Archives: June 2010

To My Delight …

The Saturday Financial Times featured "Hang on Every Word," holiday reading chosen by the FT's critics. The Little BIG Things made the list with this description:

"The latest from the doyen of modern management: 163 short chapters drawn from Peters' blog, delivering pithy, epigrammatic advice. His tips would help any business from a global giant to a corner shop."

(There were 13 business books on the FT list, but just three, including TLBT, that were not analyses of the financial crisis.)

The Practice of Excellence.
Limits Thereto.
Or not?

tapestry flower.jpg

As you doubtless know, one of my signature phrases is...


I mean it! But what does it mean? Someone joked, "Excellence in leadership! Excellence in innovation! Excellence in management! Excellence in excellence!" That is, the phrase can readily be reduced to meaninglessness or even absurdity.

Fact is, some tasks are not worth pursuing to the point of excellence. (Maybe, more in a minute.) That is, life for all of us contains lots of B.S. that one must simply "get through." Or, as a work-at-home mom of two said to me, "surviving the next hour seems more than enough challenge." Amen!

Hence, on the one hand, I acknowledge reality—for you and me, let alone the beleaguered mom. But I'm not quite ready to throw in the towel.

Hall of Fame San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh sat for interviews shortly before he died. The result was a fine book, from Bill Walsh, Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh, called, magnificently, The Score Takes Care of Itself; that is, the organization culture and preparation, finished before the opening kickoff, are the determining factors in success or failure.

In 1979, Walsh took over an ailing franchise as head coach. His first year's record was 2-14. Two years later it was 14-2, and he went on to beat Cincinnati for the Super Bowl. What happened? Some fine talent was added—Walsh was a master of player selection. But mostly the team's approach to the "business of football" was altered dramatically. By "business of football," I don't mean profit and loss. I mean the demeanor on the practice field, the ethos of helping one another, even the travel dress code.

Which brings us back to "Excellence. Always."—and exceptions thereto. Again, I graciously and with hat-in-hand bow before the work-at-home mom praying for survival in the next 60 minutes. On the other hand, I am with Mr Walsh, whose goal was to establish the "24/7" habits of "professionalism" in his ragtag army in 1979. (George Patton did the same thing with the ragtag elements of his inherited army in North Africa in World War II; he began with the demand for better hygiene and snappy uniforms in the midst of crippling desert conditions. The score took care of itself: Soon, he was winning battles of strategic importance. Likewise, it is said that Admiral Horatio Nelson could alter the "small" habits of seagoing professionalism in a fleet within weeks of taking command; this was the imperative precursor to victory.)

Excellence—I've long argued that the only measure is "I'll know it when I see it." That is, it's as much, in fact far more, about the character of the team and the team's practice habits as the goals for and against. (Think of the recent French World Cup fiasco.)

There are good days and bad days. There are a dozen times a week when I join our mom-under-fire and offer prayers to survive the next hour. Such is life. Yet the devil is in the details—and so, too, Excellence. Another of my constant drumbeats is: "EXCELLENCE is not an 'aspiration.' EXCELLENCE is the next five minutes." That is, to join our Zen-practicing brothers and sisters, all we have is the moment.

Not surprisingly, Helen Keller and Mother Teresa put it in far more sublime words:

"I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble." —Helen Keller

"We do no great things, only small things with great love." —Mother Teresa

Your call, but for me these two profound and exhilarating quotes serve as decent analogues to "EXCELLENCE. Always."

I've had bad days and weeks and months and, indeed, years. Yet the measure of worth remains the attitude toward the next minute to come:

"I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble." —Helen Keller

"We do no great things, only small things with great love." —Mother Teresa

If not EXCELLENCE, what?
If not EXCELLENCE now, when?

EXCELLENCE is not an aspiration.
EXCELLENCE is the next five minutes.

All yours ...

(Above, Salpiglossis, or "tapestry flower," from Susan's garden)

The Military.

The day General McChrystal was canned, I was in Baltimore Washington International airport. Putting on my shoes after security, I found myself sitting next to a USMC major. I commented about McChrystal's calling former USMC Commandant Jim Jones a "clown." (I have very strong USMC ties, including an uncle who retired as a lieutenant general and served as a lieutenant colonel on Guadalcanal.) I expected the major to erupt. Instead he said, "Once they become generals, they all are mainly politicians." He said it in a matter-of-fact fashion, with no discernable rancor.

