Dr Simon Davey reports for the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants.
It’s 35 years since ‘In Search of Excellence’ and Tom Peters is standing before a select group in Cass Business School at the first Global Symposium of WCoMC’s Centre for Management Consulting Excellence. Now 75 years old, he still has the same passion but does he have anything new to say?
Excellence is ultimately groups of people trying to achieve something, we’re told, yet the biggest drawback in 2017 is CEOs lack of prioritisation for reading. Tom talked of the role of ‘professional student’ and drew the conclusion that lifelong learning is a matter of life and death, especially as the robot and machine age nears.
Dr Peters recently took 18 months ‘off’ to read. Nothing else but reading. A luxury afforded to high value, older, management gurus (and high fee paying business school students perhaps), some of us make do with a committed week’s reading on the beach plus regular timeslots during the week and on weekends. Still, we’ll get there.
So why the 18 month reading sabbatical? Well, the world is changing (plus ca change) and even the experts can be a little behind on big data and AI. He evangelised on how we need to become intelligent on the tech topics but reassuringly, urged us to understand rather than be experts. One can only be expert in so many domains you know.
I learned that Henderson evolved BCG with the revolutionary idea of adding ‘ideas’ to ‘management counselling’ at around the same time I was learning long division in primary school. We debated ‘whose fault is it anyway’ if organisations can’t implement the strategies the uberkids of consulting came up with. I always thought the plan was pretty rubbish if you couldn’t realise it anyway. And was there really a world of consulting without ideas?
But what was making Tom angry? The conclusion that what matters is relationships – the people, the customers, the staff (and for charities I dare say the volunteers) – and that 30 years on people still didn’t get it! His summary of In Search of Excellence was “You need to get the people part right.” Well that saves 400 pages and gives me more time to read about AI… but it is a very good point. So is the rest of management science ‘not worth a hill of goddamn beans’?
Moral responsibility unprecedented
We’ve heard people are our most important asset for decades but Tom sees 2017 as a watershed. “Business 2017 has a moral responsibility unprecedented.” To do what?
“To develop the people on your payroll. Not training but making the best learning experience and being better prepared for tomorrow. No guarantees of job security but making sure whoever works for you and with you is better when they leave than when they started. Young people are literally living a life of consulting engagements and it’s our responsibility to develop and improve others, to improve their intellectual property (IP).”
But Tom wasn’t stopping there. In a direct challenge to Dean Marianne Lewis, he implored her to fire the strategy and finance professors (perhaps they need a different type of development?) and whilst not committing to the challenge, the Dean did acknowledge that what matters most, and is hardest, is human. Yes, it is indeed a blinding flash of the obvious that we forget in the heat of the battle or the hamster wheel. Like Dr Peter’s course delegate all those years ago, sometimes we need to be quite forcibly reminded of the obvious as much as learn new things.
But let’s get back to the 80s (the future can wait). MBWA, management by walking around, still matters. It’s about staying in touch, about understanding. We can’t blame executives who sit marooned in their offices resolving problems (it is what they’re paid to do) but they are indeed missing a trick (and perhaps should be paid to do the trick rather than incentivised to stay marooned). As Howard Schultz put it, “We needed to get back to the philosophy and importance of one employee serving one cup of coffee to one customer.” And possibly better coffee Howard…
Small is beautiful (and the future)
We learned there ‘might’ be consultancies endorsing ‘buy and cut’ strategies – buy a company, fire a load of people, escalate the profits and sell up before the almost inevitable company collapse. Management consultants recommending firing people to make a quick buck? Who’d have thought… Tom extemporised on how big companies only go in one direction (down) and revealed that the Fortune 500 companies only accounted for 5% of the US workforce (but presumably a good chunk of the Indian and Chinese equivalents I’d say?).
And so the answer is help the small companies. Help them grow. The maths works – if we help four person businesses grow to five, that’s likely easier than scaling up GE. And would you want to? It’s probably easy to work with the top in a smaller enterprise for as Gary Hamel put it, “The bottleneck is always at the top of the bottle.”
Diversity and harnessing the power of youth
But what would Peters Inc ideal board look like? Not the elderly white men from the same old schools anymore but a real mix. Two people under 30, 3 women, 1 IT/data analytics superstar, one or two entrepreneurs, a venture capitalist, a person of stature with a weird background (like a famous artist), a design guru, a maximum of 3 MBAs and finally no more than one person over 60.
Members, there is hope for you yet!
And Tom makes a good point. There is plenty of research (not least Mike Hudson’s) which demonstrates the value of diverse and balanced boards. We do indeed need to look like the world in which we live, whilst also retaining the right mix of skills and challenge on the board if we’re to have a hope of moving beyond the overanalytical vanilla model. But let’s not talk about MBA programmes again.
And one insight took me back to 2000. Tom’s reference to his ‘least selling’ book – the Professional Service Firm 50 (PSF 50), the book which inspired me to be a consultant (shorter sentences and a punchier read than “In Search Of…” too. To be excellent at what I did, to be focused, to do what I loved (listen, understand, inspire, push) and to help others be the same. Not for me the riches of devising intellectual strategies for big companies but the joys of helping smaller teams and organisations get better (not just richer). As the author said about PSF50, ultimately it was about how each division/department/team/person could embark on the journey to excellence and value add. You don’t have to transform everything at once. You just need to motivate the individual components to be the best they can be. Or more eloquently put, “Excellence is getting the job done and implemented.”
Hamster CEOs, capacity issues and the power of nice
But I had a burning question. In a world where execs can’t escape their office, relentlessly doing the same things, how important did he feel was mindset in leadership?
“Look for nice. Promote for the right reasons. Ensure your leaders can develop their people and dig deep into their track record of how that’s worked.” In other words, get the right leaders in the first place and make sure you evidence they can do what they need to do – people and relationships. And I quite liked his ‘no jerks’ rule.
As we moved towards ‘the wrap’, Tom urged us not to put Mr Spreadsheet in charge of the organisation (we really should fire those finance professors you know) but acknowledged the need for the technical skills in the right place. Character plus analytics was the answer.
And we heard one final plea. To reinvent MBA as the Master of Business Arts, to broaden the thinking and get out of the box of ‘overanalytical vanilla models’. Not a completely original idea but a damn good one all the same.
So this weekend, as I sit in the coffee shop of the Photographer’s Gallery reading strategy&business latest article on digital transformation after an hour wandering in Tate Modern exploring Ilya And Emilia Kabakov’s Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future, I think a wise old management guru has probably endorsed my weekend. And yet I still have so much to learn…
Dr Simon Davey