Time to take stock: Tom Peters On Excellence

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The Independent Online
THIS IS my 500th column, an ideal time for stock-taking. If you long-term readers haven't figured them out by now, here are my bedrock beliefs.

Nobody knows nothin' . . . Cause-and-effect chains are impossible to sort out. Unintended consequences of any action always far outnumber intended consequences. Today's truism is tomorrow's embarrassing memory. Given all that, do something. Pondering whatever for another two hours (or two months) won't help much.

Tommy Lee Jones gets it. 'I've made my living with my imagination all my adult life,' the Academy Award-winning actor told Time magazine. 'I hope to continue to grow every day.' In the brain-based economy, victory will go to the perpetually curious. Not getting lots better - receptionist, lending officer, software developer - is getting lots worse. Fast. Forget loyalty (of the old form). The idea of devotion to one of the Generals (Motors, Mills, Electric) makes me slightly bilious. I'm all for loyalty. To my peers, my network, my teachers and those who've given me a hand when I sorely needed it.

It's the age of the independent contractor (in spirit, if not always in practice). Obeisance to corporate Big Brother was never very attractive - though we now are pretending it was little short of heaven on earth. Better that we remember why the waves of immigrants, starting with the Pilgrims, came here: to gain the right, as Frank Sinatra would have it, to do it 'my way'.

'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' Another Frank, Franklin D Roosevelt, reminded Americans of that during the depths of the Depression. We could use a little more reminding today.

Yes, we are in the midst of a once-every-200-years (or longer]) economic transition. And, yes, it means trauma for the foreseeable future. But it also means matchless opportunity (the inevitable flipside of matchless uncertainty). Immigrant-bashing (California Governor Pete Wilson, wash your mouth out with soapy water) and protectionism are exactly the wrong response.

This is the moment to reach out and exploit America's awesome advantage - a vibrant mix of creeds and colours in a polyglot global village. Moreover, America's peerless entrepreneurial spirit virtually guarantees that the more we open our markets, the more we will disproportionately benefit.

People will rise to the occasion. 'Push the needle all the way over,' counselled the late Mike Walsh, turnaround chief executive at Union Pacific Railroad and Tenneco Inc. 'Organisations are capable of taking on more than most of their leaders give them credit for.' I'm sick and tired of executives trying to tap-dance their way to the year 2000. The reason? 'Their organisations can't handle it.' Nonsense. Perhaps it's they and their cronies who can't hack giving up power.

Walsh was right: railroaders at Union Pacific were and are ready. So are housekeepers at the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain. Front-line people have been secretly champing at the bit for decades. Give them the same information the boss gets. Give them access, at any time, to any kind of training they desire. And then let them have at it. They will respond.

But what about the 25 per cent who don't wish to change? Many simply see through management and discern that the new granting of autonomy, declared on a plastic 'vision' card, is phony baloney. If the autonomy is genuine, the trust is there, and the training and information are available - then you can confidently expect 90 per cent, if not 99 per cent, to hop on board the self-management express.

Kaizen will not do. Kaizen, or continuous improvement, became the Holy Grail of American management in the 1980s. Get everyone involved in making stuff a little better every day. Understand that 'they' (frontline folks) know best, and let them get cranking.

Well, yes . . . and no. 'Think revolution, not evolution' - Richard Sullivan of Home Depot. 'Companies must burn themselves down and rebuild every few years' - consultant Roger Martin. 'Every organisation must prepare for the abandonment of everything it does' - Peter Drucker. Translation: most companies need a lot more than constant improvement. Many need to throw baby parts out along with the bathwater and get on with preparing for a radically different tomorrow. And that calls, in turn, for bold, self-confident leaders with the guts to make bold, uncomfortable moves.

Does this plea for strong-willed leaders slightly (or not so slightly) contradict what I said above about letting folks take the reins? Sorta. Back to Mike Walsh. He was a world-class delegator. And a world-class autocrat. Life is complicated. What's new?

That's the first half of my list. Stay tuned for the rest.

Copyright TPG Communications

(Photograph omitted)