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If Tom Peters is not giving up in search of excellence – why should I?

If Tom Peters is not giving up in search of excellence – why should I?

As I was attentively listening to Tom, I felt transported to a parallel universe where training is investment#1, women rule, and a well-played initiative which fails is celebrated.

Here I was on an early morning attending a breakfast whose guest speaker was Tom Peters, well-known co-author of “In search of Excellence”, introducing his latest book “The excellence dividend”  at the University of Auckland, where he has been appointed Distinguished Adjunct Professor of the Business School.

In Tom’s witty and profound style, he talked common sense, which I would describe as things we all know and recognise when mentioned, and are somehow buried deep down until we hear them or stare us on the face.

Once the eye gets used to Tom’s bright, bold-letter slides, which you can check at Tompeters.com, his collection of thoughts and harvest of quotes from other illustrious authors and corporate leaders such as Branson and Lou Gerstner, make absolute common sense to spring into action.

In Tom’s iteration of “People First” mantra which he writes as “People [REALLY] First” in case lip service gets it misconstrued, there were three topics which stood out for me:

People [REALLY] First: Training – Investment #1

People [REALLY] First: Women rule!

And “Reward excellent failures, punish mediocre successes.”

Do these sound as truisms? Let’s explore training as investment#1. Tom’s “gamblin’ man” observations are that:

  • Five out of 10 CEOs see training as an expense rather than an investment, or that five out of ten CEOs see training as a defence rather than an offense, or that

  • Five out of 10 CEOs see training as a “necessary evil” rather than strategic opportunity, and

  • Eight out of 10 CEOs, in a 45-minute tour of their business, would not mention training.

Throughout the years budgets for training have shrunk, and even with accessible MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) from very reputable sources such as Coursera and EdEx, able to be completed online-anytime, it appears that the time devoted to training has also shrunk. This has been verified by a recent Harvard Business Review survey by Monika Hamori  together with the surprising finding that “people at firms with fewer than 50 employees were twice as likely as those in companies with more than 10,000 to receive time off for MOOCs.”

The research also found that “employees who enjoy organisational support for MOOCs are much less likely to want to use what they’ve learned to look for jobs at other companies.   Whereas the self-sponsored learners are more than twice as likely to see the acquired knowledge as a stepping stone to a new employer. So, basically, if there is no investment or support for learning, it becomes a di-vestiture of talent.

The author with Tom Peters at the University of Auckland Business School
The author with Tom Peters at the University of Auckland Business School

As of “Women rule”, well the 18 per cent of women in leadership positions in New Zealand might! Despite women making the majority of purchasing decisions, according to the Boston Consulting Group up to 70 to 80 per cent of consumer spend power,  in addition to outliving men -Tom expressed these as good reasons to get to a more balanced gender ratio. There is still a long way to go to a balanced representation.

Tom cited two pieces of research. McKinsey’s in a New York Times op-ed on how international companies with more women on their corporate boards far outperformed the average company in return on equity and with a staggering 56 per cent higher operating profits; the same 2014 research suggests that to succeed, “start by promoting women”.

A Harvard Business Review analysis of competencies that go into outstanding leadership rated women higher in fully 12 of the 16 competencies, and “two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree, taking initiative and driving for results,  have long been thought of as particularly male strengths.”

Enough has been said and discussed last week during International Women’s day;  “talking the talk” has been plentiful yet again, it is the discussion to action and “walking the talk” which is again short of expectations given the decline in the percentage in New Zealand.

So let’s go onto the next topic of “Reward excellent failures, punish mediocre successes”

The “fail fast” is an ideal, possibly a high aspiration. But when the reality of budgets kicks in and communication up the management chain, to the board or shareholders, takes place, a failure is usually swept under the carpet.  

Of course, failures are unintended, but some of them are product of sheer incompetence. I do not think these qualify under the category of “excellent failures”. Conversely, mediocre successes many times get embellished in the name of being supportive and encouraging. – isn’t that what we are to do to show we care? Possibly … if we are cheering the school soccer team, but it is not that useful in a grown-up working environment.

As I was attentively listening to Tom, I felt transported to a parallel universe where training is investment#1, women rule, and a well-played initiative which fails is celebrated.

So, at the time of Q&A, feeling perplexed, I asked Tom: Why, with so much evidence to support his claims, corporates do not consider training as an investment, have not achieved gender parity, and have a tendency to oversize mediocre successes.  

Tom looked at me, and openly said “I don’t know … that is why I continue to write books”.

And this brings to mind another of his curated quotes: BLAME NO ONE, EXPECT NOTHING, DO SOMETHING.

The author was invited to Tom Peter’s presentation courtesy of the Executive CIO programme, of the University of Auckland Business School.

Claudia Vidal is an independent director for Skills4Work Inc and and external member advisory board member of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa; advisory board member (industry representative) for ITP's (IT Professionals NZ) Accreditation Board; a member of the advisory board of the Strategic CIO Programme (Business School, the University of Auckland). She is an editorial advisory board member of CIO New Zealand. She is a senior technology leader with specific strengths in business strategies enabled by digital, and programme delivery. Reach her at c.vidal@onpoint.net.nz

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