the ventures that Peters has embarked upon as well as the personal troubles he has suffered are reminiscent of the rock-star life. As are the oft-repeated claims that he has lost it and that "his latest stuff isn't as good as the earlier stuff".

But one senses that there is an artist struggling to escape from the strange world that he has created. At one point, the book suggests that saying that there were no management gurus before Peters is like saying there were no rock stars before Elvis. What that means is that Peters took management thinking out of the groves of academe and thrust it into the bestseller lists.

And yet, for all his apparent ability to cater to the short-attention- span, soundbite-oriented present generation, Peters yearns for a lot of the old-fashioned discipline with which he grew up.

Sure, he was probably the first to turn large numbers of people on to the idea that the future of business lay in places like Silicon Valley rather than in the big corporations (hence, the metamorphosis into "corporate skunk"). But - as his chosen epitaph "He was curious to the end" suggests - he is a lot more inquisitive, questioning and complex than most of the people who come to him for quick fixesn

'Corporate Man to Corporate Skunk: The Tom Peters Phenomenon' by Stuart Crainer is published by Midas at pounds 18.99

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