Around the world – Making a career out of excellence

Brussels HQ – the basement: We’re an efficient little firm. Once a year – instead of stocktaking like shop owners – we have a weekend throw-out session. Everything that we don’t need – until 48 hours after we throw it out, that is – goes. All those proposals for hoped-for clients, all that material that never, ever got used, bits and pieces (some of them very large indeed) of a complicated business life.

In the midst of all this I found my copy – an original first edition – of In Search of Excellence. Now if you have never heard of this book, stop reading, you are far too young. But for many of us it was THE seminal management tome. Despite the fact that lots of the companies quoted in the book as being excellent are now either non-existent, bought over or in dire straits, the idea lives on.

It launched the career of Tom Peters – who still strides stages to this day talking about the unthinkable to the corporately unable. It also impacted on the co-author, Robert Waterman Jr. Both were with McKinsey – a management consulting firm as the Wall Street Journal or The Economist would have it – at the time. Peters was the junior and went about the research for the book with such missionary zeal that, so the story goes, Waterman (already a director of the other Big Mac) was dispatched to aid (some say cool down) his junior buddy.

The rest as they say is history. Big book, big sales, even bigger “going-out-and-talking-about-it” money. All that in (yes, I looked it up in my first edition) 1982-16 years ago; and it is still the book people refer to half a generation later.

“Well then, so what?” you say. But there is method in this discourse.

A month or so ago I saw Robert Waterman Jnr (it was always a capital J) in Brussels, and apart from the fact that he doesn’t look very junior – or even boyish – anymore he gave a seminar which was based on some of the other stuff he did afterwards. It was OK but less than awe inspiring. It was the kind of stuff that people called Bob do.

Now I am standing here a few weeks later having found this book at the back of the shelf and INSIDE are the notes that I took in 1983 when he came to a dinner session in Brussels. Then he was the second hottest management property on the planet (only Peters was more revered, more commercial and already out of Big Mac’s clutches).

So, remembering that Waterman Junior was given the task of reining in young Peters, what did he say in this meeting – a dinner of 20 or so business heads in Brussels (I was waiting tables in those days) – that we should remember almost two decades later ?

Well, to my mind one hell of a lot, in hindsight at least.

I asked him what he thought about everyone talking about excellence.

He said, “Excellence as a word has become devalued. Do companies really care? They read your book – or pretend to – and then …”

How was he getting on with his co-author?

“McKinsey is like a family for me (he’d already clocked up 20 years) and Tom is so much more independent, he has been there a much shorter time. Now with the book it is difficult – success has brought its problems for him to handle.”

And for him, young Waterman Junior? “Now it has changed me. I now spend 75 per cent of my time on seminars and 25 per cent on client work.”

How fascinating. Tom P was already heading for super-stardom. Bob Jnr had a long way to go before cutting himself loose. As far as one of them was concerned In Search of Excellence was a lifestyle of globe-trotting chattering.

But hey, let’s not be too hard on these guys. Let’s not forget what they left us as a legacy. In this downsized, decruited world of lean and mean, how about considering what they wrote in 1982. Then it was revolutionary. Now, we might say to ourselves, “Why didn’t we do that?”

Eight ideas, eight findings, eight thoughts. Read them and think about what they mean for your business today.

A bias for action: getting on with the job. What they called “Do it, fix it, try it.”

Close to the customer: learn from the people you serve.

Autonomy and entrepreneurship: many leaders and many innovators throughout your business.

Productivity through people (this is the one everyone missed entirely): the rank and file are treated as the root source of quality and productivity.

Hands-on, value-driven: walk around and see what’s going on – and listen please.

Stick to the knitting (this one everyone remembered): Never acquire a business you don’t know how to run.

Simple form, lean staff: keep HQ small (too bad no-one ever learns this one).

Simultaneous loose-tight properties (the Californian biz-speak of the early ’80s): have a basic credo but let the lunatics loose.

What a set up. All the things every other business author later made a book of they didn’t even make a chapter of, they made it a paragraph.

All they missed out on was fat-cat corporate America (and other places) that doesn’t care for people. But the basic principles above all hold true. Try them, have fun, walk the talk and stick to that knitting and keep it simple.

I don’t know if these two guys are making money – I suspect they might be. But I’d like them to consider taking the dust covers off and reprint.

Chances are it would find a whole new audience.

Chances are, of course, they too would ignore the advice.

Just one thing Bob … drop the Junior bit now, huh?

Mike Johnson is the president of Johnson & Associates, a corporate communications consultancy based in Brussels, and the author of Getting a GRIP on Tomorrow, Managing in the Next Millennium and two new books addressing teleworking and outsourcing

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