In fact he's right. McChrystal was a career special ops guy, and, as is characteristic of the genre, was known for being blunt and impolitic—it's a miracle he made it as far as he did. General Petraeus is, to the contrary, know as a superb politician. Many attach automatic opprobrium to the term "politician." They are sorely mistaken. General Powell was a masterful politician, as was General Eisenhower, whose political skills in holding the Allies together for the assault on the European mainland were far more important than his tactical skills. All the above pale by contrast to perhaps America's greatest political general—George Washington. In David McCullough's masterful 1776, we find Washington virtually every night alone in his tent writing numerous letters to members of the Continental Congress. Garnering their support for his faltering efforts was as important as fending off the British.

Implementation—at the level of "chief" of a 4-person project team in IS—is and always has been and always will be primarily about politics.

In fact it is axiomatic: Effective implementers are effective politicians, regardless of any synonym you may choose to substitute for politics.

My dentist in Boston doesn't think much of my former dentist (and college roommate) in San Jose; and she makes no bones and minces no words about it. So, too, most specialists. And that includes generals. World War II was marked by a clear focus, unlike, say, Vietnam or Afghanistan. And yet the generals battled with and disparaged one another constantly. I am highly amused by the following quotes from one of my favorite books, David Irving's The War Between the Generals: Inside the Allied High Command:

"A man of great mediocrity."—General George Patton about General Omar Bradley (Bradley commanded U.S. ground forces on D-Day and beyond)

"A third-rate general. He never did anything or won any battle that any other general could not have won as well or better."—General Omar Bradley about Field Marshall Sir Bernard Montgomery

"If you want to end the war in any reasonable time, you will have to remove Ike's hand from the control of the land battle."—Sir Bernard Montgomery about General Dwight Eisenhower

"One thing that might help win this war is to get someone to shoot King."—General Dwight Eisenhower about Admiral Ernest King, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations

"Eisenhower, though supposed to be running the land war, is on the golf links at Rhiems—entirely detached and taking practically no part in running the war."—Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of Staff, British Army about General Dwight Eisenhower

"If the unhelpful British attitude continues, then I shall go home."—General Dwight Eisenhower

Thus is the nature of human affairs, in peace or war. As I hinted before, if you don't want to participate in the politics, then choose to follow a path that is not associated with leadership, or pretty much anything else—e.g., I've seen politicking for a Nobel prize up close, and it's not pretty.

(You may find exceptions to this rule, but if you do, be sure to specify the planet or galaxy from which they emanate.)

(FYI: You might look at Thomas Ricks' related "Lose a General, Win a War," in yesterday's New York Times.)

The Manager’s Job 1.

From a student of renowned Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz, as reported in Lane Cooper's 1917 Louis Agassiz as Teacher:

"I had assigned to me a small pine table with a rusty tin pan upon it. When I sat down before my tin pan, Agassiz brought me a small fish, placing it before me with the rather stern requirement that I should study it., but on no account talk to anyone concerning it, nor read anything relating to fishes until I had his permission to do so. To my inquiry, 'What shall I do?' he said in effect: 'Find out what you can without damaging the specimen; when I think you have done the work I will question you.' In the course of an hour I thought I had compassed the fish. I was anxious to make a summary report and get on with the next state of business."

But Agassiz paid no attention to his student that day, the next, or during the following week. So the novice, after suppressing his impatience, took another look, and then another. To his surprise, he learned more: "I set my wits to work upon the thing, and in the course of 100 hours or so though I had done much—a hundred times as much as seemed possible at the start."

Agassiz eventually responded: "On the seventh day came the question, 'Well,' and my disgorge of learning to him as he sat on the edge of my table puffing his cigar. At the end of the hour's telling, he swung off and away, saying, 'That is not right.'"

Reluctantly, the student went back to his rusty tin pan. After another week of hard, silent labor, he had results that astonished him and passed muster with his taciturn teacher. Agassiz acknowledged the student's success by bring him a big pile of bones, with the order to sort them out.

Much more agonized examination was in store, with stupendous results: "Two months or more went into this second task with no other help than an occasional looking over my grouping with the stereotyped remark: 'That is not right.' Finally the task was done and I was set upon a remarkable lot of specimens representing 20 species of the side swimmers. I shall never forget the sense of power which I felt in beginning the more extended work on a group of animals. I had learned the art of comparing objects, which is the basis of the naturalist's work."

