Happy 1992!

Tom Peters

Five hundred years ago Columbus hove to and began this wacky, wonderful, modern American experiment. Half a millennium later, we have lots left to do.

1. Remember the flag. That is, the Soviet flag that came down on Christmas Day, ending a disastrous, 74-year experiment in central economic planning. America played a lead role in that flag’s last dip. Our missiles? Maybe. Our commitment to markets and free trade? You bet.

The message from those shriveled souls who want us to pull in our horns and sing “America First” is frightful. From the right, Pat Buchanan. From the left, House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and his merry band of fair traders. “In practice,” Cato Institute’s James Bovard writes, “fair trade means protectionism.” Quotas on foreign-produced textiles, for instance, cost consumers one dollar for every penny of increased wages carried home by U.S. workers.

2. Don’t forget who brung ya. Where did your grandpop come from? Mine came from Germany, about a century ago. Hail yesterday’s immigrant. Today’s. And tomorrow’s. Our latest round of immigrant bashing turns my stomach. Fact: Immigrants more than pay their way in hard-dollar terms; and their energy is a boon to us all. Shutting the door on immigrants is denying the very essence of our national character.

3. Honor our start-ups and midsize firms. IBM sheds jobs by the tens of thousands. GM too. The Fortune 500 rolls heads by the million. But the American economy churns like no other. While around 6 percent of our jobs (six million) dry up in any year, we created a net addition of 20 million jobs in the ’80s. In short, “we” (not the Fortune 500!) developed over 80 million new jobs! I empathize with dislocated IBM and GM workers and even their teetering chiefs. But let’s give credit where credit is due—which is to job-makers such as Federal Express’s Fred Smith and Walmart’s Sam Walton. (A recent issue of Fortune bragged about the magazine’s “First Annual Fortune 500 Forum.” I call it the Job Cutters’ Ball. Send me an invitation to an Inc. 500 annual meeting instead!)

4. Get serious about education. The K-12 system needs help. So do our corporations. The most significant “R&D” in today’s knowledge economy: TRAINING. If you’re allotting less than 3 percent of gross revenues to training, you’re joking about competitiveness.

5. Service. Most polls say better service is CEOs’ top concern. So why in the hell doesn’t service improve? When something teeny-weeny goes well—a clerk pretested the Christmas-tree light she sold my wife—it’s worthy of a 15-minute dinner-table discussion. The problem: Most CEOs who blather endlessly about service pay scant attention to the front-liners who provide it. To really put customers “first,” put employees FIRST.

6. Disorganize to innovate. Even IBM CEO John Akers almost gets it. Few innovations come from corporate towers or central R&D activities. Instead, they’re a product of disorganization: genuinely independent, market-scale units (no more than a few hundred people), forced to innovate to live. OK, a 250-person division wouldn’t cut it at GM; but break that monster into a half-dozen parts and I’d wager that a miracle will occur, fast.

7. We have met the future and it is soft. I’d rather have Bill Gates on my team than Lee Iacocca. I’d rather be tops in software, media, and biotech (we are) than in autos and steel (we aren’t). Manufacturing is going gang-busters in the U.S., by the way. (Our little manufacturers, as in Germany, are outstripping the biggies these days.) But it doesn’t take many people to make things anymore. Eighty percent or so of the typical industrialist’s payroll is “service” folks—marketers, engineers, designers, accountants, distributors, salespeople. By the way, Mr. Iacocca, Microsoft’s Bill Gates is worth over $4 billion—you’ll be shocked, I’m sure, to learn that not everybody in the service sector works at McDonald’s. (And don’t you wish you sported the burger monger’s earnings record—and success in Japan?)

8. Let’s fight the right war. Germany wins with modest-sized firms. We do too. They admit it and embrace it. We deny it. Big Japanese firms are spinning out thousands of small entrepreneurial subsidiaries. Meanwhile our regnant geniuses (e.g. MIT B-school dean Lester Thurow) beg us to copy yesterday’s Japanese formula—the keiretsu combos. Release entrepreneurial energy. Don’t buckle it in.

9. Very green is very good business. Clean up, conserve—and save big bucks. In politics and the press, environmentalists are pitted against business interests. On the enlightened front edge of the real world—e.g., Southern California Edison, Body Shop—top dogs know that green is glorious and profitable.

10. Your future is in your hands. That’s still news to many. It’s plain stupid to imagine you could stay on one payroll for life. It’s up to you—and no one else—to make yourself more marketable by the end of 1992 than you are today.

(This marks the end of the seventh year of this column. Heartfelt thanks to the thousands of readers who have written to offer encouragement—or give me hell. Both responses are equally appreciated. It’s indifference I fear.)

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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