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Is Tom Peters’s long-running “excellence” gospel burning us out?

The management guru has promoted an approach to talent and performance that may need updating for the automation age. Still, many of Peters’s key tenets hold up.

Is Tom Peters’s long-running “excellence” gospel burning us out?
[Photo: liberowolf/Shutterstock]

When management guru Tom Peters pronounces the word “excellence,” he’s thinking about the short term. His latest book, The Excellence Dividend: Meeting the Tech Tide with Work That Wows and Jobs That Last, which was published in April, contains a chapter titled, “Excellence Is the Next Five Minutes.” It features the following liturgy:

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EXCELLENCE is your next conversation.
Or not.

EXCELLENCE is your next meeting.
Or not.

EXCELLENCE is shutting up and listening–really listening.
Or not.

Peters’s decades-long obsession with excellence in business dates back at least to 1982, with his best-selling In Search of Excellence, followed three years later by A Passion for Excellence. And of course, Peters is also well-known for his landmark Fast Company essay, “The Brand Called You,” from 1997, which casts excellence seeking as a solo affair, something that secures individuals’ portable strengths no matter where or how they happen to apply them. Today Peters hasn’t so much shifted that frame as tilted it to size up the looming specter of automation.

Yet in his latest book, Peters writes approvingly of Vernon Hill, founder of Commerce Bank and Metro Bank. “Very long hours have been one signature of the Commerce/Metro experience,” Peters points out. “[The] branches are open a previously unheard-of seven days a week (and until midnight on Fridays!).” I asked Peters, in a recent phone interview, whether he thinks a workforce like Hill’s, powered by this sort of excellence, can still deliver the same payoffs in 2018. Not only do those long hours sound like a recipe for employee burnout, but the convenience of always-open bank branches might no longer be the measure of excellent service in an age of mobile banking and peer-to-peer payment apps. Does excellence need redefining? Or a re-evaluation altogether?

Peters was characteristically intelligent and open-minded on this issue. “I think your point is well taken,” he reflected. “I really do think I could have gone a lot further in general, and specifically in this book, on that topic.”


Related: How demographics, automation, and inequality will shape the next decade


It matters because excellence costs employees time and energy, as Peters well knows. It also costs their organizations time and money. The trick, which Peters has devoted his professional life to, is to figure out how to sync up those costs and benefits so that the latter stack up higher than the former–the “dividend” of his book title. Fail to do that, and the pursuit of excellence may burn you out even before automation threatens your livelihood.

For organizations, then, it’s crucial to start thinking as hard about employee experience as about customer experience. Here are a few ways to do that, taking a page or two from Peters.

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How can employees embody excellence (in their conversations, meetings, or however they’re spending the next five minutes) if they don’t know what it looks and sounds like? Every successful organization looks at its numbers to understand how the sales process is going, but not every organization think about how to recognize and reward, say, top-notch customer service.

The Excellence Dividend models how to do this. It’s essentially an annotated compendium of case studies in, for example, great customer service. Your organization might likewise anthologize narratives of excellence and share them in different ways. Imagine a “Moth”-like storytelling event, featuring employees talking about their experiences in the field. Or perhaps leave a notebook open in the employee cafeteria where people can record their own anecdotes. Maybe even start a book club, inviting your teams to read inspiring books together and discuss them in Slack.

These small-scale efforts can help keep people striving to do better–and to understand what “better” looks like as technology inevitably reshapes the organization–without requiring them to work later or harder.

Hire right and pay fairly–across the board

“In Hill’s case, one of the things he prides himself on is that he is overstaffed,” Peters told me. “The reality is, they are not beating the shit out of people.” In the modern economy, in which workers haven’t reaped proportionate benefits of rising productivity, excellence depends on having enough first-rate players in the field–and paying them enough to stick around. In other words, over-investing in talent.

“One thing I was careful to do before touting Hill to the sky,” says Peters, “is I went to one or two websites where people comment on their employer, and by and large he does very well on that measure, which I think is a pretty good measure.” He’s right. Employees need the time and flexibility to have personal lives, to recover from giving it their all–and that doesn’t just go for the most in-demand roles. Burnt-out employees in one corner of your workforce affect your entire workforce.

It’s counterintuitive at a time when employers are looking to automate as many roles as possible to save money, but it’s likely a competitive edge: Across every functional area, make sure to hire more than enough employees to allow everyone to have a life outside of work.

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Always be training

Again and again, Peters insists on training. “Best training wins!” he emphasizes in The Excellence Dividend. Top-notch, ongoing training is another crucial investment in “human capital” that can help workforces adapt to change rather than getting steamrolled by it.

For decades, Peters has understood that excellence and sustained learning are bound together, and that it’s up to employers to provide growth opportunities that not only prepare employees for the future but make them feel something–literally. “Are your training courses so good they make you tingle?” he asks in the book, and then answers: “If not, why not?”

Peters is also right to insist that training can’t be a rote activity; it’s got to profoundly engage and challenge employees, and it’s got to be repeated regularly. The better-educated employee, the more excellent one.

Encourage autonomy

There’s one core feature of Peters’s excellence gospel that has stood the test of time better than any other, and it’s the insight that excellence is both personal and situational. It’s about being present and putting forth one’s full, honest effort–which means organizations need to step back and learn when to leave people alone.

There’s no excellence checklist; employees need general guidelines but not exhaustive rulebooks. It’s a bit like improvisational theater. Organizations that seek excellence must give employees permission to go off script as long as they understand their ultimate role in the show. People need enough freedom to maneuver independently, Peters rightly believes. And as authorities on motivation and performance have repeatedly found, there can be no excellence within workforces that snuff out autonomy, mastery, and purpose–whether through burnout or anything else.

That’s as true within the next five minutes as it will be five years hence.

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Ken Gordon is the content, conversation, and community strategist at EPAM Continuum.

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