On Sunday, May 1, in Burlingame CA, Tom spoke at the memorial service for his In Search of Excellence coauthor and great friend, Bob Waterman. Bob died on January 2, 2022. Here are Tom’s remarks:
Bob’s resume goes on for pages pointing out the important contributions he has made to his community—and the world as a whole. My principal connection with Bob, however, was a single activity. And it was a defining activity.
In 1982, Bob and I coauthored a book for which the publisher signaled his measly expectations with what he deemed an optimistic first printing of 5,000. We did a bit better than that. The first year was marked by 44 printings, sales of 1,300,000, and was the #1 New York Times non-fiction bestseller virtually every week of the year—to the point that People Magazine, in its year-end issue, called In Search “The Phenomenon of 1983. Tom Peters and Bob Waterman searched for excellence and created a business bible.” As for the impact on Bob and me, it was, time and again “Oh, you’re the excellence guy!” Life was never to be the same!
Bob and I were, on the one hand, cut from the same cloth. We were both trained as engineers, both earned MBAs from Stanford, both labored at McKinsey’s San Francisco office. But we were also very different. I was noisy in person and in print, profane, opinionated to a fault, longwinded and verbose. Bob was calm, measured, thoughtful, succinct, and only opened his mouth when he had something of significance to say.
Blending those differences and I reflected deeply on this, is what in the end distinguished the book. After Bob had done a massive re-write—I might add, on his spanking new Apple II—of an early draft of mine which ran to 1,000+ pages [1,400, actually], I thought he’d cut the best material and damped the raging fire that was my trademark. But I subsequently concluded that the ceaseless back-and-forth, the blending of the noisy and the calm, in retrospect enabled the book to find a sweet spot and to viscerally connect with the living breathing business- or non-business reader and the woman or man on the street. In Search of Excellence challenged her and him directly and powerfully, but not by whacking them over the head with a splintery two by four.
(As to the woman or man on the street, we were deluged with letters—remember those? —not mainly from the big dudes, but from fire chiefs, Navy captains, sports coaches, school principals, and even senior church officials.)
Bob and I became truly good pals named bob-n-tom or tom-n-bob, and the Waterman family, starting with the incredible Judy, in effect became my second family during a personal rough patch which coincided with much of the book’s birthing.
Again, in some critical way the book reflected that familial interwovenness rather perfectly. After all, the guiding idea of the book was to get beyond the sterile spreadsheets and bloodless depiction of business and to get to the human heart of enterprise and its moral responsibility to the individual, the community, and the world. And I believe that Bob and Tom’s Excellent Adventure did just that.
One last anecdote. When the book became the talk of the town, we were invited to go to Manhattan to be interviewed on the “Today Show” by Bryant Gumbel. As we sat in the green room, Bob turned to me and said, “Well who gets to say it on national TV?” I looked puzzled. He said, “Who gets to say ‘MBWA’ to the world?” (MBWA, or Managing By Wandering Around, lifted from HP, became our symbol of humanized rather than abstract leadership practices.) We decided to flip a coin, and damned if Bob didn’t win. After 40 years of holding a grudge, I will on this occasion forgive Bob for winning that coin flip.
I miss him [my partner and twin] to an unimaginable degree. Rest in peace, brother. May you enjoy for eternity MBWA in the heavens above.