The manager is in fact a teacher, akin to Louis Agassiz. She or he has, in effect, only one objective: pursuing improved performance by fostering long-term personal (and team) engagement, learning and continuous development. There is in fact no other path than deep immersion and indeed frustration to master any topic, in 1917 or 2010, from the nature of a lab specimen or the intimate workings of some small part of the firm's purchasing activity. Hence the de facto goal of the superior manager is to more or less create a workplace that mimics the peerless Agassiz's lab.

I have become obsessed with the idea and professional practice of helping, partially as a result of ingesting Ed Schein's magisterial book Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help , mentioned here before. Helping is a profession, in fact the primary task of the manager. Helping, like listening, can be mastered—through hard and sustained work, not unlike that of our budding professional zoologist.

The Manager's Job

Help/10X harder-more subtle than you think.
Apologize/Nurture accountability.

New Audio: Tom Reads The Little BIG Things

This week's additions to the audio files on the book page are in the section titled "Leadership":

#53. To Lead Is to Measurably Help Others Succeed.

#54. At Their Service.

#55. Have You "Hosted" Any Good Employees Lately?

#56. A Sacred Trust.

#57. Rat Psych Rules!-Or: Deploying Positive Reinforcement's Incredible Potency.

Collect them all, and when we're finished, you'll have an audio version of the entire book.

Strategy: Space Matters

Who sits next to you? In this video called Strategy: Space Matters, Tom explains why who sits next to whom in your office can make a huge difference. The video is part of the The Little BIG Things Video Series.

You can find the video in the right column here at or you can watch the video on YouTube. [Time: 2 minutes, 41 seconds] You can also download a PDF transcript of the video's content: Strategy: Space Matters.

A Beautiful Word.
Skip the Modifiers.

I may have been misunderstood when I wrote/Tweeted that we don't need "Wow service" (Peters), "Raving fans" (Blanchard) or "Memorable experience" (Pine and Gilmore). The word "service," all by its lonesome, will more than suffice.

I was not dissing myself or Ken or Joe or Jim. I like and think important and have written extensively about all of the above formulations.

But here's my deal (I repeat):

Organizations exist only to serve.
Leaders exist only to serve.

That is "service"—WITHOUT MODIFIERS—is a sacred word.
To "be of service" is the highest aspiration possible.
To have "been of service" is the highest tribute possible.

Ponder the word service.
Have you, boss or non-boss ... BEEN OF SERVICE ... today?

That is: To the extent possible, review every transaction-exchange today or in, say, the last 3 hours. Even the most fleeting transaction. Have you unfailingly offered support or acknowledged a good effort or in some way nudged the person you were with forward just a smidgeon—i.e., have you ... UNFAILINGLY & PRO-ACTIVELY ... been "of service"?

Be tough on yourself. Or, at least, honest with yourself.
Every opportunity to "be of service" that you miss is gone for eternity.


From The Atlantic/"The End of Men":
"Men seem 'fixed in cultural aspic.' With each passing day, they lag further behind." Numerous college women assume they'll be primary bread winner; guys "are the new ball and chain."

"I Know This Guy Joe …"

My economics prof introduced me to "Joe" years ago. He called it the "I know a man who" theory. I'll comment, "Statistically more lefthanders per capita get into injury-causing accidents." To which you respond, "Yeah, but my best friend, Alonzo, is a leftie without a mar on his record at age 32." In your mind, Alonzo overrides my analysis based on, say, a 3,000-accident sample.

I felt like Man-who Joe had me in an armlock the other day. I was tweeting about the economic value of kindness, thoughtfulness, etc. To which someone responded with a short list of names of wildly successful entrepreneurs and artists (symphony conductors) who are out-and-out jerks.

I know such folk, too. Many thereof. Yet my "defense"—which I fervently believe—was: "Yup, X & Y & Z are indeed v. successful jerks.

"But ...

"But you and I and the vast majority of us are simply not good enough to be able to overcome significant jerk-hood. That is, for those of us who are mortal (let's say 99% ++), thoughtfulness-kindness-attentiveness is a winning strategy, perhaps the only possible winning strategy."

I refuse to be trapped by "I know this guy Joe"!