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Tom Peters does not have all the answers

Last Updated on by Segun Ayo

Tom Peters admits that he is not qualified to provide complete solutions or recommendations for difficult challenges and uncertainties that we are all facing. Peters believes that strong leaders earn their pay by inviting talented people together and then asking the most important probing questions, and not by having the right answers. Peters has always advocated for collaboration and co-creation of value versus control and authority. 

A recent conversation with Peters regarding the on-going and concurrent crisis layers that are deeply hurting our country and the globe — health, economic, racial, climate, and lack of leadership — revealed that Peters has incredibly well-informed opinions and recommendation, all based on extensive research and data, and yet he reminds us that more work needs to be done to execute better decisions and actions that can produce better and more equitable outcomes. 

What is clear to me, and others who follow Tom Peters’ work is that he is one of the most passionate, active, accessible, and caring business legends in the world. Peters doesn’t like to be called a guru or legend, but he is arguably one of the most influential management and business leadership influencers of the past 50 years. 

I believe Peters works harder than most other influencers. I believe Peters cares more about humanity, society, small businesses, big businesses, and every person that is doing their best to improve the state of the world. He is one of the most active bestselling iconic authors on Twitter. Peters will engage anyone who is interested to learn more — anyone. There is no ego, no self-flattery, no self-promotion, none. 

Peters visited our Salesforce office in Boston and spent 4 hours talking with our employees. He listened with interest and was completely present in the moment. He simply volunteers his time, hoping to teach and be taught. He is fiercely curious, practices radical transparency, and believes every word and every sentence that he tweets about. I have been following Peters for nearly a decade and I have admired his generosity, patience, integrity, benevolence, and unwavering commitment to sharing his knowledge, including mistakes and lessons learned. If I could describe Peters in three words, it would be: Honest, passionate, and caring.

Tom Peters is co-author of In Search of Excellence — the book that changed the way the world does business and often tagged as the best business book ever. Peters is the author of 18 books — more than 10 million books sold worldwide. His most recent book is The Excellence Dividend. Peters is the recipient of the Thinkers50 Lifetime Achievement award. This recognition celebrated the fact that Tom has delivered more than 2,500 keynotes to over five million people across 67 countries and all 50 States. Along the way, Tom has made 7,500 flights covering 5,000,000 miles. 

Peter’s life’s work is about educating and inspiring current and future business leaders by delivering a masterclass on humanity, and developing a roadmap you can follow to live a recommendable life. Peters (@Tom_Peters) has tweeted more than 112,400 times. Peters is one of the best follows on Twitter; in fact, he is one of the reasons why I fell in love with this platform. In my book, I wrote about a conversation that I had with Mr. Peters in 2011, which inspired me to share my stories and lessons learned on Twitter. 

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Tom Peters spoke with Ray Wang and Vala Afshar on their weekly video podcast DISRUPTV

Ray Wang, CEO and founder of a Silicon Valley-based advisory firm Constellation Research, and I have interviewed nearly 600 guests since 2016 on our weekly show DisrupTV. Tom Peters’ guest appearance on our show is one of my most favorite and memorable interviews. 

I highly encourage you to see our 30-minute conversation with Tom Peters. You will see a masterclass by Peters on humanity, leadership, business core values, and important guiding principles for entrepreneurs and community leaders. Personally speaking, my conversations with Tom Peters are equivalent to reading several meaningful books or attending a couple of semesters of graduate school in humanities. The best teachers are lifelong students. As you watch the video with Peters, you will notice the tall bookshelves behind him and the ladder to the right of the room. I only imagine Peters climbing the ladder to find and re-read his favorite books on the top shelves. 

Here are my 11 takeaways of our conversation with Tom Peters: 

1. The most important leadership lessons were taught to us in middle school.  Peters has advanced college degrees from Stanford and Cornell, and yet he remembers his 4th-grade teacher as one of the most influential people in his life. Peters said that his 4th-grade teacher loved him and the other students. It is about people who deeply care about other people. Care about your people. Teach them to be better humans. 

2. Never hire anyone who does not have high emotional intelligence (EQ). And never, ever promote anyone who does not have a sky-high EQ. “We only hire nice people” is a mantra that Tom Peters admires. Don’t hire the jerks, regardless of their deep expertise. Can we train for higher EQ? Peters thinks that if we have institutions that are thoughtful, caring, and people first, then we will have teaching opportunities to increase emotional intelligence.

3. Positive reinforcement is 30X more powerful than negative reinforcement.  Peters talked about a Google study of their top employees and what made them perform. They discovered all of the top seven attributes of their top employees were all soft skills. Project Oxygen had surprising results — the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; being able to make connections across complex ideas. Peters also talked about the negative impact of categorizing players as A-players vs. B-players — the fastest way to demotivate half the population. 

4. Always start with honesty and humility. No living human being today knows what they are doing. There are no experts in unsolved problems. Regardless of the size of your business, we must all admit that we do not have the answers. Instead, let’s work together to make forward progress. Be human and care about people. Peters weeps about a 20-person restaurant owner who is struggling now. Peters talked about mangers who had to execute layoffs, but when doing so with compassion and empathy, the workers effected ended up hugging their hiring manager. Be human. 

