Here is an excerpt from Suzanne Heywood and Aaron De Smet’s conversation with Tom Peters, joined by Allen Webb, editor in chief of the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, watch a video, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.
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Thirty years after leaving McKinsey, the prolific author returns to discuss tomorrow’s management challenges and the keys to organizational change and transformative leadership in any age.
About two years ago, Tom Peters felt as if he were falling behind. In response, he cleared out his calendar and spent much of the next 18 months reading recent business books. The result? “I’m more confused than when I started,” he quips.
The remark is vintage Peters — a stimulating mix of provocation, sloganeering, down-home wisdom, and self-deprecation. In a world that’s anything but straightforward and simple, Peters refuses to reduce business and management to an orderly set of bullet-point prescriptions. This is, after all, the man who famously declared that “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.”
Across the nearly 40 years Peters has been writing about business, he has remained a remarkably consistent champion of what might be called the “softer” side of management. His many books and articles have, as much as anything, beaten the drum for the personal meaning and significance that workers, managers, and executives can draw from the hours, days, and years they spend working for a living. A hint: it’s not about accumulating wealth or getting promoted to the top.
Not that Peters hasn’t kept up with the changing times. He was one of the first to take to the blogosphere, in 1999. His Twitter presence is prolific. And his relentless calendar of speeches and client engagements continues to expose him to a wide range of big and small companies across the globe—a source of ongoing renewal.
Now 71, the former Navy Seabee and McKinsey partner took time away from the pastoral pleasures of his Vermont farm—and his heavy travel schedule—to visit McKinsey’s Boston office for a wide-ranging discussion with Suzanne Heywood and Aaron De Smet, two leaders of the firm’s Organization Practice, and Quarterly editor in chief Allen Webb.
Quarterly: This year marks the 40th anniversary of your start in McKinsey’s San Francisco office. From the perspective of your many years helping executives, what would you say is missing from today’s discussion about management?
Peters: Well, one answer to that, as far as I’m concerned, is “I don’t know.” My real bottom-line hypothesis is that nobody has a sweet clue what they’re doing. Therefore you better be trying stuff at an insanely rapid pace. You want to be screwing around with nearly everything. Relentless experimentation was probably important in the 1970s—now it’s do or die.
It takes a certain confidence, though. The first partner I worked for at McKinsey had the self-assurance to look a chief executive officer in the eye and say, “We don’t know what the hell’s going on. Can we play with this together?”
How do you find a focus if you’re experimenting with everything?
Peter Drucker once said the number-one trait of an effective leader is that they do one thing at a time. Today’s technology tools give you great opportunities to do 73 things at a time or to at least delude yourself that you are. I see managers who look like 12-year-olds with attention deficit disorder, running around from one thing to the next, constantly barraged with information, constantly chasing the next shiny thing.
The only thing on earth that never lies to you is your calendar. That’s why I’m a fanatic on the topic of time management. But when you use that term, people think, “Here’s an adult with a brain. And he’s teaching time management. Find something more important, please.” But something more important doesn’t exist.
Did you ever read Leadership the Hard Way, by Dov Frohman? The two things I remember from that book are, one, that 50 percent of your time should be unscheduled. And second—and I love that this is coming from an Israeli intelligence guy—that the secret to success is daydreaming.
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