5. Take care of your employees by protecting their safety, health, and future. Peters read a memo from the Blue Mountain Community College, Boardman, Oregon that was communicated to their employees during the work-from-home quarantine: 

  1. You are not “working from home,” you are “at your home, during a crisis, trying to work.”
  2. Your physical, mental, and emotional health are extremely important right now. Take care of yourself!
  3. You should not try to compensate for lost productivity by working longer hours.
  4. Be kind to yourself and don’t judge how you are coping based on how you see others coping.
  5. Be kind to others and don’t judge others on how they are coping based on how you are coping.
  6. Success will not be measured the same way it was when things were normal.

Peters also shared a story about a local police chief that worked closely with the community about real racial issues that exist. The chief marches with the community. He tells the community that they should directly connect with him if his police officers behaved outside of the standard of excellence. The police chief was accessible, interested, and accountable. 

6. It is about stakeholder value, not just shareholder value. Peters talked about long-term thinking companies have produced vastly more income, jobs, and wealth as compared to short-term thinking companies. You cannot expect customers to love your company before your employees do. Caring about your employees, customers, partners, and the community is good for business. If you take care of people, you will make a lot of money, this according to Peters. Maximizing shareholder value is no longer the path to sustainable growth. Values create value. 

7. This is the time to listen, learn, care more, and change. Tom Peters was not willing to comment about racial tensions in our country because he said that “I am part of the problem.” I asked Peters to talk about the current state of health, economic, racial, climate, and leadership crisis and he said that no one should pretend to know the answers to these unsolved problems. Regarding the race crisis, I am ashed of what I see, but like Peters, I am hopeful that the ‘overtime, the arc of morality bends towards justice’. Wang reminds us to be more patient, more understanding, caring, passionate, and open-minded. I remind our viewers to vote in November. Peters reminds us of the King riots in 1968, Vietnam, and 20 years of struggles that our nation faced. Peters said that we should take care of our families and loved ones. Take the time you need to protect your loved ones. 

8. What you have done in the past two months, and what you will do in the next two months will define your leadership legacy.  Peters strongly urged business and community leaders to recognize that who they are as human beings will be defined by what they are doing now. Leaders emerge in times of crisis. How you behave, the degree which you were helpful, the degree of thoughtfulness will define you. 

9. There are two kinds of virtues — resume virtues and eulogy virtues. What will people say about you at your funeral? Peters referenced the work by David Brooks and his article on eulogy virtues. Brooks wrote: 

“It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues, and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

Peters reminded us to focus on the eulogy virtues — this is how you can live a recommendable life. 

10. Leadership Team Must No. 1: Put more women in charge. In the age of COVID-19, Peters released a new piece titled “Excellence 2020: The 27 Number Ones,” succinct guidance about where to focus your leadership — from hiring and training to culture and management — now and always. Peters cites the following: 

  • “Research by McKinsey & Co. suggests that to succeed, start by promoting women.” — Nicholas Kristof
  • BusinessWeek: “As Leaders, Women Rule: New studies find that female managers outshine their male counterparts on almost every measure.” 
  • Harvard Business Review: “Women are rated higher in fully 12 of 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership.” 
  • According to Peters, this is a winning business strategy, not “a good thing to do. Peter concludes that research shows that women are better negotiators, better salespersons, and better investors.

Tom Peters shared several research findings regarding why women are better leaders than men. Peters also talked about the importance of pay equality. Women should be paid the same as men for the same work. Peters also shared encouraging news about more women are graduating from colleges than men. When Peters graduated from Cornell, there was only one woman graduate out of 800 engineering students. Today’s Cornell graduating class consisted of 51% women graduates. 

The final story that Peters shared with us was an emotional story for Peters. The story involved Dwight David Eisenhower and the 76th anniversary of the D-Day landing, where Eisenhower went to the beach, putting his arms around the soldiers and wishing them Godspeed. I want you to see the video (35 minutes, 40 seconds into the video) because the delivery from Peters will bring tears to your eyes. 

11. Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; the third is to be kind. Tom Peters referenced the famous quote from Henry James. Peters said that this mantra should be the guiding principle for all schools and businesses. Let us behave well as individuals now. Let us hold ourselves to a higher standard. 

Peters is one of the most influential business leadership experts of our lifetime. His work has influenced my thinking and doing for the past 20 years. I sincerely hope that you watch our 30-minute conversation with Peters — truly a masterclass on humanity. 

We ended our show with Tom Peters by speaking with Michael J. Sikorsky, co-founded Robots & Pencils. Michael co-founded his company in 2009 and grew it by 4,800% in the first five years. Thirty-fourth fastest-growing startup in North America. Robots & Pencils has become a trusted partner to some of the world’s most innovative companies with over 250 applications used by nearly 80 million people. Sikorsky was named the 50 most influential people in Canada and was named by Ernest Young as entrepreneur of the year. Our conversation with Sikorsky was brilliant and I learned a tremendous amount. I plan to summarize our conversation with him in an upcoming article. 

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